What factors led to tensions between the SNCC and SCLC, and criticism of Dr. King by SNCC members?

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During the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, two major groups emerged: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The groups initially cooperated and shared goals, leadership, and strategies. However, the SNCC and the SCLC eventually split, polarizing civil rights activists and allies.

The major differences between the two groups were structural and ideological. SNCC was, as its name implies, directed at reaching and empowering younger black people. In fact, Ella Baker, who served as the director of the SCLC, set up the SNCC’s first meetings. She was concerned that her organization was out of touch with youth and was failing to draw in young black people who might be interested in joining the civil rights movement.

The SNCC marched in coordination with Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC. However, the group quickly took issue with the SCLC’s methodology of involving themselves in a town with which it might not be familiar, attempting to create public awareness of its campaign, and then moving onto the next place if their goals were not met quickly enough. The SCLS's strategies are part and parcel of an activist group trying to create a mass movement. The SNCC, on the other hand, focused on grassroots political organizing. This means building the movement from the ground up, not using the more flashpoint activism favored by the SCLC.

Tensions between the SNCC and the SCLC heightened after three SNCC members were killed in Mississippi by white nationalists during the famous Freedom Summer in 1964. Later that year, King and the SCLC compromised with Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention, earning the ire of aggrieved SNCC organizers. This illustrates another point of contention between the SCLC, which worked within the majority-white, historically racist framework of American politics and the SNCC, which worked to dismantle this framework through protest and activism.

The SCLC, in other words, favored reform. The SNCC saw itself as more revolutionary. The SNCC became and remains to be seen as the more radical arm of the civil rights movement, with leader Stokely Carmichael coining the term Black Power and justifying the use of violence as a part of the movement. The SNCC disbanded in the early 1970s with the arrest of Carmichael’s predecessor on charges to incite riot. The SCLC, on the other hand, is headquartered in Atlanta and still operates today.

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