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Arts & Culture

SNCC Legacy Project Helps Groom Young Civil Rights Activists


Early voting is underway in many local elections.  And yesterday was proclaimed “National Voter Registration Day” by the White House.

Civil rights activists and scholars applaud such efforts, saying one of the most pressing issues still facing African Americans in the south is access to the polls. 

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–better known as SNCC– helped lead that fight in the 1960s.  Today, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies is working to preserve that legacy.      

To help bring the SNCC Legacy Project together – Duke University needed  a SNCC scholar, an “Activist Scholar.”

Charlie Cobb fit the bill just fine.

“I was 19 years old when I came to Mississippi.  I had just finished my freshman year at Howard University," said Cobb.

Now the former journalist and author is 72 years old.  He credits the generation before him, people like Ella Baker, in helping to shape SNCC’s voting rights legacy.   

“I could go through a whole list of people in Mississippi and other parts of the South in their 50s, 60s, 70s even in their 80s who took us by the hand and basically said, 'Yeah, we like all this energy ya’ll seem to have, but really we’re not interested in having sit-ins here. This is what we want,' and they all wanted voter registration," Cobb said.

Fast forward 50 years.  The National Voter Registration Day project says on its website 6 million Americans did not vote in 2008 because they missed a registration deadline or they just didn’t know how to register.

In the South, a lot of those disenfranchised voters are people of color.  Since 2010, North Carolina and 20 other states have imposed new restrictions on voting, from voter ID requirements to early voting cutbacks.

Cobb says SNCC veterans realized it was time to pass on their mobilization and organization skills before they pass on.

“So when the Dream Defenders sit in the governor’s office for 31 days, or the Black Lives Matter people do this, it resonates with our own history," Cobb said.

A first of its kind gathering–bridging the old and the young–took place a few days ago in Durham. It was called “One Person, One Vote.”

Bettina Love is an associate professor of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia.  She’s developing a multimedia hip-hop Civics curriculum for middle and high school students.  Love says it’s been amazing learning from the SNCC veterans.

“For them to be vulnerable and talk about their mistakes.  For them to be vulnerable and talk about the things they wish they had done and then for them to talk about their dreams and aspirations for the young people," said Love.  "And to tell young folk, 'We are with you.  We may not understand everything you do, but we are with you.'”

“You know they don’t understand social media.  They don’t understand mobile movement," Umi Selah said.

Selah is Executive Director of the Dream Defenders based in Miami.  The 30-year-old led protests after the death of Trayvon Martin. Selah says what they have learned from their elders is the importance of organization.

“The people in our organization, which I use that loosely now because we need to be better organized,  once we started these new trainings, they want it.  They can’t wait for it," Selah said.

It’s a critical time for young activist groups.  Civil rights scholars say they must figure out how to move the disenfranchised from protests to the polls.  SNCC veterans say ultimately it will take face-to-face conversations, just like when they were young.

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