Student Activism in the Black Civil Rights Movement: An Examination of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (by Daniela Hernández)


Through an analysis of the Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1960-1966[1], this two-part lesson will focus on the role of student organizing within the Black Civil Rights Movement, analyzing the tactics and ideologies SNCC students employed.


This lesson will ask students to critically analyze a primary document by Ella Baker on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Students will place the ideas introduced in Baker’s “Bigger than a Hamburger” and interpret them within their historical context. The lesson will help students understand the grievances that blacks faced in the 1950s and 1960s and the manner in which these grievances instigated black student organizing. Additionally, students will explore the role of SNCC in context to other civil rights organizations of the time, including the plight of black Southerners. Working collaboratively in groups, students will also narrativize the use of nonviolence and civil disobedience as tactics as well as decentralized leadership and localized community organizing as an ideological framework within the SNCC movement.


The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s advocated tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience as well ideologies based on decentralized leadership and localized community organizing in their pursuit towards black liberation and towards the structural change of black racial oppression. This movement focused specifically on eradicating the plight of black Southerners whose concerns had not been extensively addressed by previous black civil rights organizations.


  1. What are the socio-historical factors that motivated students to organize in creating change within the Black Civil Rights Movement?
  2. What were some of the ideologies that SNCC members based their work upon?
  3. What were some of the tactics SNCC organizers utilized?
  4. Why did SNCC focus on the organizing of Southern blacks?


When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we often think about individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks; events such as the Montgomery bus boycotts or Brown v. Board of Education also come to mind. Although these individuals and cases had a significant influence on the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, student activists also played an important role, working fervently day in and day out to effectuate the change they so desperately hoped to see.

On February 1, 1960, a group of college students by the names of Joseph McNeil, Izell Blair, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond recognized the injustices of racial segregation in their town of Greensboro, North Carolina, and acted out against this by holding a “sit-in” at a local segregated lunch counter, which was reserved for whites only. This act motivated other students to implement their own sit-ins in neighboring communities along the South. These demonstrations received mass attention from the media, eventually bringing their concern to the national level. Not only did the sit-ins receive the attention from the media, but they also carried with them a huge backlash from segregationists, who often acted out against the black students in violent ways. Moreover, these demonstrations brought to light the disparities and oppressions faced by black Americans at the time.

What was an isolated act of civil disobedience in the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in soon evolved into a student led movement, addressing the concerns and grievances of black Americans. Becoming “more than a hamburger,” the student movement, which became known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), set out to address the structural forces that contributed to the oppression of black Americans. In their struggle, SNCC students hoped to dismantle racial segregation and bring an end to discrimination against blacks. With the Jim Crow laws that were in effect until 1965 in the Southern states, racial segregation of public facilities, accommodations, jobs, and neighborhoods was legalized and, thus, so was racial discrimination. The students within the movement could no longer tolerate being treated as a second class citizen whose rights and liberties were constantly being violated. They demanded that separate was NOT equal, as was suggested by the historic case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Although black Americans of the time in general experienced first-handedly the effects of racism of the 1950s and 1960s, the community organizing of Southern blacks was significant within the black student movement. The rural South can be thought of as symbolizing the plight of blacks in the U.S. at the time,[2] as they were often the most isolated, poor, and oppressed group of black individuals. In working with black Southerners, SNCC members particularly focused on voter registration throughout the Black Belt to increase the power of the vote. Black voters and SNCC organizers alike, however, faced a myriad of red tape intended to stagnate blacks in their struggle towards liberation; this was in addition to the overt violent acts that were taken by white segregationists. Some of the injustices Southern blacks faced in the voter registration process included the administration of unjust literacy tests (in communities where many of the residents were illiterate), the requirement of having white character witnesses, and even the overt rejection of applicants.[3]

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who had been previously involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Taking notice of the limitations posed by other black civil rights organizations, she advocated for a different approach in which students could organize and structure themselves as well as their movement. Although not necessarily a “leader”—in the traditional sense of the term—of the student movement, Ella Baker, contributed much to the development of SNCC and helped organize black students in becoming active agents of change.[4]

Although SNCC as an organization dismantled by the 1970s, largely due to fractions within members (i.e. the disagreement on whether nonviolence needed to be strictly adhered to), its work as a movement was definitely felt. Through their grassroots organizing, students were able to assert themselves and blacks in general as first class citizens in the United States. The students’ work played a significant role within the grander scheme of the Civil Rights Movement in effectuating change and in the struggle towards black liberation.


-“Bigger than a Hamburger” by Ella Baker


-Butcher paper



First day:

As an introduction to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), students will read the following passage (which will be provided on the front board by teacher) and have about 5 minutes to write down any preliminary responses and questions they may have.

“These young rebels call themselves the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but they are more a movement than an organization, for no bureaucratic structure can contain their spirit, no printed program capture the fierce and elusive quality of their thinking. And while they have no famous leaders, very little money, no inner access to the seats of national authority, they are clearly the front line of the Negro assault on the moral comfort of white America.”

-Howard Zinn, The New Abolitionists

After students have gotten the opportunity to write down their thoughts, the teacher will ask six students to share what they have written down. Three students share their reactions to Zinn’s statement; the other three students will each share a question with the class.

Using these questions as a transition, teacher will distribute the provided “Introduction” handout. Students will have 10-15 minutes to read the handout and become acquainted with the topic. Teacher will then lecture for 20 minutes, using the “Introduction” and questions found on the “Second Day” lesson as a guide.

Homework: For homework, students will read “Bigger than a Hamburger” by Ella Baker. Students will be instructed to use the “Introduction” to guide their understanding and will have to come prepared to discuss in class the next day.

Second Day:

Students will have about 5 minutes to review “Bigger than a Hamburger”. Teacher will then split the class into groups of 5 to discuss the reading. Students will use guiding question to create a list of 5 themes, which they should be prepared to share with the class. Teacher will provide guiding discussion questions. Some possible questions include:

  1. How does this reading help us understand student activism within the Black Civil Rights movement?
  2. What does the title “Bigger than a Hamburger” tell us about the students’ goals?
  3. How did nonviolence and/or civil disobedience manifest itself within the SNCC movement? What tactics did the students employ?
  4. What kinds of discriminations were blacks facing that led them to be willing “to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship”?
  5. What kind of leadership did the students adopt? What was the significance in utilizing this form of leadership?
  6. What are some of the reasons that SNCC had in focusing their organizing in the rural South?
  7. What significance does addressing localized concerns focused on specific community needs have within a movement (as was done by SNCC)?

After students have discussed for 10 minutes and have compiled their list, one person from each group will share one point; students will be advised to share something different than what has already been shared. Teacher will write these topic points on the board, adding to the list if needed. The teacher will then assign a topic point/ theme to each group and hand each group markers and a large sheet of butcher paper. Students will have 15-20 minutes to create a visual diagram of their assigned topic point, using examples from the “Introduction”, lecture, and Baker’s “Bigger than a Hamburger”. After students have completed their visual diagram, each group will have 3 minutes to present their work.


As a homework assignment and to have students reflect on the lesson, students will write a 2 paragraph response on a topic point presented by one of the other groups that presented.

Suggested Research Project:

To further explore the themes of this lesson, students will be asked to research specific cases in which people of color employed nonviolence and/or civil disobedience in their struggle for liberation. Examples of this include: grape strikes in the Chicano Movement, the occupation of Alcatraz by American Indians, the Chicano student walkouts, etc. Students will focus their research by analyzing the similarities and differences of these movements and what they have learned about SNCC. Students can focus on the groups’ circumstances and grievances, tactics utilized, and/or the ideologies the groups employed. Students are given 2 weeks to conduct their research and create a 7-10 minute presentation, which will be presented in class.


Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: The Macmillan

Company, 1972.

Mays, Willie, James Felder, Marion D. Bennet, Don Clarke, Mary Ann Smith, and

Roslyn Pope. “An Appeal for Human Rights.” March 9, 1960. Accessed March

1, 2012.

Payne, Charles. I’ve got the Light of Freedom. California: University of California

Press, 1995.

Stoper, Emily. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of

Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization. New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc.,

Zinn, Howard. SNCC The New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.


  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  3. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
  4. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  5. Examine the roles of civil rights advocates (e.g., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Rosa Parks), including the significance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech.
  6. Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.

[1] This time frame was a crucial time in the history of SNCC. After chairman John Lewis was replaced by Stokely Carmichael, the ideological framework shifted within the organization. See, “SNCC 1960-1966: Six years of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” SNCC Project Group, accessed April 23, 2012,

[2] Emily Stoper, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization (New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1968), 29-30.

[3] Charles Payne, I’ve got the Light of Freedom (California: University of California Press, 1995), 26.

[4] Ibid., 96.

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