Participation Matters: A Brief History of Student Movements and Participatory Democracy

by Adia Davis 

Activism on college campuses is not new, in fact, it has been around for decades.  One of the most inspiring times for student activism was during the 1960s and early 1970s as social and political issues came to the forefront of the national conversation.  Following is a quick look at two student groups that were especially influential at the time, and what we as engaged students and citizens can learn from them today.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged in April 1960 as the youth faction of the civil rights group The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  SNCC felt that the SCLC was out of touch with the views of the younger generation, and thus, formed its own ideological framework and started an independent movement.  The first meeting was held at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC in April 1960.  The meeting was led by civil rights activist and Shaw alumna, Ella Baker.  Inspiration for the founding came after the Greensboro, NC Lunch Counter Sit-ins.  SNCC decided to use the momentum from the sit-ins to gain traction for its own movement.  The group started with 200 members at its first meeting, but soon sprang into a large movement with chapters all over the country, especially in the South.

SNCC’s activism focused on mobilizing local communities.  The group believed in participatory democracy and many of their efforts highlighted this.  From its founding, SNCC promoted non-violent civil disobedience and wanted to not just achieve integration, but social change more broadly. SNCC helped to organize voter registration efforts, sit-ins, the March on Washington in 1963, and the Freedom Rides.  After an ideological split between key members as well as more radical leanings among some, the original group changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee in 1969. The group disbanded altogether in 1976.

Students for a Democratic Society

Another student group that was active around the time was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Founded in 1960, SDS had its first meeting at the University of Michigan and elected Alan Haber as its first president.  In 1962 at the first SDS convention, there were fewer than 100 members but over the years, the group gained traction.  By 1969, there were approximately 100,000 SDS members and over 66 chapters on different college campuses across the country.  This astounding membership growth can be attributed to an explosion of support surrounding SDS’s anti-war agenda.

In 1962, the group released The Port Huron Statement, a political manifesto.  The manifesto focused on participatory democracy, and along with it, nonviolent civil disobedience.  The Statement criticized racial discrimination, economic inequality, and political systems that failed to maintain peace. Living up to its slogan, “the issues are interrelated,” SDS also focused on an anti-Vietnam agenda and to some extent, feminist activism, among other things. SDS focused on “pragmatic activity that made sense to students – protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.”[1]  One of the group’s pivotal achievements was its anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC in 1965, where it was able to assemble 25,000 protestors.  Similar to SNCC, SDS experienced splits in ideology.  Some of its key members also adapted more radical viewpoints.  Not being able to resolve its issues, SDS eventually disbanded in 1969.

SDS and SNCC in conversation

What is clear from these movements is the great opportunity organizations have to learn from one another.  Although the two organizations were founded around the same time, SDS found great inspiration from SNCC. The two groups which were both focused on an intersection of issues, worked together at times.  As former SDS president Tom Hayden, stated, “we were all influenced by Ella Baker, an elder advisor to SNCC…she spoke and personified participatory democracy.” He then went on to say, “SNCC played a direct role in shaping my values, as it did with many SDS founders. SNCC’s early organizing method was based on listening to local people and taking action on behalf of their demands.”[2]

What can we learn from this early activism?

A common theme among both SDS and SNCC was the idea of participatory democracy.  According to Todd Gitlin, another former president of SDS, participatory democracy can be defined as “a public committed to making the decisions that affect their own lives, with institutions to make this possible.”[3]  In practice, this approach leads to an involved citizenship that makes contributions to directly address social and political issues that are important to us instead of only waiting for action through elected representatives. Participatory democracy is about making sure everyone’s voice is heard.  As we go through our own lives as college students, it is important to remember that there are a variety of unique ways in which we can work to directly impact the issues most important to us.

Intersectionality, the idea that different forms of oppression are interconnected, was another important part of both SDS and SNCC that students today can learn from.  While both groups looked at the broader social contexts of the issues they focused on, SDS especially saw different social issues as interrelated.  Both organizations also knew to not isolate their movements.  They understood that they could gain valuable resources and knowledge from working together, especially when their goals overlapped.  Especially today, as intersectionality is an ever present part of the dialogue on activism, it can be helpful to reflect on a couple of the places where it took root.





[3] Smithsonian Magazine