The following is a book review of Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2000. This review examines the birth and evolution of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the vital role that SNCC played in the civil rights movement.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2000
Book Review by Tom White
Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s is an investigative and chronological account of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most effective and influential civil rights organizations of the 1960’s. In Struggle traces the evolution of the SNCC from its humble beginnings in February 1960, starting in Greensboro, North Carolina” when four black college students planned to protest segregation by a “sit-in” at Woolworth lunch counter, to its demise in 1970. Carson’s In Struggle examines how the SNCC was able to awaken black America by bringing to the surface long suppressed racial tensions. As a result of this awakening the SNCC “stimulated a self-realization among blacks that would continue through the decade” and the methodology used by SNCC as part of that process would serve as a model for future generations of activists. Carson’s In Struggle traces the SNCC’s evolution which went through three distinctive developmental stages, and explains how each stage impacted the vital role that the SNCC played in the civil rights movement.
In the SNCC’s first developmental stage, Carson argues that “young civil rights activists came together in SNCC to form a community within a social struggle. SNCC workers sought to create a rationale for activism by eclectically adopting ideas from the Gandhian independence movement and from the American traditions of pacifism and Christian idealism…” This first stage which began in 1960 and lasted until 1964 was instrumental to the civil rights movement in several key ways. One of these ways was in organization. The SNCC was careful during its inception to remain a group centered organization, one which would remain independent avoiding “efforts to subvert their autonomy” and one which would not be tethered to a single leader. The SNCC’s early example of a group centered organization proved to be an invaluable lesson for future civil rights efforts, and it was an idea the SNCC put into practice as part of their organizing efforts throughout the South. As part of any organizational efforts for a new program, the SNCC followed a basic premise, which was “that its own workers ‘cannot and should not do the work themselves, it is advisable to involve local citizens and groups as much as possible.’” The SNCC believed that by nurturing grass-roots organizations and leaders and having local citizenry involved, it had an empowering effect on the black community. SNCC organizers encouraged local black leaders to take charge of projects within their own communities, so that when the SNCC left an area as Julian Bond pointed out, “it left behind an ‘a community movement with local leadership, not a branch of the SNCC’” and this organizing philosophy became an integral part of the civil rights movement.
Another aspect of SNCC’s first developmental stage which impacted the civil rights movement was spurred by the success of the non-violent lunch counter protests at de-segregation. The success of the lunch counter protests had the effect of bringing “to the surface interracial tensions that had long been suppressed”, and provided an impetus for expanding protest and civil disobedience of unjust laws beyond that of lunch counter de-segregation. Other young people suddenly began to view SNCC workers and the organization as a very courageous and dedicated group within the civil rights movement “who were uniformly willing ‘to put their bodies on the line.”, resulting in other student protesters wanting to join their ranks. During the first developmental stage in the early 1960’s, the SNCC had moved beyond the lunch counter protests and had become a force behind the ‘freedom rides’ and voter registration in the South. The SNCC though not directly responsible for the freedom ride campaign, they did however display a courage and dedication in the face of white southern hostility which not only led to de-segregation of transportation facilities throughout the South, but was instrumental “to the development of a self-consciously radical southern student movement prepared to direct its militancy toward other concerns.”
The second stage of the SNCC’s development was one marked by introspection within the organization as members began to question whether they could “continue to expand the black struggle while remaining tied to the rhetoric of interracialism and nonviolent direct action.” Militants and moderates began to compete for power within the group and the principle of non-violence gradually transcended toward a nonspiritual militancy within the SNCC. This militancy was predicated upon a belief that in order to effectively impact civil rights within the south, confrontation was necessary that would then expose to the rest of the country the injustice that was occurring throughout the south. SNCC, unlike more moderate civil rights organizations, was much more willing to take risks. SNCC workers traveled to some of the most violent parts of the south such as Albany, Georgia and McComb, Mississippi in order to register black voters. The SNCC created schools to prepare black residents for voter registration tests and even expanded upon these types of programs to promote and preserve black culture. In order to accomplish these tasks the SNCC’s organizational skills proved once again instrumental, by raising the necessary funds through the cultivation of “its own network of financial supporters” in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. One of the SNCC’s more militant actions was in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 for the purpose of unseating “the regular all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention.” Although efforts by the SNCC created MFDP were unsuccessful at unseating the regular delegation, the effort was successful in bringing to a national stage the political disenfranchisement that southern black residents had to endure.
The tenacity of SNCC workers Carson notes throughout the south had “became legendary” especially amongst the black populations in Mississippi for their efforts at registering voters and their willingness to stand up to white authority, earning them a great deal of respect. Consequently the efforts of the SNCC proved instrumental in the civil rights movement by paving the way for a future generation of black elected officials in the south. Carson notes that as a result of the SNCC’s efforts in the south, local black leaders “gained new conceptions of themselves” and carried on the fight for equality using the tools and knowledge gained by their experiences with the SNCC. Most notable amongst the achievements, according to John Lewis of then the SNCC, was that “people who were sharecroppers and tenant farmers were now running for office”, a point which is a testament to the effectiveness of the SNCC’s efforts in the southern civil rights movement.
In the third and final stage of the SNCC’s development which began in 1966, the SNCC engaged in a major philosophical shift. The organization’s previous efforts, which were aimed at integration, now shifted towards a philosophy centered on black consciousness, black power, and separatism. During the first two stages of development of the SNCC members had followed a basic tenet, which was aimed at the elimination of racial barriers in society and for blacks to be able to enjoy the same rights and benefits afforded to white society. In the third and final stage of the SNCC’s development this basic tenet would change, as the SNCC began to promote the idea of adopting the principle of separatism through a campaign which emphasized a philosophy of ‘black power’. According to Carson, the SNCC advanced an idea which sought to support and promote black culture and identity, rather than merely adopting white cultural values. This philosophy included an emphasis on distinctly separate and black controlled institutions as well.
On such example of an institution was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) which sprang forth following the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) overly cautious handling of the Selma and Montgomery Alabama protests. The SNCC had serious disagreements with the manner in which the SNCC handled the protests and decided to take the initiative in forming the LCFO. The LCFO was an organization which united the “militant and self-reliant local black residents” of Lowndes County, Alabama into a separate political organization, as opposed to trying “to seek entry to a party led by segregationist George Wallace…” Carson notes that the LCFO “became a model for ‘Freedom Organizations’ throughout the black belt of Alabama” and would soon be known as the Black Panther Party. The SNCC’s call for racial pride and self-empowerment under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown employed the “use of the black power slogan” as a means of emphasizing black racial unity. The SNCC’s popularization of the black power slogan was instrumental in challenging the previous efforts aimed at achieving civil rights reform. The upshot of the SNCC’s efforts at racial solidarity and the political separatism, as cited by the development of the LCFO, would serve as model for other civil rights organizations such as women’s groups, Native Americans, and others which would organize around a single shared identity in order to seek civil rights reform.
Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s provides a compelling look at the SNCC from its humble beginnings at civil disobedience aimed at segregated institutions, to its pioneering efforts at self-empowerment through voter registration, and education in the south. Carson’s In Struggle is an elucidating portrayal of one of America’s most influential civil rights organizations, the enormous impact this group had in shaping civil rights, and is a testament to the men and women who were willing to risk so much.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
 Clayborne Carson. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 9
 Ibid, 12
 Ibid, 2
 Carson. In Struggle, 19
 James Forman. The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997). pp.267-268 in Clayborne Carson. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 75
 Carson. In Struggle, 62
 Ibid, 12
 Carson. In Struggle, 69
 Ibid, 37
 Ibid, 3
 Carson. In Struggle, 70
 Ibid, 3
 Ibid, 79
 Ibid, 300
 Carson. In Struggle, 164
 Ibid, 165
 Ibid, 200
 Carson. In Struggle, 210