[News] The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department
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/>
/“AT LAST!! THE PAPER YOU HAVE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR!! WHAT IS THE SNCC
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT……” /
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
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
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
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
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