Shortly after it was first established in 1963 as a left-leaning think tank directed by two former Kennedy administration staffers, Marcus Raskin and Richard Barnet, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) became a hub for civil rights activists, including lead organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). IPS Fellow Robert Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, a massive voter registration drive conducted mostly by white college students recruited from the North in partnership with black volunteers from the South. The summer project also generated membership in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which would soon send shock waves through the Democratic Party by demanding to be seated at the party's national convention in Atlantic City.
Frank Smith, a SNCC organizer who would eventually be elected to the DC Council, credits IPS with providing essential insider knowledge of Capitol Hill and strategic support for the Freedom Party, which brought national attention to black disenfranchisement in the South. Smith first became affiliated with IPS during Freedom Summer. In 1966, the organization helped him bring 90 sharecroppers from Mississippi for a five-day camp-in across from the White House. Many had been kicked off rented land for registering to vote or for striking for better pay. They demanded that War on Poverty funds be provided to the groups helping them and other sharecroppers survive.
Over the next decade, IPS facilitated a network of intellectuals, activists, and policymakers focused on advancing black civil rights, working for women's liberation, and ending the Vietnam War. IPS also hosted political education seminars, giving local public housing tenants and welfare right advocates the opportunity to meet with grassroots activists from other parts of the country. Dick Gregory visited in 1967 during his campaign as a write-in candidate for US president. IPS "created synergy, intellectual engagement, and was productive," recalled Smith, who worked alongside fellow SNCC veteran Ivanhoe Donaldson to advise newly elected black mayors throughout the country while at the same time building black political power in DC, especially after the city regained home rule in 1974.
Other IPS fellows and staff included SNCC organizers Courtland Cox, Charles Sherrod, and John Wilson, who would later chair the DC Council; Tony Gittens, a co-founder of the Drum and Spear Bookstore; Topper Carew, who created the New Thing Art and Architecture Center; and Roger Wilkins, who spent a decade at IPS beginning in 1982. Wilkins, the nephew of longtime NAACP director Roy Wilkins, helped organize the Free South Africa Movement during his tenure as a senior fellow at IPS.
From 1968 until 1978, IPS was located in a former townhouse at 1520 New Hampshire Avenue in Dupont Circle, now the Embassy of Jamaica. In 1978, the organization moved to R Street; it is currently located at 1301 Connecticut Avenue NW.