The last main phase of political activism and the building of social movements in the United States started around 50 years ago with the rise of the civil rights movement. Two organizations can best define the spirit of activism and radicalism in the 1960’s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Those organizations and the people involved with them became known in the United States as the New Left. But both organizations would crumble under the pressures of the decade, with many different people, events and theoretical influences contributing to their demise by the end of 1960’s. What started as a hopeful, youth-driven movement evolved into “bitterness” and radicalization of both SNCC and SDS. This change in attitudes and strategies did not happen in a vacuum. The development of SNCC and SDS needs to be put back into context with the key events in America and across the world which took place at the time, people who pushed the groups toward their early successes and later failures, the organizational structure and tactics of each group, and the introduction of Marxists ideas. This article, which will focus on the years associated with SNCC and the beginnings of SDS, intends to show that the radicalism and eventual disintegration of both organizations was not primarily caused by “bums…blowing up campuses” but was in fact a reaction to the violence of the white supremacist South and the ineffectiveness of the federal government, the Democratic Party and liberals generally to resolve desegregation and civil rights issues.
The beginnings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee can be traced back to the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955 to end segregation on city buses. Rosa Parks, a civil rights organizer in Montgomery, Alabama refused to move to the back of the bus to make room for white riders. Parks was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, which set off the boycott. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. worked and eventually won the Supreme Court case Browder v. Gayle, which extended the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education to end “separate but equal” on the Montgomery bus system. Watching this from India while learning from Gandhi’s experiences challenging the British Empire, James Lawson was inspired by the events in Montgomery and decided to come back to the United States to work in the civil rights movement. Lawson joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and by 1958 began workshops that would eventually become SNCC. The intention of these workshops was to create “many Montgomerys” and develop a testing ground for future activism, at this time still strongly rooted in the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi. The idea of the workshops was to learn effective ways to combat the Southern caste system and segregation, what Lawson called “non-violent scientific method.” Later, John Lewis, a young organizer who eventually became a Congressman from Georgia would recall that the first workshops would struggle to get ten people in the meeting, but by 1959 the attendance had reached into the hundreds. The workshops became a place where young African Americans as well as whites began to learn more about political action, how to move from the realm of talking and complaining to taking concrete actions to address their grievances. Attendees participated in role-playing activities in an attempt to make organizers more comfortable with unfamiliar situations. They would also describe previous experiences in long group sessions to learn from the past and be better prepared for future actions. According to Hogan, “the workshops became the means through which people could develop intense civic relationships. By discussing the options and their own reasons for wanting to act…the students began to map out the implications of possible actions.” When the more and more people began coming to the workshops, the students decided there was a need for a “central committee” to coordinate actions. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born.
Unlike SNCC, Students for a Democratic Society can trace its beginnings to what can be termed the “Old Left,” the organizations still existing which were created during the last major social movements during the Great Depression. SDS’s began under the name “Student League of Industrial Democracy (SLID),” the youth wing of the League of Industrial Democracy (LID). In 1960, SLID only had three chapters, one at Yale, Columbia and Michigan- Ann Arbor. It was January 1960 when SLID decided to change it’s name to SDS. “It was symbolic of a new attitude within the organization, a new awareness that the American studentry was getting ready to shed its apathy for a resurgent life of activism.”After receiving a large grant from the United Automobile Workers (UAW), Al Haber was given a position as the first Field Secretary of SDS. He stated that year “In it’s early stages, student activity is neither very radical nor very profound social protest. It generally does not go beyond a single issue, or see issues are inter-related…There is no recognition that the various objects of protest are not sui generis but a symptomatic of institutional forces with which the movement must ultimately deal.”
On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T State University sat at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina to protest segregation and were arrested. “Greensboro helped define the new decade” when 80 protesters joined in on February 3, then over 400 joined in by the end of the week. Within the next month, 40 southern cities had similar protests and arrests. Haber invited the participants to come speak at a conference called “Human Rights in the North” held by the newly emerging SDS at the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor. After the conference, a push was made by SDS organizers and other students to set up what were called “Friends of SNCC (FOS)” groups to support the emerging movement in the South. According the Helen Garvey, a future SDS organizer, the FOS groups “became the kernel of SDS.” SDS held its first national convention in June 1960 which included a reception to raise awareness for students jailed and expelled from Florida A&M for a sit-in. Only 29 voting delegates attended the first national convention.
As SDS began to build a support structure in the North, SNCC started to grow out of the sit-in tactics that so far had been somewhat effective. “Though it drew many people into the struggle, the sit-in movement faltered in the fall of 1960. Publicity declined as the novelty of the protests wore off and local white governments refined the practice of co-opting black college administrators dependent on the local power structure. These stumbling blocks led to the decision at a SNCC conference in October 1960 to coordinate protests under a more formal organizational structure.” Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders proposed that SNCC should become the youth wing of the SCLC, but in the meeting where this was proposed SNCC organizer Ella Baker walked out angry. According to historian Joanne Grant, the rejection of the SNCC/SCLC merger “signaled the beginning of a new phase for the civil rights movement. It was no longer to be controlled by a stodgy ministerial or bureaucratic presence,” but by the student movement led by SNCC. In 1961, the next phase of the movement began to take shape in the form of the Freedom Rides.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized bus trips, which would earn the name “Freedom Rides” to protest the unenforced Supreme Court case Boynton v Virginia, which had supposedly desegregated bus and train terminals in the South. On Mother’s Day, May 1961 CORE Freedom Riders traveling to Anniston, Alabama were met by a white mob with clubs who fire-bombed the bus as it arrived. Another bus was boarded by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who promptly beat the Riders, leaving at least one, Walter Bergman, with permanent brain damage. This threatening action made CORE decide to cancel future plans for more Freedom Rides. But twenty-one students who made up the core of the Nashville area SNCC decided to continue. When they arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, two SNCC Riders were immediately arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus and police detained another eight into “protective custody.” All 10 of the Riders being held went on hunger strike. Then the Birmingham police drove all of the black participants to the Alabama/Tennessee state line and dropped them off on the side of the road. At this point Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy became more involved to ensure the safety of the Riders, but only after constant badgering by civil rights activists and “only when protecting the president [from political fallout] meant protecting the Riders.” When the Freedom Riders continued on to Montgomery, they did so under police escort. But undeterred, a white mob met them at the terminal throwing bricks and brandishing clubs. John Lewis was beaten along with William Barbee, who was left permanently paralyzed. Robert Kennedy’s own assistant, John Seigenhaler, was also beaten by the mob. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Montgomery to support the Riders. As he arrived at a local church, a white mob surrounded them threatening to burn the church down. King personally called Kennedy from inside the church to ask for federal protection. Two cars were set on fire and bricks thrown into the church over an 8-hour period before state troopers finally dispersed the crowd. But what King and the Freedom Riders did not know is that Kennedy had made a deal with the Governor of Alabama, promising not to enforce the desegregation of the terminals in exchange for “no visible, public violence inflicted upon the Riders.” In Jackson, Mississippi, Freedom Riders were charged with “breach of the peace” and thrown in jail for 60 days. Up until February 1961 SNCC had had a policy of bailing out those who had been arrested taken direct actions such as the sit-ins. But this policy was changed to the “jail, no bail” strategy after some thought by SNCC activists. It was believed that the “jail experience produced this kind of solidarity and mutuality…[SNCC] found that thirty days in jail provided a new type of experimental learning, one as important as the sit-ins” and the workshops led by Lawson. Every action that the white power structure in the South took only emboldened the activists, whether it was violent beating, being chased by white mobs or being thrown in jail by the police.
By the summer of 1961 SNCC had begun another strategy to achieve desegregation and equality in the South, registering African American voters. Without context this may seem as a step backward from the direct action of sit-ins and Freedom Rides. “Voter registration in itself was a daring act. It was even an act of civil disobedience.” “No action by blacks was ‘moderate’; only total passivity and total acquiescence to all the customs and expectations of a white supremacists society were considered acceptable conduct.” Bob Moses, field secretary of SNCC, set up voter registration schools in several deep south counties including one in McComb, Mississippi. Though it was not Moses or SNCC alone. Organizing in new areas required Moses to being talking to local black leaders. Moses told the leaders in McComb that if they were able to begin a voter registration program and build support (including financial support), more SNCC organizers would come to help register voters. This would involve small meetings with the local black leadership and one-on-one meetings to gain a sense of what could be done and how that individual could participate. These leaders would come from all walks of African American life, including veterans organizations, churches, and NAACP chapters. Within a week of arriving in McComb, Moses was arrested for “impeding an officer in the discharge of his duties.”
In the fall of 1961 Herbert Lee was murdered by a local white man for attempting to register to vote in McComb. Moses recalled that the only mention in the newspaper the next day was a small article declaring a “negro had been shot as he was attacking” the white man. Local teenagers in McComb staged a sit-in at a local Woolworth’s, which was the first student action in that part of Mississippi. They were arrested and in response SNCC called a meeting to let the local leadership decide on what actions should be taken. Around 200 people came to that meeting and decided that they would stage another sit-in while at the same time the adults would walk to the courthouse to register and vote. They were all denied entry to register. After one of the teenagers was expelled from school for participating in the sit-in, over 100 students led by SNCC organizer Bob Zellner walked out to protest. The students published a flyer stating the reasons for the protest: “In schools we are taught democracy, but the rights of democracy have been denied us by our oppressors; we have not had a balanced school system; we have not an opportunity to participate in any of the branches of our local, state and federal government…We, the Negro youth of Pike County, feel that Brenda Travis and Ike Lewis should not be barred from acquiring an education for protesting an injustice…To prove that we appreciate their having done this, we will suffer any punishment we have to take with them.” Zellner was the only white protester and was singled out for a beating, kicked and punched on the ground until literally his eye popped out of his eye socket. As Zellner carried his eye in his hand, he was denied medical treatment and arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors. After the murder of Herbert Lee and the attacks on the high school students, SNCC began having trouble finding adults willing to register to vote.
The violence and the reaction to it in McComb showed SNCC that, especially in the rural south, they would have to rely on young people to take action. “The events in McComb made vivid the process through which the civil rights movement grew: people saw a small number of individuals taking action and were inspired to join them…the activists and their recruits developed an understanding of what was possible, one that differed considerably from that of most blacks and whites in Mississippi.” McComb would also impact the organizational structure of SNCC, bringing the first hint of the need for centralization and “undemocratic” procedures, an idea that would come to plague SNCC and SDS and have lasting repercussions for the rest of the decade. “The reality in McComb forced SNCC to change, and change dramatically in the fall of 1961: the coordinating committee, which was essentially a group of leaders from decentralized movements, named a permanent staff and developed a new strategic approach to accomplish its mission.”
Events in McComb and other parts of the deep south would also have a profound impact on Tom Hayden, who would become a leader in SDS and have a large influence on the activism of the rest of the decade. “I was transitioning to SDS [when I went to McComb] but I was still fundamentally a writer. I had to be kind of pushed into activism.” Towards the end of 1961, Hayden joined a group of SNCC activists on a Freedom Ride to Albany, Georgia to test if the desegregation of the train terminal was actually happening. When the activists arrived they were all arrested. Within a few days 400 more people were arrested after protesting in support of the Freedom Riders. The National Guard was called in not to protect the demonstrators but to stop them. “The importance of Albany to us all…was a new sense of doubt among both activists and black followers toward the practice of non-violence itself.”
Only a few weeks after the crisis in Albany, a meeting was called in Ann Arbor, Michigan to decide what the future would look like for SDS. “At that point, the organization consisted of myself [Hayden], reporting from the southern battlefronts; Al Haber using a phone and mimeograph in New York; a few functioning chapters…; 800 dues paying members; and two thousand scattered activists on mailing lists.” Around 40 people joined Haber and Hayden in Ann Arbor, deciding on a new organizational structure with a 14-member National Executive Committee including Haber and four SNCC activists like Bob Zellner and Casey Hayden. A decision was also made that Tom Hayden would be put in charge of a first draft of what would become the Port Huron Statement. “Haber realized that what was important was not a single national program but a shared view of the world, and so…he came up with the suggestion that SDS’s real job should be to work creating a manifesto that would enunciate these basic feelings.”
The Port Huron Statement is named after the meeting place provided by the UAW on Lake Huron in Michigan. While a draft was written by Hayden, the final document was put together through consensus and debate. To help the process move forward, “issues which the whole group considered to be major would be termed ‘bones’ and given an hour’s plenary debate. Relatively important matters, or ‘widgets,’ were given thirty minutes, and minor issues, or ‘gizmos’ were to be dispensed of within five minutes.” Groups were set up to flesh out issues. One debate that would have lasting consequences and lead to the complete severing of ties between SDS and LID (which up until this point was still the parent organization and major funder) was the role of Communism/anti-Communism and SDS’s policy of working with openly Communist groups such as the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party. This did not sit well with the fervently anti-communist LID, who had felt the full brunt of McCarthyism and the Red Scares earlier in the century. The final version of the Port Huron Statement would open with these words: “We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in Universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit…Many of us began maturing in complacency. As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.”
These words were written somewhat prophetically in June 1962. Only four months later, President John F. Kennedy would face the event often seen as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war, the Cuban Missile Crises. The United States discovered the the Soviet Union was attempting to put nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, which had had a revolution three years before. The 12 day standoff ended somewhat peacefully, but it was the decision of one man, a Soviet submarine officer named Vasili Arkhipov, who was the single deciding vote against pulling the trigger when his submarine was apparently under attack. SDS organizer Steve Max recalled: “it was remarkable how many people thought they were going to die in the missile crisis.” But as the crisis was happening, SDS was slow to react. “[The Cuban Missile Crises] was clearly a moment for action, but SDS did not know how to act. There was no machinery in the organization for swiftly organizing a national protest in the face of an unforeseen event; there was not even any provisional mechanism by which SDS could officially issue a press release…or approve a joint march or statement.”
By 1963 SNCC was continuing to have trouble registering voters because of the violence they were met with trying to register, which itself scared other adults from trying to register. But in the Fall of 1963, a Yale Law Student and SNCC organizer Tim Jenkins floated the idea of casting protest votes in the Mississippi primary, since 96% of African Americans could not vote in the Democratic primary. This simple idea would grow into what would become known as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). SNCC organized “freedom ballots” where local African Americans could go cast a vote at a church or another SNCC meeting place. “The Freedom Ballot did much more than produce evidence that whites excluded black Mississippians from political participation; it provided ways for people to act and interact in politically meaningful ways…unregistered voters actually ‘voting’ was a low-risk innovation.” Only 20,000 African Americans were able to vote in the Democratic primary, but 83,000 voted in the freedom ballots. While freedom ballots did provide an avenue for participation, violence did not stop. “In Biloxi, a church building where the NAACP was holding an integrated banquet was stoned by a white mob while police watched; in Columbus, a black woman was shot a killed…; there were five cross burnings in Copiah County; in Goodman, the body of a black man was found in the Big Black River in a sack weighted with rocks; in Hattiesburg, volunteers were arrested and held incommunicado.” African Americans who attempted to register also found that newspapers would print their names for two weeks stretches and police would take pictures of them when they arrived at the courthouse. In response SNCC set up a communications structure to deal with the violence, ready to mobilize calls to Congress and the FBI. The violence also presented SNCC with a sad realization that could be used to their benefit. “SNCC’s two years of organizing forced everyone to recognize that white injuries or deaths prompted a more immediate reaction from the federal government than did black deaths or injuries.” During the freedom vote, the FBI would track white volunteers, knowing that they needed “people on hand in the eventuality of trouble.” Compare this period to Martin Luther King Jr. calling Robert Kennedy while surrounded by a white mob and only receiving help hours later.
A five day meeting was held by SNCC staff at the end of 1963 to evaluate how the freedom vote was going, what it was accomplishing and what the next steps to be taken would be. With the knowledge that white blood brings the TV cameras, it was suggested that SNCC bring northern white students into the deep south to help relieve the overworked and stressed organizers. But this was not an easy decision, and was an early indication of what would eventually break up SNCC in only a few years. “Despite the potential benefits, a majority of [Council of Federated Organizations] COFO workers expressed concern that northern whites would usurp leadership positions, draw publicity, and then leave; they could never contribute to SNCC’s primary goal of developing local leaders.” “At first, the plan was rejected by the local SNCC staff, who worried about being overwhelmed by a core of ignorant, naïve, and privileged college students. But the idea took hold: Only when America’s middle-class children were taking life-threatening risks would their parents at last listen and react against the treatment that had gone on against blacks for decades.” A plan was made and given a name, the ‘Freedom Summer.’
SDS also started a shift in focus in 1963. SDS had spent the last few years watching SNCC “live the revolution” while SDS seemed more like a large debate club with dreams of action. SDS wanted to be the northern counterpart to SNCC. At a national leadership meeting in Bloomington, Indiana the idea was put forth to organize the poor, move to where they live and start on-the-ground, door-to-door organizing as SNCC had done in the south. The Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) was SDS’s answer to get away from the campuses and start to becoming an action based group. “There were thirteen [ERAP] projects. You would go in with the invitation of some local group, rent a house, live in them communally. We had morning meetings, people would go out and do the work which consisted of covering a lot of ground, block after block, again and again, getting into conversations with people. A successful project would have maybe ten blocks with 20-50 people per block. Those people would meet in neighbors house’s or apartments every couple weeks. Then the people from all the blocks would come together for neighborhood meetings.” Hayden went to work on an ERAP project in Newark, New Jersey where he found similar problems faced organizing in the North when compared to the South. “[The ERAP] encountered friction with some of the white liberals who had helped invite us to Newark and were now becoming threatened by the emergence of a grass-roots organization of black poor people they couldn’t control…We concluded that we would have to form an organization of our own rather than joining a coalition with more traditional forces in the city.”
While SDS was starting up their ERAP programs and SNCC just finishing the first freedom ballots that would lead to challenging the seated delegates at the 1964 Democratic Convention, one of the biggest events of the 1960’s would take place. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, most likely by Lee Harvey Oswald, in Dallas, Texas. Hayden recalled his first reaction to the news: “the news was spreading that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested for the assassination and that he was a ‘radical leftist.’ Oh, god, I thought, looking for the first phone to call the SDS office in New York. We had no Oswalds on our mailing lists.” The Kennedy assassination had a profound impact on every person in the country in some way or another, including the activists in SNCC and SDS, and unfortunately JFK’s assassination was only the first of several major political assassinations in the 1960’s. “In the case of John Kennedy, the subsequent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and…[including] Malcolm X as well, would inflict a permanent lesson…Any real possibility of radical reform, a peaceful transition of power, will be blocked by assassins, whether directed by conspiracy or reactionary rage.”
Along with the constant violence faced by activists in the South, the Kennedy assassination must be seen as a critical event influencing how activists in SNCC and SDS saw the world and what actions could be taken to fix the problems they faced. The range of actions that are possible changes over time and is directly influenced by the environment that a person finds themselves in. The Overton Window is a political theory which categorizes the range of policy possibilities on a scale from what is not possible in the minds of people to what is actual, lawful policy. A similar scale should be applied to tactics used in social movements, from what is accepted universally as legitimate (ex. voting) to what is regarded as unthinkable (ex. terrorism against civilians). Using this frame, it becomes clear that the violence used against the civil rights movement and assassinations like JFK’s caused activists to widen their ideas about what actions could be considered legitimate.
While the country still reeled from the JFK assassination, SNCC was hard at work preparing the Freedom Summer. White activists flooded the south, many paying their own way down to Mississippi. SNCC held training sessions, but nothing nearly as effective as the Lawson workshops from the early years. There just was not enough time. The state of Mississippi also was preparing for the summer by “buying tanks and armored cars, as well as hiring 200 more state police officers.” Activists had studied the Democratic Party by-laws and discovered that they could challenge the Mississippi delegation’s credentials at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City later that year since it was in the rules that the Party must be open to all citizens who wished to register. If they could prove that blacks who wished to vote were being turned away, the Democratic Party by-laws stated that the violating state party would not be recognized at the convention. SNCC would use their experiences with the freedom ballots to get documentation of the disenfranchised voters in the South and attempt to send their own delegation to Atlantic City. The African Americans who had been denied the vote for so long “were setting up the precinct meetings, setting up the county meetings, setting up the district meetings.” Practically, what the unregistered voters in Mississippi did was build a political party from the existing network created by groups like SNCC. “Over 800 delegates from 40 Mississippi counties attended the [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] state convention in Jackson…The MFDP convention elected 44 delegates and 24 alternates to the Democratic National Convention.” The success of the MFDP caused an even stronger reaction from those opposed to their plans.
In August, three civil rights workers, including two white men, were murdered and dumped into a mud dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. One of the workers, James Chaney, was buried only one night after the MFDP convention in Jackson. Over the coarse of the summer, 37 black churches were burned down, 30 African American owned properties were bombed or burned, five civil rights workers were killed, over one thousand people had been arrested, and eighty beaten by police and white mobs. “Those African American activists who reluctantly agreed to the 1964 Summer Project did so because they believed that the mere presence of white volunteers would provide some protection for black activists. Now whites had been killed and the federal government still refused to actively protect civil rights.” By this time many SNCC organizers and people who had opened their homes and businesses to the group began to arm themselves in self-defense.
After all of the violence, Bob Moses said at the Jackson convention: “I don’t think that if this issue gets to the floor of that convention that they can possibly turn you down. I don’t see how they possibly can do it if they really understand what’s at stake.” President Lyndon B. Johnson did not see it this way. The last thing he or the Democratic Party wanted was a floor fight at the convention highlighting the plight of African Americans in the South. The Democratic Party depended on the South to win the presidency and maintain power. The FBI was sent to the Atlantic City convention and wiretapped the SNCC headquarters and Martin Luther King Jr. in the hopes of discovering the delegations plans to be seated. Johnson received frequent updates from FBI intelligence reports on SNCC’s strategy. The Democratic Party laid out what would be known as the “two-seat compromise,” which would have given the MFDP delegation two purely symbolic, non-voting delegates. The MFDP decided to turn this offer down, either through there own naivete, as argued by many at the time, or stubbornly standing by their principles after watching their friends beaten and killed getting the delegation to Atlantic City. The failure of the MFDP to be seated would have lasting consequences for the entire country and spell the end of SNCC. “Because the reform of the National Democratic Party had failed and people had died in the effort, it pushed the SNCC leadership into a more radical direction, symbolized by black power.”
Right after the 1964 election, SNCC gathered in Waveland, Mississippi to again sit down and discuss how their actions had been working. “The morale of SNCC’s key organizers had deteriorated and their anxieties had increased in the political aftermath of the Democratic National Convention. Voter registration efforts no longer seemed to offer a clear path to SNCC’s strategic goals.” Many issues were discussed such as a feeling that the structure of the organization needed to be looked at, while others emphasized the ill-effects of the improvised strategies and aimlessness of certain areas. But one issue that dominated the debate was the issue of race. Obviously race had been the issue that brought all of these activists together in the first place, but after years of violence and relative failure of achieving goals with the tactics being used, a new consciousness of black power had taken hold. The role of the white activists became unclear. African Americans in SNCC requested a closed door meeting, away from the whites. “Whites…suddenly lost their legitimacy and their roots in SNCC. Ideologically, they could not disagree with the demand for black control, but the personal consequences were shattering.” A general meeting was held and a vote taken, and suddenly whites were expelled from SNCC. Although it was a secret ballot, it was clear that some whites had voted to expel themselves.
The failure of the MFDP to be seated also left an opening for more traditional Marxist theory to be taken seriously as a guide to structuring SNCC. James Forman was a SNCC worker at the main office in Atlanta, periodically visiting the field but for the most part working from the office. After the MFDP failure, Forman believed SNCC “had reached the point where it was necessary to become a revolutionary organization in every sense…And an organization that is seeking revolution, and willing to use violence, cannot afford the fear of power. It cannot afford weak or vacillating leadership.” Those words are clearly influenced by Marxism-Leninism and the idea of a vanguard party. Up until this point Marxism had been in the fringes of the movement, especially in some specific people, but overall had not been taken seriously as a template for action. This was starting to change. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and some other signs of progress, the experiences of the past few years, the violence, the failure of the MFDP, had radicalized many of the leaders of SNCC. “Because of the radicalization these gains were not enough for the people who now had a more radical objective of redistributing power. The organizations that had led things in the first half of the 60’s split, divided, polarized, radicalized. Didn’t last much longer. If you look at SDS and SNCC whatever you think of the history, its tangled, looking back its hard to figure out. But the big picture the organizations lasted about 7 years after a very promising beginning.” Over the next 20 months after the Waveland conference, SNCC would fall apart. Stokely Carmichael, a leader in SNCC from the beginning, went to Lowndes County Alabama to start organizing a new political party. Called the Lowndes County Freedom Party, it chose as its symbol a black panther. This was the first use of the black panther, and would eventually inspire activists in California to start the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Some SNCC workers left to join ERAPs and other SDS projects. Others gave up on “full-immersion” activism, never finding a place that felt as comfortable as SNCC.
SDS would continue on, but not as originally laid out in the Port Huron Statement. As the Vietnam War escalated, SDS shifted its focus from the SNCC inspired ERAP programs out of necessity. As a student organization, they followed were the students wanted to go. The first Vietnam protest was held by SDS and other organizations in 1965, the same protest were SDS President Paul Potter would give his famous speech declaring “we must name the system.”Around 15,000 protesters marched on the Washington Mall, cementing SDS as the countries leading anti-war voice, willingly or not. “SDS, which could have led a focused movement against the war, instead was becoming more radicalized. As the first generation of SDS leaders migrated into community organizing, they were replaced by a younger leadership who knew only the bitterness of the mid-sixties, not the intellectual excitement and political hope of the decade’s beginning.” Over the next three years SDS would grow to be the largest radical student organization in the history of the United States with around 80,000 to 100,000 members at the end of 1968. But SDS would follow the same path SNCC fell into, reacting to the events and violence around them by becoming more radical, more violent. Newer members like Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn would take the organization created by people like Haber and Hayden deep into Marxist doctrine, resulting in the disbanding of SDS and the creation of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Weathermen. Strains of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism would compete within SDS, splitting it several times even after the Weathermen had taken control. More assassinations came with the murder’s of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton among many others without such notable names. The Vietnam War continued to escalate all the way up to the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State Massacre of students by the National Guard. Protests and direct action evolved into bombings and terrorism, even targeting civilians associated with the military. SDS, which began as a group of a few dozen University activists in 1960, had transformed into an underground, armed Maoist vanguard.
The conclusion drawn in this article is that the violence encountered by SNCC and SDS while working in the civil rights movement was the main cause of the later radicalism of both organizations. The arrests and beating during the original sit-ins, the white mobs chasing volunteers through the streets in McComb, the state sanctioned violence and arrests by the police, the use of the National Guard to quell demonstrators and many other instances of violence all contributed to a sense that more radical action would need to be taken. Events surrounding SNCC and SDS like the political assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other major events not mentioned added to the sense of urgency and powerlessness of “legitimate” forms of protest. The failure of the federal government to protect the volunteers with SNCC while they tried to register voters in the South, the political expediency of the Democratic Party refusing to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 convention, the lack of support from liberals when SDS began the ERAP programs also gave activists the impression that they were going it alone and that radical action was the only way to achieve the goal of a desegregated South with full voting rights for African Americans. The radicalism of the 1960’s was brought on by the environment of the 1960’s. Each instance of violence, each major event, each denial by the political establishment would push SNCC and SDS ever closer to what they eventually became, and ever closer to their eventual disintegration.