Roots of Feminism in the Redemptive Community
A Remembrance of SNCC and the Movement
Casey Hayden
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

I had to get a book to find out what "feminism" meant. So I went and bought this book of essays called What Is Feminism? In the last essay I read, the author said that feminists don't know anymore, either. So I figured I was on the cutting edge again.

What I'm going to talk about is the roots of feminism in the redemptive community. I came to feminism raised by a single-parent mother, where I learned what it meant to be poor and matriarchal. I came through the YWCA at the national level, where I learned that roles of men and women were being redefined, and I came through a heavy Christian existentialist background and a college education.

In April of 1960, Connie Curry and Ella Baker were the first advisors to SNCC. Two women, one white, one black, were our first advisors. Connie got invited to be an advisor because she paid the phone bill. Julian would bring her the phone bill and she would pay it out of her grant money for a whole other project. She came through Austin, Texas, and she recruited me, telling me about the sit-ins, and we sat in this cafe and cried, and little did we know I'd be sitting up here crying now. But I'll be fine.

The sit-ins happened in Austin, and because I was living in the only integrated housing on campus I got involved. And what I got involved in is what Diane Nash described, and I want to run through that again. She said that what we were into at that time was the redemptive community, that we were into healing and reconciling. We were not into gaining power. We felt that what we were doing was more efficient than violence in the struggle for liberation and would achieve liberation for all people more rapidly.

She talked about the transition from Gandhi to Lawson to us. Dr. King, of course, was part of this also. I feel that in claiming our victories, we need to claim the great influx of Eastern thinking into this country, which is often associated with hippies and drugs. The sit-in movement is where I first met that thinking, the path I followed. Many people have been political; I have not been political, my path has been a spiritual path and this is where I hit it.

She talked about truth and love. She talked about everything being a series of means; it's not really ends and means, it's always means. She talked about how the enemy is never personal, that the systems and the attitudes of racism, sexism, and so on are the enemy. She said oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed and the role of the oppressed is to withdraw cooperation. Now this was not Western nor was it masculine; it was basically Eastern. It was basically, in my opinion, feminine; it had to do with where you put your weight. If you didn't have much force you had to figure out how to throw yourself around to catch the other guy off base. You couldn't confront it directly, not while you're still creating mass — which is what we did in Mississippi, we created mass. But at first, you couldn't do that, you had to do this other kind of thing.

I got onto the SNCC staff in the process of getting involved in activity based on these very radical notions of what one was going to do with one's life — transcendent, if you will. You kind of got a new self created. A lot of the old self-definitions fell away; they weren't appropriate anymore. You really stopped thinking about yourself in terms of the limitations of sex or class or race. What you were doing was being a participant with other people in the creation of something, of a movement — there's no other word for it — of a movement, based on these kinds of notions.

There we were doing this. Then we started doing it full time. We created a profession for ourselves. We actually created a profession and it had a name — "organizer." We funded it, and here we were having dropped all these notions of who we were, which were the ways society would have defined us. To be an organizer was very asexual — we were a community of organizers. Whatever you could do, you'd do it. There really weren't any limits. So there we were doing this, and we didn't have any definition then in terms of the general culture. What we had was each other, because we could see ourselves in this new way. That's how I saw the people I worked with. I saw them as my tribe, my family. We lived communally. We lived off the same money. There was no hierarchy in the distribution of that money. We all got a little bit of it.

When I first came to the SNCC conference in the fall of 1960, the three people who were doing the organizing work for that conference were women. It was Connie Curry, Ella Baker, and Jane Stembridge. Jane was another white southerner who Ella had recruited to come be executive secretary for SNCC.

Ella, I think, was the main person responsible for the nonviolent ethic, the essence of what we were doing. Even though later a lot of things changed, that place we came from, to me, was always the essence. Our style was how we nurtured that. Because if you're not being seen anywhere, if there's no mirror for you, you've got to see yourself in your family or in your community and that's what we were to each other. I think that's what people mean when they talk about the style of SNCC, the way we were to each other. Every member of the family was equally valued, just like a mother would value all her children. We even had to redefine time. Time was how long it took us, for everybody, to be able to get into it. When everybody was into it, then we could go do something. Program wasn't an external hierarchical thing. We really remolded what time meant.

Leadership: I thought of it as soft essence but hard politics. Take the idea of turning up leadership. Ella had been through so much and she had seen so many sell-outs that she knew that as soon as somebody got power and authority they were going to rise up into another class. And once they were in that other class and in a certain relation to power, they would no longer be able to represent the interests of the class they came from and they'd be lost. Hey, it happens. We've seen it happen. But it was also that this was the way we had to view each other, because if we didn't view each other that way, we didn't have the sustenance to keep functioning. We couldn't go on if we didn't give everybody the space to talk and get to where we were all comfortable with what we were going to do. We couldn't ask each other to risk our lives.

That was very nurturing, that wasn't patriarchal, wasn't masculine, particularly. It was really new, very nurturing, very loving, and it really was the beloved community. My sense of what we were doing is that we were just trying to bring more and more people into it. And to me — and I was on one wing of this thing, I know I was sort of out in left field — but to me, what we did was a technique to get everybody into our community where we were living in the communal, egalitarian, sexually equal way, this new way. And what I wanted was for everybody to be in there with us, just expand the whole thing. Then we'd have a new society.

I read Nadine Gordimer recently, and she says that the reformer is always practical but that the initial impetus is always utopian. I think we were utopian, and maybe for that reason we couldn't go on beyond where utopia meant something. When it got to reformist politics, maybe that's where we floundered.

The other thing about that was the sense of a clan, so that you could distrust everybody else. Particularly with the press this was very effective; it was very important not to believe the press. We created our own myth or our own image. You didn't want to believe what you saw in the news; those of us who were there will never believe what we see in the news. We know the distance between the mass media and the truth. We had to have what we had together or we couldn't have had this attitude we had toward the press, toward what we were getting fed back from the general culture.

This was all going along and we were figuring out what to do, functioning in that mode, and we did the Mississippi Summer, and then after the summer we couldn't figure out what to do. The way I think of it is there were so many things going on that we couldn't weave anymore; there were so many threads in there that it was tangled up. There was so much happening, everything was knotted up.

We all presented these papers. Now, I don't remember doing this Waveland paper. I mean, I did it, but to tell you the truth, I don't remember it. I was really nervous about its reception. That I remember. The rest of it I don't really remember. I remember it was presented and that I was involved in it.

I remember thinking it was not the right issue for that time. The issue at that time was what we were going to do next. We didn't know what to do next. We'd lost the convention challenge. We had all these new people down. The Atlanta office had incredibly ponderous problems to handle caused by the expansion. The cash flow was all chaotic. The issue to me was what are we going to do, because what I'd been doing was over. I had been working on the challenge for the MFDP. I didn't know what to do next. There was a big debate about what to talk about; should we talk about what to do or should we talk about how to structure ourselves to figure out what to do? The people who wanted to talk about what to do didn't want to talk about how to structure ourselves to figure out what to do. So nobody was talking except [James] Forman, who was saying, "We got to figure out how to structure ourselves to figure out what to do." There was hostility. And all these papers.

I'm telling this so you can see that between me and Mary [King], you history scholars, how difficult it is to discern historical truth. Those of us who were there can't get it straight. Don't ever believe what you read in the history books. At best it's a pale approximation.

I felt sorry for Forman and I tried to talk about how we should structure ourselves. I remember I was trying to talk about how we worked in Mississippi where we didn't have a hierarchy, to explain that what we had were work groups. We would have this group that would talk about this, and then that group would talk about this, and we would do it. I had this idea that we could send people to a coordinating group to tell each other what we were doing. Roughly, that was my idea of structure. I also thought that we shouldn't get money, the money should be sent to communities. The communities should fund the organizers. That failed, and was badly spoken of later, I hear.

It was said white people should work with white people and black people should work with black people, and if we could just get that straightened out and get some of these volunteers out of here and get structured, everything would be okay. So I thought, "Well, this is the new line." Off I went to Chicago to work with my people. I got to Chicago to organize a women's welfare recipients union with Appalachian women. It was an SDS project. I was on loan from SNCC to SDS to do this experimental work with white people in the summer of 1965. The group that I went to join was organizing street kids, white street kids, and I was organizing this welfare recipients union. Little did we know what the connection was between the street kids and the welfare recipient women, many of whom were involved with the street kids. It was very complicated.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I wasn't going to commit myself to the five or ten years it was going to take to make a dent, that we didn't have a clear strategy, and that I was burnt out. So I went to the West Coast and East Coast and traveled around for a few months and ended up in Virginia with Mary. And at that point it was clear that in this knottedness, we had lost our ability to be nurturing (what I consider radically feminine), the way we had learned to be to keep each other upheld. We'd lost it. Maybe we should have broken into small groups. It was very lonely. We didn't. Nobody knew what to do, and I certainly didn't know what to do. There were a lot of rumors. So I said we should write something. Now is the time to write.

That memorandum, which I do remember writing and which I will take responsibility for, and which I reread today — and it's a very good piece of writing and I feel good about it, if I do say so myself — was really directed at the notion that it was important to talk about what was important. That it was important to find our issues and talk about them with each other. The sense that we needed to do more work with the women in our community before we tried to go out and organize white women was part of that. To some extent it was strategic, but there was also a sense that it was very important — and I think this is said in the memo — if we could find our own integrity, if we could speak to each other about truth and thereby establish our integrity, we could keep working, and that was the issue to me. It was, how are we going to keep working? What is to be done now? What can we do now? Really that was where I was coming from, more than organizing women, or raising the issue of women. It was a technique to keep the community intact.

I know this sounds off-beat and I'm not sure many people can follow it, but the SNCC people will follow what I'm saying, and that is what matters to me.

Copyright © Casey Hayden. 1988

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)