Raleigh, North Carolina
One thousand enthusiastic celebrants at the fiftieth anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee here were credited by a top White House official with making possible the Barack Obama presidency, as the group passed the torch to a new generation fighting for a constitutional right to quality education.
It may have been the last assemblage of the original SNCC tribe of organizers, now averaging 65 years in age, but the promise of SNCC’s children, now between their teens and 30s, was evident in hundreds of young faces from all over the country.
US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke on Saturday at the same Raleigh site where SNCC was founded as a coordinating network for the exploding sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. After internal debate, the conference steering committee invited President Obama. The decision to send Holder was freighted with memories of Justice Department officials in the early 1960s who, after initial hesitancy, often struggled alone to prevent segregationist violence against young civil rights workers helping local people to register and vote. John Doar, now 89, who faced down racist officials on many occasions, sat in the crowd as the new attorney general spoke.
Holder, under fire from the right as he tries to rebuild the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told the crowd that "the nation is in your debt."
"There is a straight line from those lunch counter sit-ins [of 1960] to the Oval Office today, and a straight line to the sixth floor of the Justice Department where I serve today," Holder said. His late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, defied Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963.
"This progress could not have happened without SNCC’s work," he went on. "The path was blazed by you, and I stand on your shoulders."
Holder pledged to strengthen civil rights enforcement and place a new emphasis on trying to reverse policies that have incarcerated young men and women of color for longer sentences than their white counterparts.
"We are counting on you to rekindle the spirit of 1960 and build on SNCC’s achievements. You look strong to me. This army is not disbanding. There still is marching to be done. Stay as committed as back then."
Holder’s speech attracted little attention in the mainstream media. But if a primary purpose of the SNCC conference was to claim a legacy in history, the legitimizing import of Holder’s official remarks was important. In the early 1960s, SNCC was criticized privately by President John Kennedy, prior to the 1963 March on Washington, as a group of "radicals" and "sons of bitches." Representative John Lewis, who preceded Holder on the Raleigh stage, was under severe pressure in 1963 from the Kennedy administration and mainstream civil rights leaders to tone down the speech, in which he famously demanded to know, "Where is our political party?" Robert Kennedy at first tried to freeze the Freedom Rides, and even questioned the loyalty of the early SNCC militants. In time, that tension would lessen, as SNCC kept up the heat on the Kennedys, a process that may lie ahead in SNCC’s relations with Barack Obama.