Introduction

A group of college students founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960 to capitalize on the peaceful sit-ins they had just led to end segregation in restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee. Within a few years, SNCC had organized numerous civil rights campaigns, including the 1961 Freedom Rides, which successfully pressured the Kennedy administration to enforce a Supreme Court decision banning the racial segregation of interstate travel, and the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration drive. In early 1965, SNCC joined with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to register black voters in Selma, Alabama. The hazards faced by SNCC were often deadly. In Mississippi, for example, Klansmen murdered three SNCC members for registering black voters.

The murder of African American civil rights activist Samuel Younge, Jr., on January 3, 1966, led SNCC to issue the following position paper. As a Cold War document, the statement links the escalating war in Vietnam (Documents 29–32) to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. SNCC raises sharp questions about the purposes of the war in Vietnam. Was the United States really fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people? How could the nation profess to be a force of liberty in the world when it had not yet guaranteed freedom and equality for African Americans?Source: Wisconsin Historical Society, Freedom Summer Collection, Lucile Montgomery Papers, 1963-1967, Historical Society Library Microforms Room, Micro 44, Reel 3, Segment 48. Available at https://goo.gl/mUw2Nr.


Source: Wisconsin Historical Society, Freedom Summer Collection, Lucile Montgomery Papers, 1963-1967, Historical Society Library Microforms Room, Micro 44, Reel 3, Segment 48. Available at https://goo.gl/mUw2Nr.


The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has a right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam on these grounds:

We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia[1], and in the United States itself.

We, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have been involved in the black peoples’ struggle for liberation and self-determination in this country for the past five years. Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens, and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders.

We ourselves have often been victims of violence and confinement executed by United States governmental officials. We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.

The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam, for both Young and the Vietnamese sought, and are seeking, to secure the rights guaranteed them by law.[2] In each case, the United States government bears a great part of the responsibility for these deaths.

Samuel Young was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The United States is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs or desires.

We recall the indifference, suspicion and outright hostility with which our reports of violence have been met in the past by government officials.

We know that for the most part, elections in this country, in the North as well as the South, are not free. We have seen that [recent civil rights laws] have not yet been implemented with full federal power and sincerity.

We question, then, the ability and even the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad. We maintain that our country’s cry of “preserve freedom in the world” is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.

We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the “freedom” we find so false in this country.

We recoil with horror at the inconsistency of a supposedly “free” society where responsibility to freedom is equated with the responsibility to lend oneself to military aggression. We take note of the fact that 16 percent of the draftees from this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a “democracy” which does not exist for them at home.

We ask, where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?

We therefore encourage those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within this country. We believe that work in the civil rights movement and with other human relations organizations is a valid alternative to the draft. We urge all Americans to seek this alternative, knowing full well that it may cost them their lives – as painfully as in Vietnam.

Study Questions

A. Why does the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) oppose the war in Vietnam? What criticisms does SNCC make about the U.S. government? What does SNCC ask Americans to do?

B. Why might the SNCC paper have angered President Johnson? Are SNCC’s criticisms of the war similar to those of George Ball (Document 32)?

Footnotes

  1. Now known as Zimbabwe.
  2. Samuel Younge, Jr., (his name was misspelled in the original), age 21, was shot and killed in Macon County, Alabama, by a gas station attendant for trying to use a white-only restroom. A Navy veteran, Younge was a student at the Tuskegee Institute and was active in civil rights campaigns, including a voter registration drive. His murder led to mass protests and the release of SNCC’s position paper. Younge’s killer was indicted in November 1966 but was acquitted by an all-white jury.