As a young activist, Jennifer Lawson left Tuskegee University in the 1960s to work full time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
As a field secretary in Lowndes County, Alabama, Lawson encouraged residents to register to vote and explained how the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the independent political party SNCC built with local residents, could help black people win political power.
When the LCFO chose the black panther as its symbol — a response to the white Democratic Party in the county that had chosen a white rooster as its symbol — Lawson was the one to paint it on billboards.
"The local people said they wanted a black cat to run that white rooster out of the county," Lawson said laughing.
Today, Lawson is a member of the SNCC Legacy Project and contributor to the SNCC Digital Gateway.
The project, which created an online archive and activism platform, is a product of a five-year partnership between SNCC, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and Duke University Libraries.
Two generations of activists came together for a two-day symposium at Duke University last weekend to reflect on and celebrate the completion of the SNCC Digital Gateway.
SNCC, an organization started by participants of the sit-in movement that began in Greensboro in February 1960, formed after a meeting held by activist Ella Baker at Shaw University the same year. SNCC gave young Black Americans a stronger voice in the civil rights movement.
"These are people who changed the world in a very short period of time if you think about the space of one college semester,” said Wesley Hogan, the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.
The SNCC Legacy Project, formed in 2010 on SNCC’s 50th reunion, is an effort to preserve SNCC’s history with the greatest degree of accuracy possible, Lawson said. The organization creates oral histories and collected documentation of SNCC’s work throughout the movement. Five years ago, the Legacy Project caught Duke's attention.
The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and Duke University libraries officially teamed up with the SNCC Legacy Project in 2013 to create the SNCC Digital Gateway, a free website geared toward telling the stories of SNCC members to future generations and making the history accessible for all people.
The website is both an archive of SNCC's history as well as a source of tools for activists today. It contains resources like an FAQ section where SNCC veterans answer common questions about organizing, an interactive map of SNCC’s reach across the South and a directory of SNCC veterans.
Wesley said the project offers a wealth of information for today’s activists.
"I think part of what young people face — regardless of whether they're active in 2018 or 20 years ago or 20 years from now — is they feel like they have to reinvent the wheel and learn all of this all over again,” she said. “We're trying to really make a space where they could not have to that, where they wouldn't be starting from scratch.”
Wesley said she hoped the website would be more interactive and inclusive than some traditional ways historians have tried to convey the history of the civil rights movement.
“Oftentimes academics can be pretty extractive in how they take oral histories out of communities and aren't reciprocal in giving back,” she said. “So we wanted to work in a different kind of way with activists as co-creators of the history, not just subjects of oral histories."
Lawson described the project as an unusual, successful collaboration.
“It's been a partnership of equals, where we have managed to get beyond the more conventional treatment of activists by university people and scholars, which is generally that the university knows best,” she said.
Lawson said most people who have been activists in their youth often continue it in some form, and it is inspiring and moving to them to mentor young people. She said they are learning from the students, who have new tools and technology to connect globally.
“It has been wonderful to see that what we did in the 1960s and 70s has a relevance to young activists today,” she said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.