SNCC at 50

“By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the ‘whole world’ and the ‘Human Race’.”

Ella Baker, “Bigger Than A Hamburger”

In a moment dominated by the forces of instant gratification and immediate satisfaction, the mere mention of history is viewed as inconvenient, at best, and irrelevant, at worst. While commentators and critics often invoke the rhetoric of history – often with the sophomoric quip “history will be the judge” – it is often used as a pretense to support prefabricated opinions that are commensurate with the dictates of the status quo.

To a generation raised in such a context, the end of history is not just an idea for philosophical speculation, but the very reality of the world in which we live. Indeed, to posit the idea of the end of history does not generate substantive and informed debate, rather it stands as an apt description of the content and character of the prevailing protocols of our contemporary condition.

It is in such a moment when the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) becomes so vitally important not just for learning and understanding the past but, more importantly, for imagining and working for a more righteous future.

In his elegant and moving collection of essays Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, Vincent Harding reminds us of the rich resources and infinite hope offered by the gift of the black freedom struggle. The young people that formed SNCC five decades ago this month were heirs to and innovators of a tradition of freedom quests that sought to give birth to new expressions of our humanity.

The story of SNCC is one of rebirth and regeneration in a moment when the dominant forces of society were arrayed against the very idea of a new world. The triumphs and tragedies of the all too human efforts of SNCC to dream a new dream of freedom and work for its realization are acutely instructive for us who inhabit a world that celebrates celebrity, promotes performance, and worships at the shrine of style.

The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of SNCC affords us an opportunity to revisit a crucial moment in the ever evolving history of freedom not with a misty eyed nostalgia and sentimental romanticism, but with a critical consciousness that informs and reinforces our commitment to pursuing better possibilities for human being and belonging for the world in which we live.

Such possibilities are not exhausted by the prerogatives of politicians, the pronouncements of publicity intellectuals, or the prognostications of the profiteers. They are not fulfilled by the ideas of a solitary individual or the ideology of a single state. They are not calculated by the likelihood of success according to the logics of our commodified and mediated virtual reality.

Rather, they are forged in the cauldron of conflict and compromise when ordinary people talk, listen, learn, and work together in undertaking the endless task of making a more humane world.

The anniversary of the founding of SNCC reminds us of the humble yet heroic efforts of a group of people who came together to try to change the world. While the path on which they embarked was cleared by others who came before them, they opened up new directions in the evolution of freedom and human possibility for others who would come after them.

We dwell within that space between the history of SNCC and its transcendence – a space full of possibility for planetary transformation. The history of SNCC is a gift that continues to offer instructive guidance for the unfinished project of freedom. And it is a gift that nurtures and sustains those of us who continue to struggle for new expressions of freedom now and into the long future.

Corey D. B. Walker is an associate professor in the department of Africana Studies at Brown University. He is author of A Noble Fight:  African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America and the forthcoming book Between Transcendence and History: An Essay on Religion and the Future of Democracy in America.