Faith Holsaert 2012

Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.

[Following tenants' rights and education organizing while in high school, Faith Holsaert was arrested in a sit-in on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in December 1961. Dropping out of her sophomore year of college, in 1962-1963 in SNCC's Southwest Georgia Project she registered voters and participated in direct action resulting in an arrest in Albany, Georgia and nearby Terrell County. Returning to Barnard College in NYC, she worked in the New York SNCC office from 1963 to 1966.]

I was in New York when I first met SNCC people. I was in high school and I was connected with something called the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the 1950's which promoted dialogue across religious lines. Some people from the sit-ins came and spoke to the leadership camps. It must have been the summer of 1961. So we were a New York group of activists that were involved in either high school or college. We were doing tutoring and housing work, that kind of thing.

We had a pretty constant flow back and forth of activist people in the South. In the summer of 1962, Peggy Dammond who was part of my group in Southwest Georgia — actually a number of people that were connected with NCCJ participated in SNCC. Ivanhoe Donaldson who was a few years older than I was, Peggy, Doris Derby, and some other big name person who is escaping my mind at the moment. Anyway I stayed home when Peggy went south in the summer of 1962. When four churches were burned in Southwest Georgia, I took off. I was about to start my sophomore year at Barnard College I took off my sophomore year, and I basically worked registering voters, and doing direct action in Albany, Georgia and Terrell County which is a rural area outside Albany.

I should back up and say [that] around Christmas of 1961, during that break in college, I did go to [Cambridge] Maryland. Our sit-ins certainly helped add to the flame of what became the Cambridge Movement, which was a very important part of that time in history.

After that sit-in I went back to Barnard and finished my freshman year. Then at the end of the following summer, around September, I went south and worked in the Southwest Georgia project, which you may know was one of the few racially integrated grassroots projects in SNCC. Before 1964, it was considered too dangerous for all concerned to have white SNCC workers, especially white women, doing field work in Mississippi or Alabama. The Alabama project hadn't started yet.

Southwest Georgia, where I worked, was really a center, a really strong community-based movement. A lot of SNCC work was, but there was just a real passion among the people in Southwest Georgia. In some of the accounts you will read where Doctor King came and tried to negotiate a truce for the demonstrators. I suppose that for the people of Albany, Georgia, this is their movement. They weren't necessarily going to let Dr. King come and say that they should have a peaceful protest.

Partly I think as a result of these militance in the Southwest Georgia movement the federal government prosecuted nine members of the Albany Movement. They prosecuted nine people, the Albany Nine. One of them was actually an SNCC staff member, Joni Rabinowitz. What happened basically was they prosecuted the Albany movement and went full steam ahead with the big court case. The Albany Movement's leadership had been devoted totally to solving this case. They spent a lot of money doing it. The federal government backed off and that was partly a result of a legal strategy. But Albany, Georgia is not the only place where a local movement lost a lot of momentum because of charges being raised, that were either later dropped or defeated. I went to jail in late May or early June for marching downtown with people.

What circumstances or events in your past would have impacted your decision to join the Civil Rights Movement?

Good question. I grew up in Greenwich Village in New York, in a liberal to radical community. My parents were liberals. When I was four I started my preschool or nursery school. I had a music teacher that was African American, Charity Bailey. Little kids can get really obsessed about somebody, and I just talked about Charity night and day. When my parents went to the first PTA meetings they said "Oh, Faith is just so in love with you. She wishes you could come live with us." Charity said "Well I have been trying to get an apartment in Greenwich Village and nobody will rent to me. Do you have room?" So from the time I was probably five until I was sixteen or seventeen I was a part of an interracial household or biracial. My mother was Jewish and my father was not. I think in the course of my childhood, although my mother was not religiously observant, I definitely had a sense that fighting for justice was part of the Jewish tradition.

Then I went to a place that was called the "Little Red Schoolhouse," where I went to school from the time I was really young. It was a very progressive place. In those days there really was no curriculum, but when I was ten we studied — well my teacher called it Negro history — now we would call it Black or African American history. So when I was ten I learned about slavery.

For a white child in this country, I was very well grounded, and living with Charity really changed my life. I mean New York is a liberal place and the [Greenwich] Village is too. We actually had eggs thrown at our steps leading into our apartment building and stuff was written on our sidewalk. Kids would sometimes accost my sister and I on the street. It was just different from the childhoods of a lot of other people.

[The comments above refer to racist and anti-"red" hostility in the 1950s when inter-racial couples and people favoring integration and other socially-progressive causes were sometimes suspected or accused of being communists.]

In 1949 and 1950, Charity, who taught elementary school music using folk music, had a sabbatical and we went to Haiti for a year where she studied Haitian folk music. So in addition to everything else my sister, who was a couple of years younger, and I, who was six or seven years old at the time, lived in one of the few Black-led nations in the world, with a Black-led government, as opposed to a colonial one. I think all of that contributed too.

Then the later experiences in high school, with the National Council of Christians and Jews, contributed to my being ready when the time came. I am very lucky. I had the great privilege of being able to live in the Deep South, especially that early. I was there from 1962 to 1963, almost two years before the big 1964 summer project [in Mississippi]. Being in the South gave me the best education I ever received, just the people I met, and the things I learned

Were you afraid to lose something because of your protesting? Like your family, life, or job?

Well the jobs that I had were summer jobs, and the economy was good enough that I wasn't really afraid about finding work. My family was very supportive, but they were also really scared for me. People had been beaten up in Southwest Georgia. One of the local leaders who was eight months pregnant when she was demonstrating had been kicked to the ground by the police and lost her baby.

Wow, that is terrible!

Yes it was. There was at least one death towards the end of my stay. It wasn't exactly movement related. A young woman who was Black was raped by a man who drove a bread truck and died as a consequence. So, it was very frightening.

In the long run, I think in the mid to late 60's SNCC really was labeled a militant organization. Being called a "militant" organization in 1963, '64, and '65, had the same intended effect as the government calling people "terrorists" today. The FBI definitely was attempting to smear us. I heard that the FBI had asked questions various places that I have been. I am not aware of my ever having lost a job because of that, but I have friends that did. The whole fear of communists was still pretty strong in the mid-sixties, and that's what they would imply by calling us militants, that we were communists. That is a whole other story, how progressive people could be manipulated and fearful about that.

I did actually catch hepatitis in association with my stay in jail in Southwest Georgia in the spring, which had pretty serious long term effects. They didn't know as much about hepatitis in those days as they do now. I was also harassed by the police when I did go to jail that time. I was isolated in an office with a group of them and it was pretty frightening. They could have done anything to me, and as I remember, one of them stopped the others from pursuing things beyond a certain point.

Would you say that was the scariest thing that ever happened to you or was there something worse?

It is hard to say, I was really frightened a lot that year. Although nothing ever happened, some of the nighttime drives were probably the scariest to me.

Actually, once in the spring after I had gone to jail in about mid to late June, local police were going around and just picking up movement people off the street in Albany. A few of us were still left, and we gathered in the SNCC office, which was just one and a half rooms really. It was nighttime, and the police were parked out front. Somebody who was a local person from Albany was with us, and she let us out the back door in the dark. This was the scariest thing thinking back to it. We went under fences and through people's gardens. There were alleys in the blocks in Albany, Georgia. The police knew we were out there, they just couldn't find us. They were driving around the block basically through the alleys, and they were not very far from us. We had to make our way about halfway down the block which took a long time. At one point there were dogs running and we didn't know if they were the police dogs, but they must not have been because they didn't bark at us. That was a really scary night, but we did get where we were going. Of course we didn't have cell phones, but if we had had cell phones we could have called ahead to where we were trying to get to. We did get to someone's house and went upstairs so the police didn't see us. Eventually church members came and carried us out by car. We took refuge at churches for about a week.

How big of a role would you say women played in the Civil Rights movement?

Women were active throughout. There are cases of women who were project directors, and certainly some of our leaders like Ella Baker were women. My experiences in Southwest Georgia are that they were really the backbone. Carolyn Daniels was the local contact in Terrell County. Her son was also active, but Roy was in high school then. Roy eventually had to leave so Carolyn was the backbone there. There was a president who was a man and several other people. The person who ran the office, and the person who really had her finger on everything was the movement treasurer named Goldie Jackson who had been fired by Albany State.

I don't know if you know the music of the group "Sweet Honey in the Rock" but Bernice Johnson who founded that group grew up in Albany and many of the song leaders of the movement were women. The project director had me do all sorts of work. I grew up in New York City so I didn't know how to drive but he really wanted me to learn to drive because he said that all in the movement should be able to drive. There couldn't have been an Albany movement without women. If you look at the photos of people going to jail, or the photos of people singing and in mass meetings in Albany and elsewhere, or the photos of people on the bridge, women's faces are everywhere.

Were there other leaders you associated with during the Civil Rights Movement? Please tell us about their personalities and whether or not they were effective.

The person who ended up leading the Cambridge movement which was a very participatory movement (so her style was to consult people) was Gloria Richardson. She was a national leader, and believed very much in grassroots leadership and finding out what people wanted before going ahead. She wasn't an authoritative and top down kind of leader. She actually became involved because her teenage daughters were involved. She later moved to New York and continued. She became friends with Minister Malcolm X who was definitely a national figure. You should read Hands on the Freedom Plow. So Gloria Richardson in Cambridge was certainly important and I did know her personally.

Then in Southwest Georgia, Carolyn Daniels was a local person that grew up in Terrell County. SNCC couldn't have done the work they did there without her because she knew everybody. We went to church with her. She was a hairdresser. It was a small county, and everybody knew everybody, but she was just one of those people in the community who everybody spoke to and looked up to. She was really important and very feisty. There was a bomb that was thrown into her house. It's actually a funny story. She was alone in the house, and she heard people outside, so she got under her bed because she was afraid they were going to shoot into the house. She heard something roll under the bed but nothing happened so eventually she crawled out and went to the neighbors. She had cut her foot on something so they took her to the doctor and when she came back, her house had blown up. What she had heard under the bed was the bomb. It just hadn't gone off for some reason at first. Then there's Carolyn, who is certainly just an incredible and wise person who again had known everybody in the community. I think this is probably true of the men as well as the women in the southern struggle, but the women knew everybody. They walked all the streets, and people knew them.

One of the unacknowledged leaders in Southwest Georgia in Albany was Corinne Watkins who was the Avon lady. Whenever we would go to jail, Miss Corinne would bring us toiletries. Everybody I'm talking about is African American because there was no communication back and forth [betwee] white and Black in terms of the movement. Black women worked in white homes but there was no communication. Larry Rubin, who was also Jewish, tried to go to the Jewish Temple, but they wouldn't let him in because he was a "Freedom Rider." That's what we were called. People tried to integrate the white church, and there was a big no go for that. Everything was racially divided at that point.

Prathia Hall became a very early example of a women who was to become a Baptist minister. There's a whole generation of women Baptist ministers who saw Prathia as their inspiration. She was in Southwest Georgia with me and actually preached on the first anniversary of the Albany Movements. She preached on the same program as Doctor King. I was not witness to this, but many people who were there say that when the four churches burned in Southwest Georgia, Dr. King did come south and was praying at the side of the churches and Prathia spoke and the text that she used was "I Have A Dream." There are people who say that her words were a basis for Dr. King's later speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

How did the assassination of Martin Luther King impact the Movement?

Well, I had left SNCC and was living in New Mexico when he was killed. I think at that point in history that so many terrible things had happened that it just seemed like one more terrible thing. Malcolm X was assassinated, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and then the court cases. In some movement communities there was an accumulation of terror by the time he died. It was an awful thing but it was one of many awful things and I think for some people it just confirmed a sense of despair.

Did you experience the split in some Civil Rights Movement around 1966?

I was not still there, but I was still close to people who were there. I was in New York in '66. I went to work in the SNCC office while I went to school in New York. I worked through the summer of 1965, and actually some into '66. I felt that if I had been Black I would have felt the same way. Some white people express the feeling that they had somehow been badly treated. I didn't feel that. The war in Vietnam was heating up. There was a sense for me of shattered hope that was not because of split but because the government had not come through supporting the needs of the change and that went way back. I mean John Kennedy chooses to be gone the day of the March on Washington in 1963, and he must have known his brother was prosecuting people in Southwest Georgia.

How did you feel about the president at that time regarding his Civil Rights action?

Well, I think what I just said pretty much sums it up. They chose not only to be not supportive but in fact, I think that because I was situated in Albany, Georgia, I felt that they had taken on an active role in prosecuting the Albany Nine of the Albany Movement.

What were the gains and benefits for Blacks and society in general?

People have written books on that so it's hard to say in a couple minutes. With the changes in federal voting rights laws, there was an end to legal apartheid as an effect. Not only did store owners not want Black people in their stores, but there was also a law to back them up. The state police would back them up. There was an end to state sanctioned separation. I think what remains is that underlying racism, so that we still have terrible inequalities particularly economically. It seems to me that I read in the [New York] Times this morning that some restaurant owner, I forget where, was told he had to take down a white's only sign, and he is now fighting it in court.

What was it like to live like that everyday?

I was afraid alot, but it was also very exciting. I knew I was doing important work. I loved the people I worked with. I was young, so I was energetic. Now when I think about canvassing for voters in 100 degree temperature I can't imagine how I did that.

Are you still friends with any of the people that you met during the movements?

Yes. I have not only continued to be friends with several people in Southwest Georgia and others connected with SNCC because of working with Hands on the Freedom Plow which involved pieces written by 52 women who were in SNCC. It had taken 15 years to put that book together, which ignited my ties to many people. I had stayed close to some people who had never left Albany as well as some who did move on. And I'm particularly close with Martha Norman Noonan who was one of the co-editors of Hands on the Freedom Plow files.

What advice would you give our generation on racial relations today?

I think that for young white people it's really important for them to put themselves in positions with people from other backgrounds, whether it's participating in local movements or whatever. I happen to live in an area that has a lot going on in the African-American community. That's not for everybody, but putting oneself in a position where you can hear what other people's lives are like and attempting to act on what feels unjust. Or begin to create a community where two or three people might think this immigration law is just unfair and you make a commitment to find out what's the truth about what's going on in your community!

Try to do something about it. You have to start small. Although Occupy Wall Street and everything else happened really fast. I guess that's another lesson. Sometimes you just don't know what's going to set it off. The sit-ins in 1960 were not the first sit-in. The Freedom Rides in 1961 were not the first freedom rides. But they were the ones that ignited people and people were ready.

One of the things that I think is really important is not to think that the Civil Rights — the youth part of the civil rights movement — sprang up out of nowhere. It's really important to remember that we had mentors and some of us had meetings a year or two before anything really happened. Some of us grow up in families where we learned movement history so that when the real sit-in happened there were a core of young people who were primed and ready to go. Then there was an additional larger group of young people who just because of their passion took it up. I'm guessing that something quite similar happened with Occupy Wall Street. I went to one in New York quite briefly way at the beginning in September. I have been involved with other people.

How would your life be different if you weren't involved in the movement?

I don't know really. I'm partly defined by that. I think that something else would have come along. I think when SNCC as I knew it ceased to exist, I still found the anti-war movement. I moved to West Virginia eventually where there was a very strong movement. I found other places to be active.

Do you feel that there is still racism in America today?

Yes, of course. I live in kind of a protected world, but even here I can see sometimes the assumptions among white people. It's really in their attitudes, and the way our economy is organized.

[Faith Holsaert moved to West Virginia, where she raised her two children. She has been active in the women's and lesbian communities; joined the struggles of mineworkers and welfare recipients; supported women's health organizing, antiracist work, the fight for adult literacy, and advocacy for people with disabilities. She has participated in the endless antiwar effort of the last four decades. Since 1979, she has two dozen fiction and essay publications in journals and is working on a novel. She works as an editor and a community-based teacher of creative writing. She and her partner Vicki Smith live in Morgantown, West Virginia. ]

Interviewed and Transcribed by: Amy Wasleske & Mackenzie Erbrecht

Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)