More than half a century since the 1960s, scholars and citizens alike continue to grapple with how our country should remember the civil rights movement. To many observers, the movement’s calls for political change—to refashion America into an anti-racist democracy—represents its most profound legacy. Others remember the movement as a force for moral change. Largely forgotten, however, is how civil rights activists created a movement for intellectual change.
Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, is widely recalled as an unimpeachable moral authority, as a master orator, and as a fierce proponent of democracy. But how many Americans today recall him as the powerful intellectual that he was–the inveterate reader and theoretician that many of his contemporaries knew him as?
The same can be asked of the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization’s members are recalled for the remarkable bravery and resolute moral clarity they displayed on the Freedom Rides, during Freedom Summer, and in Selma. SNCC members created a movement for social change, for moral change, and for political change. But how many of us acknowledge that SNCC also forged a movement for intellectual change? A short SNCC memo I recently came across forced me to reconsider this question.