Local News

Civil rights group reflects on past, looks to future

Posted April 16, 2010 2:22 p.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2010 6:22 p.m. EDT

— Fifty years after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born at Shaw University, civil rights activists gathered on the Raleigh campus Friday to recall their past achievements and call for continued activism for civil rights.

The group – its SNCC initials were usually pronounced "snick" – was established on April 15, 1960, in the aftermath of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins two months earlier. It became a major player in the civil rights movement that decade, organizing sit-ins, voter registration drives and so-called freedom rides across the South.

"I feel that it was probably the most significant turning point in the history of this country," said SNCC member Arkansas Benston, who took part in the famed Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama in 1965.

"I was on the bridge. I got my head beat in that day," Benston said.

Civil rights marchers were attacked by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma on their first attempt, prompting Martin Luther King Jr. to lead another march a few weeks later that successfully made the journey from Selma to Montgomery.

SNCC member Junius Williams said the movement taught him how to fight for change effectively, and he later took the effort to the North.

"I learned how to keep cool in a hot situation," Williams said. "I learned how to walk through the shadow of the valley of death."

SNCC was dissolved in the 1970s, but organizers of the anniversary celebration said the civil rights pioneers can still teach lessons to today's activists.

"They hear firsthand from the people who stood up and said, 'No. My future's ahead of me, but my country needs to recognize me as a full citizen,'" said Cash Michaels, chief reporter of The Carolinian newspaper in Raleigh.

Younger people like Albert Sykes came from Jackson, Miss., to hear how his predecessors made such a difference.

"We have all the tools necessary to us to be able to make the same amount of change, if not more, that members of SNCC and other members of the civil rights movement were able to make," Sykes said.

The four-day celebration has drawn appearances from entertainer Harry Belafonte and actor Danny Glover, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to address the conference on Saturday.