Hayden’s approach to organizing was modeled on the ideas of Ella Baker. Hayden shared Baker’s commitment to interracialism, as well as her understanding of the “moral implications” of segregation as they effected all of the "Human Race." Hayden's entry into the freedom movement came via the sit ins, and she believed equally in the principles of nonviolence and the potential of the redemptive community. As she explained to a newspaper reporter in 1962, "the simple action of sitting down, or staying away from a store, or marching or picketing could change a rigid structure of society."
In August of 1960, Hayden eloquently defended those commitments at the National Student Association annual conference, where she gave a speech in support of the southern sit-ins. Combining Thoreau’s moral imperative of civil disobedience with an existentialist approach to addressing the ethical question at hand, Hayden spoke with such stirring affect that she brought some in the crowd to tears, received a standing ovation, and was widely credited with persuading the delegates to endorse the sit-ins.
In addition to seeing involvement in the freedom movement as an ethical action, Hayden was also devoted to Baker’s notion of group-centered leadership and her belief that those people most affected by a decision should have the greatest voice. When Hayden came on staff with SNCC in the fall of 1963, she became a vocal proponent of grassroots leadership. Minutes from a December 1963 meeting show “Casey Hayden stated that the staff was supposed to service the base.” As as she developed Northern allies into the official “friends of SNCC, she emphasized the need to “to involve Negroes in the support groups.” This recommendation is consistent with that made by Ruby Doris Robinson at that same meeting, that “some field situations [are] overloaded with white workers … and we are not making a real effort to recruit Negroes.”
Hayden saw her role as a white woman organizing in the south as a very specific one. An article in the New York Times shortly before the start of Freedom Summer explained her views.
Mrs. Sandra Hayden… conceded that white girls would find their task more difficult than would boys. Only a few girls will take part in registration activities. Most have been assigned to “freedom schools,” community centers or to office work in the larger cities. The major problem encountered by white women, Mrs. Hayden said, “is the psychological strain of knowing that you endanger the people you are around.”
While Hayden was willing to put her body on the line, and did so, as a native to the segregated South, she was well aware that white women’s presence brought danger to others in the movement, something she was unwilling to risk.
As debates over structure emerged in SNCC in the fall of 1964, Hayden continued to advocate for a decentralized, bottom up organization. In a “Memorandum on Structure," written for the same 1964 SNCC staff retreat as the better known position paper on women, Hayden proposed a “coordinating committee” comprised of “staff and these people invited by staff” to function as the “basic decision-making body” for SNCC.
By 1965 these views placed Hayden in one faction of an increasingly divided SNCC, and one that did not align completely along racial lines. At a April 1965 SNCC executive committee retreat, Hayden was labeled a “floater,” a derisive term for staff members who were viewed as too independent from the leadership structure. At that same meeting, Stokely Carmichael defended Hayden in particular, “Casey worked. There must be some reason for her present confusion” but he also asked “why do we call people floaters who want to work and have no jobs assigned to them.” Meeting minutes show that both Ruby Doris Robinson and Muriel Tillinghast also supported Hayden, who had consulted them about her plans to organize poor whites.
In the fall of 1965, Hayden attended her last meetings for SNCC. She continued to support decentralized leadership. She was "Happy over suggestion of committee, SNCC can work in smaller group better. Suggestion: Working in committees in future meetings" However, minutes from another staff meeting that fall also reveal Hayden “hadn't spoken because no one would have listened,” a experience that must have been painful. Furthermore, notes also reflect that when Hayden challenged SNCC chairman Jim Forman about the “imbalance of power in SNCC” specifically that in order for it to be “radically democratic” he needed to step down, he responded with a statement about the movement needing to be “controlled, dominated, and led by black people.” Advocacy for the older approach become tangled up with the emergence of black power.