Civil Rights Movement Has Tar Hee Roots
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Most of the seminal images of the 1960s civil rights movement - people blasted with fire hoses, blocked at the schoolhouse door, attacked on public buses - played out in the Deep South, far from the Tar Heel State.
But the movement that spurred many of those scenes has its roots in North Carolina. Fifty years ago this year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed during a weekend meeting at Raleigh's Shaw University.
The student-led group known as SNCC (pronounced "Snick") grew into a powerful force that fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and helped end much of the institutionalized segregation in the South, using their bodies as their primary tools of protest.
This past week, as North Carolina celebrated King's birth, it also remembered the thousands of students - many of them from North Carolina - who risked beatings and even death to integrate lunch counters, buses, hotels, schools and voting booths.
"I knew I could be killed, but it didn't matter," remembers the Rev. David Forbes, of Raleigh, one of the founding members of SNCC. "It was time. If we had to give up some blood, so be it."
On Monday, the Raleigh Martin Luther King Committee brought Bernard LaFayette, a former SNCC member and King confidant, to Raleigh, kicking off an anniversary celebration that will culminate in April with a national conference at Shaw University.
Bruce Lightner, the organizer of Monday's events, said he hoped to shed light on an oft-forgotten part of Raleigh's past, in which thousands of students from across the state were drawn into the civil rights movement. "The entire community of Raleigh is not even aware of it," Lightner said.
On Feb. 1, 1960, students from The Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now N.C. A&T State University) sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, kicking off a wave of student-led sit-ins that led to violent confrontations, and eventually desegregation, in restaurants across the South. The idea spread like wildfire, mobilizing thousands of students - and King saw an opportunity.
In April 1960, his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, pulled together a meeting of student leaders from all over the South. They chose to hold it at Shaw University, home to an active student movement and the alma mater of one of King's top aides, Ella Baker.
The idea was to harness the collective energy of students, who until then had been protesting in isolated groups within their own cities, and coordinate a series of nonviolent protests.
At the time, Forbes was a Shaw student and the head of the Raleigh Sit-In Movement. Earlier that year, he had organized Raleigh's first sit-in at a downtown Woolworth. He had earned the distinction of being the first sit-in protester arrested in the Capital City.
He and hundreds of fellow students were gathering nearly every night to discuss strategy and train in nonviolent protest tactics inspired by King. Their philosophy was to dress well, treat people respectfully and never to fight back against violent attacks. They learned to cover their heads and turn their backs to the blows.
"As King would say, love is more powerful than dynamite," Forbes said. "White folks use dogs and tanks and dynamite. White folks can quell riots, but they had not had any experience in dealing with love and passivity."
When King came to town for the conference, bringing an entourage of civil rights pioneers to Shaw's campus, Forbes said he brought another dimension to the fight.
The students, gathered from places as far away as Louisiana and New York, began to see themselves as a powerful collective. Forbes said King painted a picture for them of a tapestry that wove together every student movement in the nation.
"We were fired up," Forbes said. "We understood that America had not lived up to its true promise. And we clearly saw what the mandate was, what the dream was. And now we were hundreds of thousands strong."
Gathering at Shaw
The weekend of April 15 to April 17 was a heady time at Shaw. Hundreds of students from around the country were camped in houses and dormitories. News trucks and cameras blanketed the campus. And a host of civil rights luminaries - Ralph Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall and King himself - were strolling the university grounds.
They gathered in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, filling a room that held at least 2,000, Shaw officials say. They sang and prayed, listened to rousing speeches and heard reports from student movements around the country.
Those who were there say it was inspiring and energizing in a way that is difficult to describe today.
"These weren't just simply some students who had come to a conference. It wasn't some kind of social club," said LaFayette, who was a student in Nashville at the time and went on to lead some of SNCC's most high-profile demonstrations and voter registration drives.
After graduating, LaFayette went to work as a national administrator for King and was with him when he was killed.
"These were people who had risked their lives and their educational careers, who had been beaten and gone to jail," LaFayette said of the Shaw conference participants.
"We were involved in a very important movement that had gotten international attention, and that weekend, we saw the opportunity to taste victory."
Eventually, they broke up into small groups and, at the urging of Ella Baker, decided to form an independent student group led by one or two students from each Southern state. They would meet every month at Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was the birth of SNCC.
Forbes was chosen to lead the North Carolina delegation. Every month, he rode a bus to Atlanta, where he watched a loose coalition turn into a determined force.
Freedom Rides Launched
Together they orchestrated Freedom Rides through the South, in which black students rode segregated buses to challenge Jim Crow laws. Angry white mobs attacked and burned some of the buses. They eventually moved on to voting rights, traveling across the South registering thousands of poor blacks and prompting the election of black candidates.
In 1963, SNCC leader John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, was among the key speakers at the March on Washington.
Theresa El-Amin, a Durham activist who joined SNCC in 1965, said the group took her to some of the poorest counties in Alabama and opened her eyes to the depth of discrimination that African-Americans faced.
"To see people living in that kind of rural poverty, to see people who were denied the right to vote," El-Amin said. "It was my 'aha' moment for sure."
She said the legacy of that awakening lives on today in North Carolina, where groups that cross racial divides now work together for social justice.
In 1998, she founded the Southern Anti-Racism Network, which has tried to carry on SNCC's mission. Forbes, now a minister and community leader, says he can clearly see the dots that link that April weekend at Shaw to the accomplishments of today.
"No SNCC, no challenge to social and political arrangements, no voting rights, no civil rights, no change, no Obama," he says. "Period."
Forbes was born into a world where the election of a black president seemed impossible, and he will die in one where the impossible has happened.
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