Organizing for Voting Rights: Lessons from SNCC

On October 19, the first Teach the Black Freedom Struggle class of the fall featured a conversation between Charles M. Payne and Cierra Kaler-Jones.

The session, Organizing for Voting Rights: Lessons from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) addressed themes of our campaigns to Teach the Black Freedom Struggle and to teach about voting rights on this 150th anniversary year of the 15th Amendment and an election year.

During the class, Payne shared stories and analysis from the oral histories he collected on the grassroots, intergenerational organizing for voting rights in Mississippi. Our hope is that students can apply lessons from SNCC to challenge widespread voter suppression today.

In Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition, Payne talks about the importance of sharing these lessons from history.

On the Sea Islands, where Septima Clark began her life’s work, when a respected person passed away, after the internment, custom called for children to step across the grave. The best parts of the spirits of the deceased were understood to pass into the children. As a nation, we have done a terrible job of passing our children over the graves and, given their already tenuous relationship to the rest of society, that failure often falls with greatest weight on African American and other children of color. That may be the best way to think of what education for liberation does at its best: It is a way to pass children over the graves of their ancestors, to give them a moral grounding in the past that will help them ask their own questions in the present and seek their own answers.

Here are just a few reflections from participants. (More reflections at the end of this page.)

I was unaware of the span of years prior to the ’40s in the deep south when voter registration and voting were accessible to Black people and poor whites.

What stuck with me was the explanation of the fallacy of waiting for a leader to move the movement forward — the idea that it was often the most vulnerable who did the heavy lifting in the resistance.

I hadn’t known that people’s addresses would be published in the newspaper for two weeks if they registered to vote!

“Truth-telling is a form of love.”

The breakout rooms always up the energy, the vulnerability, the connections, the humanity. Thank you


Here are some highlights of the session from the tweet thread by high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member Ursula Wolfe-Rocca.

The class was ready!


Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.

Watch online



Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History


Books and Articles

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill

Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South by Christopher S. Parker

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne

Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne

Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer

History: White, Negro & Black” by Vincent Harding

Teaching for Black Lives (Book) Zinn Education Project

Teaching Guides and Lessons

Sharecroppers Challenge U.S. Apartheid: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Who Gets to Vote? Teaching About the Struggle for Voting Rights in the United States

Teaching SNCC: The Organization at the Heart of the Civil Rights Revolution

Teaching for Black Lives

Dec. 25, 1951: Bombing of the Moore Family Home (This Day in History) - The Moore family: Harriette holds daughter Evangeline, Harry, and Annie Rosalea (standing) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Ella Baker Painting | Zinn Education Project


Medgar Evers

Harriette and Harry T. Moore

Amzie Moore

Ella Baker

Fannie Lou Hamer

Septima Clark

Rev. George Lee

Vernon and Ellie Dahmer

Winson Hudson

Digital Collections and Other Websites

SNCC Digital Gateway

Freedom Lifted

Hearing Youth Voices: Schools That Work For Us

Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, 1964 | Zinn Education Project

This Day in History

Aug. 22, 1964: Sharecroppers Demand Delivery of Full Suffrage in the United States

March 24, 1966: Supreme Court Officially Abolishes Last Vestige of Poll Taxes

More This Day in History posts

​Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was learned

Responses to the question: What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today and what may you do with what you learned?

De-emphasize heroism in the teaching of the so-called civil rights movement.

It was so helpful to be reminded of the many people, not just the bold-faced names, who worked tirelessly — those who sacrificed their time, their positions, and in some cases, their lives.

Leaders are those who develop leadership in others.

Dr. Payne — “…greatest price for change, paid for by poorest people…”

Know your real history.

Knowing the lives of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. It’s on us now.

Power of organizing amongst ordinary people. What I will focus on is the idea that every student has the potential to lead their peers in action. What I must do as a facilitator is identify and reflect back to them their concerns, display to them the risk and ask them the question, allowing for time to consider, do they want to change things.

Telling the story of the individual that is part of the collective. Piecing those stories together.

I appreciated hearing about individual people. I will use this information with my students.

In teaching resistance, we must also teach about those who did not and even those who did not at a certain time, but did later. . .

Validating my memories of the voting rights movement in Alabama in 1965 — and why SNCC was so revolutionary at the time and long term. The unyielding commitment of people who took huge risks to make the world we have today.

Shifting the master narrative to one focused on a more nuanced understanding if a resistance centered narrative.

There are too many to name. But the master narrative piece was a good reminder. I also need to listen to the whole thing again. . . His slides were so illustrative. Centering resistance and the price paid w/o centering the perpetrators and staying steeped in the pain. Being reminded of the changes happening already in the 40s.

The fallacy of waiting for a leader to move the movement forward — the idea that it was often the most vulnerable who did the heavy lifting in the movement

So much stuck with me! I’m continually thinking about those people with some degree of independence who were freer to participate in the movement and the implications that idea has for my discussions with my students. I’m still reflecting on the idea of what makes a hero and how I can work with my students to define and identify their own heroes (or perhaps recognize that the concept of the hero may always be misleading)? I’m also thinking about Dr. Payne’s suggestion that we should teach both the history of resistance and the history of the people who opted out. So many powerful ideas!

Remember participants as well as those who chose not to participate. Don’t focus on the heroic few.

To critically look at the master narrative and who we designate to be heroes.

The work of the movement in the 1940s, prior to Brown, and how massive the movement was before the crackdown by the authorities. . . and that middle-aged women were much more involved than middle-aged men. . . these and other tidbits Dr. Payne shared helped challenge master narratives.

The detailed naming of those whose names don’t make the history books. Also the idea of making leaders not just being a leader.

Judy Richardson was in my breakout room and listening and learning from her was amazing. Love hearing from Dr. Payne. Loved the chatbox. Just EVERYTHING!

For me, the most mind-blowing piece tonight was the idea to reflect on what was not learned in the 60s, and to remain focused on the democratic process.

I was reminded about the importance of women and youth in the movement and learned about particular individuals I didn’t know about. I also learned about the differences in what was happening in the 1940s through Brown and the later 1950s/1960s. This year, I increased the time spent on voting rights in my U.S. government class and used some the resources I found on the Zinn Education Project site. I will incorporate more stories of individuals and organizations who fought and continue to fight for the right to vote.

The story about Vernon Dahmer rocked me — I keep thinking about my economic independence and hope to use it to “stick my neck out” in meaningful ways. I like the myriad ways Vernon supported the struggle: starts the youth league, feeds the SNCC volunteers, loans his vehicles, offers publicly to help with poll tax. In my personal life, I’m taking this to heart.

In my professional role as a teacher in a new school, I am dedicated to teaching this material in my classes. I want to gather up a lot of the people for a mixer, like Septima Clark, who teach literacy and use literacy to make a more just world… into a kick off for a research project in the class I was assigned to this semester: “Social Justice in Literature”.

The importance of telling our own local history.

That Black voter registration increased between 1945 and 1954 and it was the massive resistance to Brown that resulted in a crackdown on registration. Want to work this data into my lessons.

Everything Charles said! Particularly, that it’s as important to teach about those who were not part of the Movement as those who were — and those who once weren’t and then joined the Movement.

The story of Rosa Parks participating in a mass meeting connected to so many other events/issues going on just four days before she refused to move from her seat on the bus. We need to include that web of relationships and events in a full, not distorted, portrayal and teaching of the life of Rosa Parks.

I gained a more nuanced understanding of the interaction of World War II veterans’ return with the increased demand for voting rights in the South. And I also began to grasp how Brown vs. Board fueled white rage, which then led to more egregious voting suppression activity.

It made me think about the power of including specific activists’ stories in my curriculum and stressing that these people were ordinary people.

The importance of teaching the long history and numerous people who contributed to the Black Freedom struggle. It’s not just about a small number of famous heroes!

Payne discussed many activists that I didn’t know about before — couldn’t take notes fast enough — I want to watch the recording of this class! Inspirational to have SNCC members with us tonight.

Discussion about the civil rights movement as a narrow term instead of seeing the movement in broader terms and impacts; also the nuances about those paying the greatest price of voter suppression were the most vulnerable and poor (e.g., their jobs and families being threatened).

The most important thing I learned was the statement from Ms. Judy Richardson about Ms. Ella Baker; ” we were taught that we were not the leaders. We were building local leadership that would survive even our deaths.” That quote will inform my future work. We are developing the next generation of leaders who will carry on after we pass from this existence.

The importance of, while teaching students about civil rights heroes, also guiding them to think critically about the concept of heroes.

Pessimism is cowardice! Dr. Payne is a breath of fresh air in anxious times.

The format

Cierra is a great facilitator, allowing for pauses, which allowed for us to think and appreciate the great nuggets that Charles Payne was offering up

This is the third session I’ve participated in and was the best. Perhaps the one-on-one chemistry of Charles Payne and Cierra Kaler-Jones. Glad to see a high school student in our group.

Loved the opportunity to be in breakouts after the initial discussion/presentation.

Breakout rooms always up the energy, the vulnerability, the connections, the humanity. Thank you.

I enjoyed the invitation to share who we are. Enjoyed the presentation and then the breakout.

I think you are on the mark. Everyone wants more time but sometimes energy begins to wane.

Really liked the mix in the breakout rooms. I would have been happy to have even more time for teaching by Dr. Payne.

I loved my breakout room. I actually wished we had an extra 3 min or so. Mia was a wonderful facilitator.

Today was great! Loved everything, even though the stories were painful as well as inspiring and important to hear.

Loved the breakout group, as always — they energize me. I would have loved to hear Dr. Payne speak even more, but I understand it is an evening session for some and some might be tired after work for a longer session. I loved hearing Dr. Payne tell the stories about people while looking at their photos. Wonderful.

The format was helpful as always! I’m just glad these sessions are back!

The presentation and the breakout conversation, as always, with the Zinn series, are great!

The overall format was great. Good to have facilitators in small groups. I was a little sorry our group lost track of the “what surprised us” angle, even though we talked about some interesting stuff re: hierarchical and everyday leadership models.

Excellent organization (speaker, breakouts, and summary). Adequate time for each segment.

I loved it when we got to all say “thank you” to Mr. Payne.

Additional comments

I love hearing others’ thoughts and experiences in the small breakout rooms!

Thank you! I missed the series in the spring, and so glad that these courses are being offered again. Also great to see friends and co-conspirators!

Thank you very much. Our facilitator was very good with a small group of people.

Thanks as always, the ripples from these classes are ongoing.

I will be looking for Dr. Payne’s books. I’ve learned so much to learn to do more.

Thank you so much for continuing these wonderful nodes of community, education, and resistance!

In my breakout group, initially, people talked about how they teach “unsung heroes” in their classes, but with a little nudge to reflect more on what Dr. Payne said in the session, there was a shift to brainstorming how to incorporate more stories for people who are not as commonly taught in the Freedom Struggle as, say, Dr. King. We talked about Bill’s lesson on the Radical Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, the SNCC Digital Gateway, and the time limit was pretty ideal for this go around!

Dr. Payne made us think of our history in different ways. Outstanding.

Thank you for filling up this teacher with information not found in the textbooks — Dr. Payne fed my teacher soul.


Charles M. Payne is the Henry Rutgers Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Rutgers University Newark. His research and teaching interests include urban education and school reform, social inequality, social change and modern African American history, particularly the Black Freedom Struggle. His books include a co-edited anthology, Teach Freedom: The African American Tradition of Education For Liberation and I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.

Cierra Kaler-Jones is the Education Anew Fellow at Teaching for Change through the Communities for Just Schools Fund. She is also a Ph.D. student in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work examines how Black girls use arts-based practices (such as movement and music) as forms of expression, resistance, and identity development.

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