The selling of civil rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the use of public relations, 1960--1968

Vanessa De Ann Murphree


The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed in 1960 to encourage one of the most important movements in American history-civil rights. Initially, the group was made of young men and women who possessed an intense desire to liberate, educate, and empower Southern blacks. With a tremendous human rights mission facing them, the founding SNCC members included communication and publicity as part of their initial purpose. The communications section and the committee's newsletter, The Student Voice , were two of the first SNCC programs. These coordinating activities expanded into a revitalization of the student movement. And all the while, the initial communication efforts served as a foundational agent for propelling civil rights. This paper examines SNCC's public relations activities throughout the organization's existence, which represent a determining and essential component American public relations historiography. The organization combined community organizing with the use of traditional communications and public relations tactics and strategies to change the racial character of the country and to empower black Americans. SNCC's relatively short life propelled extraordinary change. Beginning with four North Carolina students sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in 1960 and ending with H. Rap Brown's calls for violence against the county, the organization used both public relations and communication strategies to help erase the fear and terror that had been an inherent element in the lives of American blacks.