A group of Swarthmore students joined generations of civil rights activists last spring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during a conference at Shaw University in North Carolina. Their experiences from the trip ultimately led to a number of projects that document the interviews they conducted with former members of the pioneering student movement. Those projects include Stayed on Freedom: Reflections on SNCC at 50, a volume of transcripts of student interviews with SNCC activists, their historical narratives crafted from those interviews, and their reflection pieces about their experiences at and the meaning of the conference. The students also built a digital archive of all the interviews they collected and earlier this semester presented their work to the campus community at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
SNCC grew out of the student-led sit-ins held in dozens of Southern cities to protest "whites only" stools at public lunch counters. The group is credited with changing the face of the civil rights movement by sending young organizers into some of the most dangerous parts of the Delta to register poor Black voters and help change the political landscape of the South.
Cheryl Jones-Walker, assistant professor of black studies and educational studies, and Professor of History Allison Dorsey - whose classes such as Urban Education, The Black Freedom Struggle, and Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement the students had taken or were taking - co-organized the trip. Below are excerpts from some of the collected essays in Stayed on Freedom, as well as personal videos about the experience produced by students who continued to work on the project in Black Studies 95: Documenting the 50th Anniversary of SNCC.
Aden Tedla '12
political science major, minor in peace and conflict studies Ella Baker once said, "I never worked for an organization, but for a cause." Her words were echoed at the SNCC conference, when a former activist declared, "SNCC was not just an organization - it was a state of mind."
SNCC was meant to be a temporary organization, an impermanent vehicle through which work for social justice could be done. It was meant to help cultivate local leadership and to develop a radical state of mind. It is important to note that although the organization no longer formally exists, the spirit of SNCC never really came to an end. Rather, it is alive and thriving, as illustrated by the large number of activists, artists, and educators who are now carrying on the work of the former SNCC activists. In this way, SNCC wasn't simply an organization - it was a state of mind.
Ashia Troiano '11
New York, N.Y.
history and educational studies major, minor in black studies. After three intense days of speaking with legends of the Civil Rights Movement, hearing the stories that didn't make it in the history books, and understanding the Black Freedom Struggle as SNCC activists understand it, the experience culminated in a performance by the SNCC Freedom Singers concert that awed us all. Though I had read the lyrics in books and heard them on recordings, the lyrics [- to songs such as "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "Ain't Gon' Ride No Buses", "The Movement's Moving On", "I Want My Freedom" -] spoke to me in new ways. I could feel the spirit and urgency that pushed blacks to organize these words in these specific ways. All of the songs communicated a continuous pursuit of freedom, a strong sense of will power, and an unwavering devotion to justice. Listening to the music live made a huge difference in how I came to engage with those themes.
I often wonder how some SNCC activists had the courage and strength to participate in the Civil Rights Movement to the extent that they did and if I would have had that same resolve. I'd be lying if I said I could answer the question honestly without ever having been in a comparable situation, but hearing [these songs] spoke volumes as to how the young SNCC workers did it. It told me that the desire for freedom was so strong that almost nothing could stop The Movement - not jail, not intimidation, not physical and emotional violence, and most of all, not fear.
Cecilia Marquez '11
black studies major, minor in gender and sexuality studies Before I went to the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference, I had already been well acquainted with the work of Frances Beal. Her Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female was an important piece to my development as a woman of color. Meeting Beal was one of the most powerful experiences I had at the conference. After a nearly 90-minute interview, I felt that I had truly made a connection with one of my idols.
During our time with Beal, she also engaged us beyond the interview and asked us about our own lived experiences. She shared with us incredibly painful stories from her life as well as the uplifting and empowering moments of her time in The Movement. In return, she asked us to share our stories and our experiences. This was a somewhat jarring experience for me. Up until then, I had treated the conference as an information gathering experience. I had a voice recorder, they had stories. In this equation, I became the invisible interviewer, a facilitator of history. Beal forced me to think about my own stories and my own connection to the history. Her invitation to share my stories showed me how truly committed she was to developing an intergenerational connection. While many of the activists at the conference were excited to see young people there, especially young students of color, the focus (rightfully so) was on preservation of history — not necessarily on building bridges across generations. In our interview, Beal managed to do both. She ensured that her story was recorded, her critiques spoken out, and also turned to us and expected the same in return. While it would have been easy for her to retell her story, as she has done in other interviews, she made it a dialogue where we were all participating in the analysis and critique of history.
Erika Slaymaker '11
Lexington, Ky. sociology/anthropology major, minors in black studies and gender and sexuality studies At the SNCC conference, I was struck by how many of my beliefs and values come out of SNCC organizing. I believe in Southern movement building and in community organizing, and in building local leadership in cities and rural places, in forgotten and disregarded places. These beliefs, in many ways, came out of my experience working with a grassroots organization called Southerners on New Ground (SONG) - the only regional lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender organization in the South - which, in turn, was influenced heavily by SNCC. In Raleigh, I learned these connections and constructed a more complete understanding of my own political perspective.
I love that SNCC came into communities and learned from the local leadership that was already there. They brought new skills, ideas, and politics, but were respectful to the people who had been living there and listened to and responded to what they needed locally. They came up with solutions organically, ones that fit the community's needs. They illustrated that radical local organizing can and did build a movement. Go to page 2