On February 27, 1960, about 300 college students marched into downtown Nashville to confront Jim Crow segregation. Each of the marchers understood that they belonged to a larger movement of young people. Just three weeks earlier, in Greensboro, N.C., four college students staged a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter in a Woolworth store. That action desegregated the lunch counter and triggered waves of copycat protests—like the one in Nashville.
The young people realized that they were in a war against Jim Crow, one best fought with nonviolent tactics like sit-ins and marches. By April, the troops had coalesced into a permanent army. The activists met at Shaw University, a private African-American college in Raleigh, N.C., and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ella Baker, a seasoned organizer with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, served as their mentor.
SNCC (often called “snick”) quickly gained influence and power as it worked with—and sometimes against—older leaders in the civil rights establishment. SNCC members played a key role in the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the 1963 March on Washington. They also risked their lives in voter education projects, such as Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.
This weekend, many of the group’s founders are returning to Shaw to commemorate SNCC’s 50th anniversary. Some SNCC members have gone on to greater fame. John Lewis became a congressman from Georgia. Julian Bond served as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and is a former chairman of the NAACP.
Journalist David Halberstam called SNCC activists “The Children.” But this nickname is misleading. Although they were young, their maturity in fighting Jim Crow provided a model for other youth-led movements from the 1960s onward. The Children helped topple decades of discrimination with the simplest of tools: marching, sitting and speaking out. SNCC’s victories and defeats still resonate and are worth studying. The bravery and tenacity of its members will always be an inspiration.