The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department

SNCC may have been the most important organization of the postwar civil rights movement. It grew out of the wave of sit-ins in 1960 and was guided initially by Ella Baker, the foundational organizer whose emphasis on bottom-up organizing and democracy deeply shaped SNCC’s vision and methods. Its members were on the frontlines of the struggle to dismantle southern Jim Crow, organizing everything from the Freedom Rides to the Albany Movement to the Mississippi Freedom Summer. SNCC members took the movement into the most dangerous areas of the deep South, where white supremacy was most deeply entrenched. They worked to educate and empower ordinary people, and also register them to vote.

But few people today know that SNCC had a Research Department that interacted with organizers on the ground to help guide the group’s strategy and actions. Indeed, as the 1965 memo pointed out, even some SNCC organizers were unaware that they had a research office with a vast archive of news clippings, weeklies, reference books, and other documents that could offer insight into the larger workings of the power structures that were upholding racist oppression in the Jim Crow South.

“Research can support field operations in several ways,” the circular announced to members. Researchers and the stored archives could be useful to SNCC’s Freedom Schools, speakers’ tours, investigations into racial discrimination by businesses, surveys of new areas to organize — even into analyzing the possibilities of organizing a new political party. The announcement asked organizers to make use of the Research Department, send in any requests, and even entertained the possibility of setting up state-by-state research hubs.

What the history of the SNCC Research Department shows is the dynamic ways that research and organizing can go hand in hand, working together, to shape strategy and fight effectively for freedom and justice.

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