SNCC 1960-1966: Six years of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

March on WashingtonSNCC played a key role in the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. A crowd of 200,000 people gathered around the Lincoln memorial in August 1963 to hear speeches by leaders of civil rights organizations, such as John Lewis. However, Lewis' speech sent a different message than King's speech. While both leaders embraced a desegregated society with equal rights for all, Lewis felt the federal government wasn't doing enough. While others seemed to be celebrating at the march, Lewis was angry and the speech he had prepared reflected it. He was so angry that several civil rights leaders and the Catholic Archbishop participating in the event coerced Lewis into moderating his speech.

Even the "toned-down" speech was not the celebration of the Kennedy administration's role in the movement that the prior speeches had been. Many were surprised by his speech, when so many considered the Kennedy administration receptive to the Civil Rights movement and the key sponsor of civil rights legislation. During Lewis' experience growing up in Alabama and as a SNCC activist, he had been beaten and jailed several times; and he knew there were members of SNCC and many other African-Americans still fighting on the front lines in the Deep South.

More than any other Civil Rights group, SNCC was critical of the federal government's role in the movement. While the members of the administration celebrated and cheered at the march, SNCC members felt the federal government was much quieter Deep South, where racism was barely tempered. Lewis was angry at the administration's policy of minimum interference and allowing the nation to focus attention away from the violence and crimes against human rights going on in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the rest of the South.

With this in mind, John Lewis took the stand and gave his speech to crowd:

"We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here--for they have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses when engaging in peaceful demonstrations. This bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges like those in Americus, Georgia, where four young men are in jail, facing a death penalty, for engaging in peaceful protest.

I want to know, which side is the federal government on? The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. Listen Mr. Kennedy, the black masses are on the march for jobs and for freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a 'cooling-off period.'"