John Lewis, SNCC's 24-year-old chairman, who has been arrested once for every year of this life, delivered the closing address of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Spring Conference (March 27-29): Roughly 200 Negroes and 100 whites, mainly students, listened to his words in the chapel of the Gammon Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Ga.
"Our people, they're pushed against a wall. They're saying they want it all and want it now. Those of you who work in the fields of the Mississippi delta know that our people are restless...In 1964 the demand is for something basic, the right to vote, to determine our own destiny...We will not only change the South, we will change the whole structure of the country...It must be, as much as possible, a nonviolent overthrow..."
After applauding Lewis, the audience stood, clasping hands, swaying and huming, while a minister gave the final prayer,"...and Lord, give us the courage to do what we know is right, to face the police with their guns and dogs and help our people this year, in 1964..."
In response 300 voices sang softly, almost in a whisper, the last words of the conference, "We shall overcome someday."
Since its start in 1960, SNCC's philosophy and approach have changed a great deal. When the group began it hoped merely to coordinate the numerous student action organizations that were springing up throughout the South. Few people thought that Studet Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would become a movement in its own right, initiating action and carrying out programs with an army of field workers.
In the fall of 1961 SNCC began the effort which has made it one of the most important groups in the freedom movement. Staff workers moved into the Black Belt areas and started voter egistation dives.
Today it is clear that the vote is only the beginning. SNCC's slogan is "One man, one vote," but many members speak of "One man, one job." In Lewis's words, "...There must be some basic change in our economic and political stucture... The masses must rise up to bring the changes about."
In discussing the role of the vote in the assault on segregation, the students quickly linked the goals of the southern freedom movement to those of labor and disamament. While talking of nonviolence in Mississippi, they spoke of the strikes and layoffs in Hazard, Ky., and the Mexican-American political victories in Crystal City, Texas.
Such broad thinking typified the attitudes of SNCC members at the meeting. Most of them believe that they are in the vanguard of a revolution, and feel the responsibility of leadership. Those who work in the Deep South know that their own lives and the lives and futures of others depend on their ability to make correct decisions. For this reason SNCC wokers at the conference analyzed problems from every angle, looking to the experiences of other American social movements as a basis for their own actions.
One part of SNCC's philosophy has not changed: the firm commitment to nonviolence. Some workers may joke about starting "a small Mau-Mau" or quietly express their belief that unless victories come soon in the South, race warfare could erupt. But these fears only increase the sense of urgency and dedication toward proving that nonviolent tactics can succeed. It seems tragically certain that there will be violence in Mississippi this summer; yet it is equally certain that such violence will not come from anyone associated with SNCC.
The Summer Project
One of the major purposes of the spring conference was to plan the Mississippi Summer Project. This massive attack on segregation in Mississippi is being organized by the Council of Federated Organizations, a statewide organization composed of SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Viewing Mississippi as the central battlefield in the fight for equal rights, COFO aims at recruiting up to 2000 workers, mostly out-of-state students, for a many-faceted attack on the political, social and legal structures of the state.
The largest number of workers will participate in the voter registration drive which is to operate in every rural county and important urban area in the state. These workers will be involved in a summer-long drive to mobilize the Negro community and to develop local leadership and organization.