[News] The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 4 12:08:12 EDT 2017


  The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department

May 2, 2017 - By Derek Seidman <https://news.littlesis.org/author/derek/>


This was the headline of a February 1965 circular 
<http://www.crmvet.org/docs/65_sncc_research.pdf>, typed and 
mimeographed, that went around to chapters of the Student Nonviolent 
Coordinating Committee — or SNCC, as it commonly went by — across the US.

SNCC may have been the most important organization of the postwar civil 
rights movement. It grew out of the wave of sit-ins in 1960 and was 
guided initially by Ella Baker, the foundational organizer whose 
emphasis on bottom-up organizing and democracy deeply shaped SNCC’s 
vision and methods. Its members were on the frontlines of the struggle 
to dismantle southern Jim Crow, organizing everything from the Freedom 
Rides <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/freedomriders/> 
to the Albany Movement 
<http://www.blackpast.org/aah/albany-movement-1961-1962> to the 
Mississippi Freedom Summer 
SNCC members took the movement into the most dangerous areas of the deep 
South, where white supremacy was most deeply entrenched. They worked to 
educate and empower ordinary people, and also register them to vote.

But few people today know that SNCC had a Research Department that 
interacted with organizers on the ground to help guide the group’s 
strategy and actions. Indeed, as the 1965 memo pointed out, even some 
SNCC organizers were unaware that they had a research office with a vast 
archive of news clippings, weeklies, reference books, and other 
documents that could offer insight into the larger workings of the power 
structures that were upholding racist oppression in the Jim Crow South.

“Research can support field operations in several ways,” the circular 
announced to members. Researchers and the stored archives could be 
useful to SNCC’s Freedom Schools, speakers’ tours, investigations into 
racial discrimination by businesses, surveys of new areas to organize — 
even into analyzing the possibilities of organizing a new political 
party. The announcement asked organizers to make use of the Research 
Department, send in any requests, and even entertained the possibility 
of setting up state-by-state research hubs.

What the history of the SNCC Research Department shows is the dynamic 
ways that research and organizing can go hand in hand, working together, 
to shape strategy and fight effectively for freedom and justice.

*         *         *

The SNCC Research Department formally began in 1962, when SNCC Executive 
Secretary James Forman recruited researcher Jack Minnis 
<https://snccdigital.org/people/jack-minnis/> to the organization to 
help develop its research wing.

This was just two years after the wave of sit-ins in the spring of 1960, 
and SNCC had blossomed into a large organization that was at the 
forefront of the civil rights movements. The group was spread across the 
South, from Georgia to Mississippi, and organizing to empower people, 
desegregate institutions and spaces, and register voters. Some felt that 
a research department of the group was needed to help inform the 
campaigns of an ever-expanding organization.

Minnis was a researcher who helped popularize power research in the 
1960s with a pamphlet called “The Caring and Feeding of Power Structures 
<http://www.crmvet.org/docs/65_minnis_power-r.pdf>,” which drew on the 
experiences of SNCC. He also produced a four-page newsletter called 
“Life With Lyndon in the Great Society 
<http://www.crmvet.org/docs/lwl/lwl35.pdf>” that showed the corporate 
ties behind the Johnson administration.

By 1963, SNCC had formed an active Research Department 
that assembled a huge documentary archive and produced research that 
informed the group’s campaigns. The SNCC Research Department focused on 
power analysis to reveal the elite structures that were funding and 
underpinning Jim Crow. Researchers provided information to field staff 
to help their organizing campaigns.

*         *         *

But research was not a top-down process in SNCC. Rather, organizers and 
researchers worked closely with each other as a larger, collective unit. 
Organizers shaped and did research, and researchers informed and 
participated in organizing. Everyone was in constant interaction with 
each other.

A few examples illustrate this interplay between research and 
organizing, as well as the range of important ways that research helped 
aid SNCC’s work. As organizers sought to expand the movement, 
researchers provided information to field staff to help their campaigns.

For example, they put together a pamphlet, “The Mississippi Power 
that analyzed how big money — from cotton farms, northern capital, oil 
companies, electric power, and finance capital — was invested in the 
state and how it related to political power and class and racial 
hierarchies. The document also illustrated how white elites pitted poor 
whites against poor blacks in Mississippi so they could more easily 
exploit both groups.

Among other things, the pamphlet analyzed corporate power’s connection 
to the state’s white supremacist political rule. The pamphlet showed, 
for example, how Mississippi’s biggest electric company and two biggest 
banks had overlapping leaders who were also leaders of the White 
Citizens’ Council that dominated the Democratic Party, the state’s 
ruling party. SNCC named names and mapped out the ties between these 
different entities to reveal the flow and interlocks of corporate, 
racist, and political power in the state.

For example, one powerful figure — William P. McMullan — was a director 
of the electric company as well as chairman, CEO, and a director of one 
of the two banks. McMullan was also a board member of the Jackson White 
Citizens’ Council, which had major influence over Mississippi politics, 
police, and the courts. Information like this gave organizers a larger 
and more strategic sense of their targets and the bigger system they 
were taking on.

In addition to power analysis like this, the Research Department put 
together other landmarks of SNCC literature that aided major campaigns. 
One example was “A Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in 
Mississippi Since 1961 
<http://www.crmvet.org/docs/sncc_ms_violence.pdf>,” a detailed timeline 
of white supremacist violence and police intimidation in Mississippi 
that was prepared for the 1964 Freedom Summer.

The pamphlet documented in week-to-week, day-to-day detail the everyday 
racist coercion against African Americans and civil rights organizers in 
Mississippi. With the only text being captions for images and timeline 
entries, the pamphlet began:

    /“January 1, Greenville, Washington County: Two young white men rode
    a motorbike through a residential area and, according to the local
    police chief, fired a volley of shots Into a group of Negroes.
    George Mayfield, 18, was seriously wounded In both legs; Percy Lee
    Simmons, 19, was shot in the right leg.” /

The pamphlet proceeded for 15 more pages with single-spaced, two-column 
text entries that documented incidents all the way up to the beginning 
of 1964. The findings of the “Chronology” were also published in 
Congressional Record on April 4th, 1963.

Judy Richardson was aSNCC organizer 
<http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/judy-richardson-41> who 
worked in the group’s national office in Atlanta and then Mississippi. 
She believed that the pamphlet helped to convey the systemic, blanketing 
nature of racist violence in Mississippi. “What it proved,” she recalled 
<http://www.crmvet.org/mem/minnis.htm>, “was that white violence was 
long-standing and endemic [and] not just the problem of a few racist 

In /Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC/, 
Richardson also recalled 
the dynamic relationship between research and organizing in SNCC:

    /“Then there would be these national staff meetings. Every five
    months or so, all our staff would come in from the field to share
    information and also to get some R and R… Most were eighteen- and
    nineteen-year old women and men, mainly African American, sharing
    organizing problems, discussing possible solutions, and requesting
    research from Jack Minnis, our crusty and rather enigmatic white
    research director. With Jack’s research, SNCC folks went into new
    communities armed with U.S. Census data and other information
    indicating the number of registered black voters, if any; the levels
    of poverty; the discrepancy between federal funding of African
    Americans as compared to white farmers from programs like the
    Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services (ASCS); and the
    main industries in the area — and all this before the advent of
    computers. Our discussions also included references to both the
    national and international events that were swirling around us./

*         *         *

The SNCC Research Department was also called upon to look into 
possibilities and strategies for new political projects. For example, 
some know about the effort by Stokely Carmichael to help start the 
Lowndes County Freedom Organization 
(LCFO) in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965. But fewer people probably 
know that the LFCO was in part made possible by the research efforts of 
the SNCC Research Department and the ways it worked with SNCC organizers 
to bring those findings to life.

By 1965, civil rights organizers were registering black voters by the 
thousands in Alabama, but the only existing political parties were 
dominated by whites. In response, SNCC staff, working with local 
community organizers in Lowndes County, Alabama, started to entertain 
the idea of forming an independent black political party.

That fall, Stokely contacted the SNCC Research Department about the 
idea. Researchers proceeded to mine through twelve volumes of 
Reconstruction-era law books to find an “obscure statute 
that would allow for the formation of a new political party.

In his memoir, James Foreman recalled 
the formation of LFCO, and the dynamic, collective process through which 
research informed organizing and organizing gave life to research:

    /“Jack Minnis, head of SNCC’s research department, discovered a
    little-known Alabama law that made it possible for independent
    political organizations to be formed and run candidates for office
    under conditions that were technically not difficult to meet. This
    legal loophole opened the door for the creation later that year of
    the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, with the black panther as
    its symbol. Minnis held a number of workshops to explain the whole
    process. The Alabama people in the Freedom Organization acquired a
    better understanding of what they were doing, and why, than any
    other political group that we had thus far developed. A tremendous
    excitement and new hope began to flow as the black men and women of
    Lowndes County moved to shake off a hundred years of white supremacy.”/

In 1967, Minnis also wrote a history of how the LCFO was formed, called 
“The Story of the Development of an Independent Political Movement on 
the County Level <http://www.crmvet.org/docs/67_lcfo_minnis.pdf>.”

An important lesson from these accounts is the way that the SNCC 
Research Department produced research that was connected to and 
concretely aided a living, breathing initiative on the ground by SNCC 
grassroots organizers. The Research Department conducted workshops with 
dozens of organizers to help them master the legal statute for running 
for office with a new political organization. SNCC Researchers also put 
together informational flyers and “picture-stories 
<http://www.crmvet.org/docs/67_lcfo_minnis.pdf>” for mass distribution 
throughout Lowndes County.

In this way — though a combined effort of research and organizing, 
melded together towards a common goal — the LFCO was able to take off.

*         *         *

The history of the SNCC Research Department is an important example of 
how one of the great social movements of the past used power research to 
inform its strategies, tactics, and targets.

Years after the height of SNCC’s activity, Julian Bond reflected 
on the group’s Research Department:

    /“[SNCC] had the best research arm of any civil rights organization
    before or since. Field secretaries entered the rural, small-town
    South armed with evidence of who controlled and owned what, and who,
    in turn, owned them. ‘Power structure’ was no abstract phrase for
    SNCC’s band of brothers and sisters, but a real list with real
    people’s names and addresses and descriptions of assets and
    interlocking directorships, demonstrating how large interests,
    ranging from Memphis and New York banks to the Queen of England,
    might own at least partial control of a plantation in Mississippi’s
    Delta. Knowledge of who owned what was crucial to SNCC’s strategies.
    From it, we knew that Southern peonage was no accident, but rather
    the deliberate result of economic policies determined thousands of
    miles away from the cotton field.” /

As movements today try to make sense of the complex ways that power 
works, the SNCC Research Department can serve as an inspiring example of 
how research and organizing can go hand in hand to make history.


/Interested in learning more about how power research and organizing can 
work together today? Join the May 3 Map the Power: Research for the 
Resistance Webinar <https://www.facebook.com/events/1386171734739678/> 
at 8pm ET. You can register here 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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