Forgotten Foot Soldiers in the Civil Rights Struggle

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, forthcoming from NYU Press in June 2009

On Inauguration Day, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose founding president was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is hosting a gala event to pay tribute to those who laid the groundwork for this historic moment by marching on Washington and elsewhere with Rev. King. It makes complete sense to tie President Obama’s improbable victory to the life and legacy of Rev. King. From the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, Rev. King struggled mightily to help African Americans enjoy their civil and human rights. In many ways, Obama’s election is the fulfillment of King’s dream, or at least that part of it that involved equal access to the ballot box for all Americans.

Rev. King, however, was not the only civil rights activist in the Sixties to imagine an America that could elect a black president. The members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also envisioned a different America, one where everyone participated in the political process regardless of their race, class, or gender. Moreover, they acted on their vision in ways that forced even Rev. King to pay increased attention to black disenfranchisement and rethink his understanding of democratic politics. In Mississippi in 1964, SNCC activists helped organize a statewide challenge to the pro-segregation delegation to the Democratic National Convention, and in Alabama the next year, they helped develop countywide political parties to stamp out white supremacy in local governments. In the process, they helped the voiceless find their voice, enabling the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other local people emerge from cotton fields in the heart of Dixie to share their vision of a more perfect union.

SNCC, however, is noticeably absent from the roll call of organizations being honored at the SCLC’s Civil Rights Ball. This oversight is tremendously disappointing, not only because SNCC led the charge for black enfranchisement in early 1960s, organizing the grassroots in places that others were afraid to go, but also because King and SCLC were played an instrumental role in SNCC’s founding and organizational development.

As we pay homage to those civil rights groups and activists who made Obama’s election possible, let us not forget the foot soldiers, beginning with SNCC field secretaries and the local people with whom they worked. Without them, there would be no victory to celebrate this Inauguration Day.

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