The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of the most radical civil rights organizations operating in the South in the 1960s. Composed largely of young people, the organization advocated group-centered leadership as opposed to the more hierarchical structure favored by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SNCC members participated in various protest activities designed to dismantle segregation and to increase African-American voter registration. Activists moved to the communities they sought to serve, living among local black residents and attempting to identify and empower local leaders. The group sponsored major projects in four Southern states, including Arkansas.
SNCC came to Arkansas in 1962 at the behest of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR) and politically active students at historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County). William Hansen, a white activist who, at twenty-three years old, was already a veteran of the civil rights struggle, became the first director of the Arkansas Project. Initially, Hansen and SNCC sympathizers worked to desegregate many Little Rock businesses. By 1963, much headway had been made due to a series of sit-ins staged in Little Rock followed up by secret negotiations between business and civil rights leaders.
After this early success in Little Rock, the organizers decided to expand their efforts into the eastern part of the state, which was widely considered to be more hostile territory for civil rights workers. SNCC rapidly established offices in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Forrest City (St. Francis County), Gould (Lincoln County), and Helena (Phillips County). The group employed wide-ranging tactics in their attempt to change the racial climate in the state. Among other things, they conducted extensive voter registration drives, established Freedom Schools to increase educational access for black Arkansans, attempted to integrate facilities ranging from schools to restaurants to swimming pools, and supported black candidates for political office.
These bold initiatives were met with white resistance throughout the state. Civil rights workers were harassed, beaten, shot at, and arrested. One of the most publicized attempts at white reprisal occurred in 1965 when Hansen and black comedian Dick Gregory were arrested, sentenced to six months in prison, and fined $500 for attempting to integrate a truck stop in Pine Bluff. The incident gained much notoriety, and Hansen and Gregory won their appeal of the court’s decision. Much white resistance to SNCC efforts came in the form of violence or through abuse of the legal system, but much occurred behind the scenes as well, particularly in the realm of voter fraud. African Americans had difficulty winning elections even in districts with substantial black majorities, and evidence existed of rampant irregularities. In 1966, at SNCC’s request, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission sent two field workers to the Arkansas Delta to supervise elections.
Throughout its history, SNCC was a predominantly black organization, but the Arkansas Project remained remarkably integrated throughout its duration. In 1965, half of the eight full-time staff members working in the state were white. Of particular interest to the FBI and others who scrutinized the activities of local SNCC workers was Laura Foner, daughter of renowned left-wing labor historian Philip S. Foner. Laura Foner was active in Gould, where she taught at a Freedom School. Other white volunteers engaged in a wide range of activities, including performing clerical work, writing letters to the editor in support of SNCC policies, and participating in demonstrations.
After spending two years in the state, Hansen became convinced that the Arkansas Project should be under black leadership. In 1964, he stepped down as sole leader of the organization, becoming instead co-director with James Jones, a black man from Arkansas. Jones was later succeeded by Ben Grinage, also a black man.
Although by most accounts, race relations among SNCC workers in the state were relatively harmonious, changes in the national organization began to affect the Arkansas Project. The SNCC leadership soon questioned the role of whites in the movement, and much to the consternation of Grinage, SNCC national chairman Stokely Carmichael provocatively declared integration “irrelevant.” In May 1966, Grinage called a press conference reaffirming his own commitment to integration. Under both internal and external pressure, he resigned from the organization shortly thereafter. Hansen, too, stepped down in the summer of 1966 as it became increasingly clear that the expulsion of white members from the organization was imminent.
The debates over the role of whites in the movement and about the ultimate desirability of integration—one of SNCC’s earliest and initially most cherished goals—inevitably trickled down, affecting all of the local state projects. However, these discussions alone did not lead to the demise of SNCC in Arkansas. The organization was in decline even before Grinage’s resignation. The Arkansas Project suffered as fundraising efforts began to run dry. Contributions dwindled in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively outlawed segregation and black disenfranchisement. In the minds of many former contributors, the struggle for civil rights had been won.
SNCC ceased to operate in Arkansas after 1967, but it left a lasting legacy. It had played an enormous role in dismantling institutionalized white supremacy and had successfully modeled interracial organizing. Perhaps most importantly, it inspired many local black citizens to run for office, to become socially and politically active, and to found other community organizations, which have sought to carry on SNCC’s legacy.
For additional information:
Finley, Randy. “Crossing the White Line: SNCC in Three Delta Towns, 1963–1967.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (Summer 2006): 117–137.
Riffel, Brent. “In the Storm: William Hansen and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, 1962–1967.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Winter 2004): 404–419.
Riva, Sarah. “Desegregating Downtown Little Rock: The Field Reports of SNCC’s Bill Hansen, October 23 to December 3, 1962.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Autumn 2012): 264–282.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. “Replicating History in a Bad Way? White Activists and Black Power in SNCC’s Arkansas Project.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Autumn 2008): 268–287.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, and John Kirk, eds. Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Georgia College & State University