I graduated from Wellesley in 1963 and started graduate school right away. A year later in December, I dropped out and went to work full time for SNCC. SNCC had grown enormously from its origins in 1960, evolving from a loose collection of direct action organizations to a central office in Atlanta with field workers coordinating large projects throughout the South. Although the Mississippi Freedom Summer brought massive attention to SNCC, it also strained the leadership of the organization, especially as some volunteers refused to go home after the summer, insisting that no one could tell them what to do. SNCC leadership felt that there were "too many" hangover (white) volunteers from the 1964 Freedom Summer project, but I was brought on in a staff position anyway because I had a long history with the organization and was thought to be a responsible organizer. And most importantly, Stokely, a core member of SNCC's leadership team, vouched for me.
Arkansas was in the hinterlands of SNCC publicity and consciousness, in some ways a good thing for the members of the Arkansas project. I'd heard the project itself was much calmer than others. On the other hand the state was not thought of as a Deep South place, even though its eastern half was dominated by the Mississippi Delta and the race politics of plantations, segregation, and poverty. So I was going to a project and a state that were marginalized in both the national consciousness and in SNCC.
By January I was in Little Rock beginning my duties. The first day I got my photo taken, "just in case you disappear and we need to use it." My salary started: $10/week. I moved in to a one-bedroom shared SNCC apartment in an all-Black housing complex across the street from Philander Smith College, also mostly Black. My roommate was Arlene Wilgoren, another white woman from Boston. We often had others sleeping on the living room floor.
Other members of the project during that time were Bill and Ruthie Hansen, Jim Jones, Ben Grinage, and various volunteers from around the U.S. During the latter part of my time there, we were joined by my boyfriend, later to be my husband, Donald (Kwame) Shaw, an African American artist, printmaker and civil rights activist from Boston. Don was assigned to the West Helena and Forrest City office of SNCC because we were afraid that if he and I were in the same city, we might forget to stay far apart and the consequences could be dangerous for him, for us and for SNCC's work.
Most of the time I worked out of the Little Rock office. My primary job, assigned by the SNCC office in Atlanta, was coordinating the Freedom Centers within the state. This meant getting supplies distributed and dealing with details like phones, transportation, and other communication challenges. The United Auto Workers (UAW) in Detroit donated 4 or 5 Dodge sedans — chosen because they were the fastest cars of their type. We had a lot of driving to do around the state and we wanted to have a good chance to outrun either the KKK or, if necessary, the police. They also sent us a bright yellow 3/4-ton truck so we could deliver supplies. Because of my job, I got first rights on driving the truck, which was a big thrill.
One of the great things about SNCC was that when a person could do something, SNCC philosophy made it clear that no one could say, well he isn't educated, or she is just a woman. So women in SNCC asserted their skills and got respect. Most of the people I worked with in SNCC from 1960 to 1965 were just too busy trying to get things done and valuing each body in the struggle to hold on to traditional roles. In fact, from the start, it was traditional roles — of racial subservience — that were being challenged by SNCC. As the required roles of race lost value in the civil rights movement, people seemed to see that the expectations of subservience by young people and women were also inappropriate. At the same time, I felt I often got more respect from African-American co-workers (male and female) than from white men in our project. I think that there was a deeper respect in the Black community for the strengths of women than in the white world.
Our office also put out The Arkansas Voice, a monthly newspaper, modeled on The Student Voice, which was published by SNCC's Atlanta office. We started our state paper because someone donated a press. Atlanta sent us a volunteer who figured out how to make it work; the next thing I knew I was writing articles on our various projects around the state.
In late February, we heard that the cafeteria in the State Capitol was still segregated. No blacks allowed. Given that the public accommodations act had been passed — years ago, that the sit-in movement was 5 years old, and this was after all, a state capitol. We knew we had to do something. We would have a sit-in.
We developed a plan, discussed our options — what if we were arrested? What if we were served? — and selected a day to have our sit-in.
On March 11, 1965, a group of us, both SNCC workers and local supporters, arrived at the cafeteria. First we confirmed the segregationist policy: I selected an item and paid for it; then a Black member of our group entered the line, selected an item and was refused when he tried to pay. The rest of our group joined us at the start of the cafeteria line. The line came to a complete halt. Now, no one was being served, Black or white. I don't remember how long we stood there, but I do remember well that suddenly the hallway behind us was filled with state troopers telling us to leave. No one moved. We were sure we'd be arrested. But no. Instead they started hitting us with billy clubs and driving us up the stairs. Eventually we found ourselves outside the now-blocked doors of the capitol on its broad patio and stairs leading down to the street.
We walked back to the SNCC office to plan again. Twice more we went to the cafeteria, each time recruiting new people willing to be beaten by the police. The third time, an unknown person threw some kind of gas bomb and the hallway stairs up to the air was filled with droplets that stung the eyes and made breathing difficult. It wasn't tear gas, but something worse. Soon we were not only hit and bruised but also gasping and vomiting.
Soon a lawsuit filed by the NAACP came before a judge in Little Rock. I testified about being able to buy lunch, as a white person, while the Black SNCC worker gave his testimony about being denied service. Within a few days, the decision came back: The cafeteria must be open to all or stay closed. The following Monday it re-opened, now for everyone.
While most memoirs of life in SNCC center on the bravery, creativity and hard work of SNCC staff and volunteers, there was also a painful side. There were many internal conflicts — arguments about priorities, race, sexism, tolerating the whims and personalities both of the volunteers and of the staff. There was competition for publicity and leadership.
I attended the SNCC Waveland conference in Mississippi soon after I began my new affiliation with the Arkansas project. This conference was characterized by intense emotions (including a lot of drinking every night). There were daily — and nightly — discussions about democracy vs. education and privilege as sources of power, white-black dynamics, grass roots leadership challenges, the stresses of growth, and the relationship between the Atlanta office and the field projects. Several projects had recently experienced violent attacks. Stress was high, and some people were at the breaking point emotionally.
At Waveland, aside from the lengthy processing and arguments about the shape of SNCC membership and leadership, many got drunk, and a fire was started in one of the rooms — I remember seeing the trash and the ashes. At least one woman reported being raped. We all knew that these things were a result of the enormous stress that the staff had been under during the preceding summer and into the fall. (It was only a few months since Freedom Summer and the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.) But no matter how difficult things were within the organization, we couldn't afford negative publicity. Even violence within the organization had to be kept hidden. I had to face this personally as a victim of violence in Arkansas.
One night in Little Rock someone organized a party. It was mostly students from Philander Smith and those of us who lived in the apartments across the street were invited. I remember going with my roommate Arlene. Someone, a guy from the college who had been to some of our actions and occasionally hung out at our main office, walked me back to our apartment. I'll call him "Y." As I stepped inside the door to the empty living room, Y leaned in and kissed me. I wasn't interested and quickly stepped back. He stepped in and pulled the door shut behind him. I tried to say goodnight and open the door to get him out, but Y guarded it with his back and started pushing me toward the apartment's bedroom. I struggled and told him to leave. This struggle went on for what seemed like 10-15 minutes and included my going to our living room balcony to call out for help. No one responded. I remember being shocked that although there were lights on around the apartment complex, no one came to a window or called out: "Are you O.K?"
Everyone in the complex knew which was the SNCC apartment and that two white women lived there. We were the only whites in the entire apartment complex at that time. I felt a sinking sensation: no one wanted to get involved. No one cared that I was calling for help. Or maybe they cared but didn't have the courage, or the foolishness, to act.
Eventually, Y did rape me, on one of our mattresses. Then he got up, said goodbye, as if it were something normal, and left. It was if my "No's" were just a usual part of the process. I felt so defeated. Not only did he seem to feel imperviously casual about this, I knew that my options to respond were severely limited.
I couldn't call the police. He was Black and I was white. It would be a disaster all around: for him as a black man accused of assaulting a white woman; for me as a white female member of a civil rights organization and therefore considered a "nigger lover" anyway; and for our local SNCC project and the Little Rock Black community, because it would take attention away from the movement and put it on this sordid mess.
I talked with my roommate, who listened sympathetically. By the next day, I knew what I wanted and I got it.
I wanted SNCC to ban him from the office and from any activity that SNCC was involved with. He could not come to any rally, march, demonstration, or sit- in. And he would be told why: that they knew what he had done, that SNCC did not tolerate that kind of behavior, and that therefore he was exiled permanently. I spoke with the two Black staff members I trusted most in our project. Another SNCC member offered to beat Y up, but I was opposed. We were supposed to be a nonviolent group and I for one, did not want to be part of using violence, even on someone who had already been violent. Although I was not a complete nonviolent Ghandian, since I thought it was O.K. to defend yourself when someone tried to kill you, I did not — and still don'tbelieve in choosing violence when your life is not immediately under threat. And I strongly believed in the nonviolent strategy for the movement. Someone agreed to tell Y what we had decided.
As far as I know, our male SNCC members did not beat up Y. But he never showed up at another SNCC event during the next 8 months that I was in Arkansas. When my partner Don arrived two months later, he also wanted to confront my attacker, but I dissuaded him. I wanted it to be in the past with no further attention wasted on Y. And so it was, as far as I know.
This experience within Arkansas SNCC, of creating a community response to personal violence, has stuck with me throughout my life and reinforced my belief that turning to the law must always be a later response and that the first strategy should always be to think about the victim, the community, and the healing process and then to strategize a nonviolent way ahead. While I gradually felt personally safe and did change my behavior around men I didn't know, I didn't speak publicly for several years about the incident or our response to it. I did not want my story to feed into racist perceptions of Black male-white female relationships, so I thought long and carefully about how to share the complexity of my experiences during that spring in 1965.
I returned to graduate school in the fall and continued to work on issues of racism, primarily with the Boston Action Group on access to jobs and with People Against Racism, an organization focused on working to build a movement in the white community. For the last 30 years, I have been involved in various social change movements. From my experience in SNCC, I learned democracy, compassion, anti-elitism, how to listen and how to laugh at myself. I also discovered the incredible power of everyday people when they put their minds to a task.
Copyright © Nancy Stoller. 2015
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