Started by Ella Baker, a Shaw University alumna, SNCC used a more decentralized and local strategy than other civil rights organizations and provided leadership examples, according to sociologist Aldon D. Morris, for other protest groups such as Students for Democratic Society (SDS). In 1960 at a conference at Shaw University, the student-led group evolved out of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) student chapters. It shortly afterward played a significant role in the sit-in protests. During the late 1960s, however, SNCC leadership, including Stokely Carmichael, became more radical and promoted confrontational tactics that rejected the more conservative tactics of the SCLC ministerial leadership.
The idea for SNCC’s creation had been percolating since 1957, when Ella Baker and others had discussed the importance of incorporating students in nonviolent protests. In 1960, Baker called for a “Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation,” conference to be held, and Shaw University provided the accommodations while SCLC provided $800. Approximately 300 students attended, far more than the 100 that planners anticipated for the April 15-17 conference.
SNCC evolved out of that Easter weekend at Shaw University. Students in the SCLC had wished, for some time, for a student-led organization. (There were student chapters within the SCLC, but Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been pushing for an official student organization). Students wanted leadership opportunities and had different strategies than the SCLC leadership, which they believed moved toward progress at a glacial speed. At the 1960 Shaw meeting, students also expressed a fear that a strong centralized organization (even if student-led) would be a foe of democracy. Therefore, Baker and others established SNCC as a decentralized organization, with the national headquarters providing support and literature, including a newspaper, but not the strategy and leadership.
With SNCC’s formation, the sit-ins became more frequent and showcased direct action—a tactic whereby students initiated protests. SNCC also participated in Freedom Rides and other 1960s protests. As the decade continued, however, SNCC leadership started emphasizing Black Power, clashing with the conservative SCLC leadership, and thereby revealing discontent and disagreement within the Civil Rights Movement.
Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, 1984).