The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Geospatial Intelligence, and Civil Rights

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project will examine how Civil Rights Movement leaders and workers used geospatial data and techniques to calculate, map, and analyze the spatial and social dimensions of segregation and discrimination in the US South during the 1960s freedom struggle. At the center of this geospatial labor was the Student-NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which generated a series of detailed reports and other products that informed civil rights projects but which have been largely neglected by social scientists. From their field-based operations in Deep Southern small towns and rural areas, SNCC workers strategically compiled, disseminated and interpreted spatial and social information for the purposes of documenting and challenging the normative power of white supremacy and racial inequality. Understanding how Civil Rights organizations engaged in this 'Geospatial Intelligence' (GI) advances an understanding of the potential of geographical data collection, application, and analysis to be utilized for the purposes of non-elite activism and social change. This research project contributes to Geographic knowledge and has the potential to impact Geographic curriculum and public thought through its plan of publication and innovative outreach. Specifically, the investigators will distribute research findings to a broad collection of community actors, including through the Tennessee Geographic Alliance and its partners within the state alliance movement and the National Council for Social Studies. They will create education materials for both the broader public and to facilitate classroom teaching and learning about the role of space and place in challenging segregation and discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, findings of the research will be disseminated via the University of Tennessee 'Pipeline Program', which offers an opportunity to engage with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and to recruit minority students for further graduate education.

This research project relies on archival work at several Civil Rights related collections across the United States as well as a series of open-ended interviews with surviving members of SNCC familiar with the generation and implementation of geospatial data gathering and analysis techniques. Critical race theory and methodology and discourse analysis will be used to investigate the following questions: 1) How and in what ways and political contexts did civil rights workers employ mapping and geographical data collection and analysis strategies to identify patterns of racial inequality and targets for protest? 2) How did Civil Rights workers use or operationalize their Geospatial Intelligence methods and analytical products to plan and execute major civil rights projects and how do those products expand our definition and understanding of Black Geographies? 3) How do everyday forms of Geospatial Intelligence used by Civil Rights workers problematize and expand contemporary understandings of GI that strongly associate Geospatial Intelligence with defense and national security concerns? While the focal point of academic work for over a decade, GI-related research confines the craft to military-industrial applications. SNCC's use of geographical data and GI practice expands this definition and context as well as understanding of the inner workings of African American politics and the value of a Black Geographies perspective within a study of the Civil Rights Movement.

Effective start/end date4/15/179/30/23


  • National Science Foundation: $373,925.00


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