As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
I'd like to dedicate my story to Howard Zinn, my teacher — our teacher — who recently passed.
This is a story about the first demonstration I was ever in, a major turning point in my life — but a little background first. I grew up in the 1950s in a middle class, all-white, family in the suburbs of Chicago. I got to go to integrated schools, but my neighborhood was, in fact, segregated. In 1957, my father got transferred to Memphis, Tennessee, and I found myself attending Central High School of Memphis at the very time that Central High School of Little Rock was being desegregated. Most whites in Memphis were very scared of the big changes they felt coming. Many students at my school would chant: "Two, four, six, eight, we don't have to integrate!"
I graduated and went on to Carlton College in Minnesota, and after a year, I learned that there was going to be a new exchange program with Spellman College, a Black women's college in Atlanta. I wanted to apply to go, because I thought that maybe I could have some friendships across race that I had been denied so far. Finally, one evening, laying on a beach in Southern California, looking up at the stars, I said to myself, "I'm going to apply." It was the first major decision I ever made in my life, and I made it without any consultation with my parents. (As a parent now, I have a little different take on it, but — ) [Laughing]
I was accepted to go to the program at Spellman and was one of seven exchange students from various colleges at Spellman in the spring of '62. When I'd been there three days — I hardly knew where my classes were, I didn't know where the bathrooms were — I learned that here was going to be a demonstration downtown. Of course I was going to go.
Students from the different colleges of the Atlanta University Center marched downtown to the Georgia State Legislature. There were about 50 to 100 Black students, a few white students, and some teachers. I was scared. I was especially scared when white people along the sidewalks started yelling: "Nigger lover!" I knew the depth of their rage, but the pride of the Black students and the confidence of my teacher, Howard Zinn, helped me relax a little bit. It was at that moment that I realized that my life was changing. I was going from being a person who tried not to be prejudiced, to somebody who was taking a public stand. It felt very empowering and wonderful.
We picketed back and forth in front of the legislature. The big issue then was integrating Grady Hospital, which was the public hospital. This wasn't just about integrating; it also was about increasing services to people in the Black community.
At some point, Howard Zinn and some of the white students started talking about going into the legislature and sitting-in in the Black section. I decided to join them because it was another way to take a stand. So we ended up in the Black section in the balcony where we could look down to the floor of the legislature. There we saw this very angry man in authority pick up a telephone, and we assumed he was calling the state troopers to have us arrested. Very quickly we conferred and decided not to stay. We had made no preparation and we had no permission from other people in the Movement to be doing this. Not that there always was preparation or permission. [Laughing]
We left, and as we are walking down the hall I look up and I see six huge troopers marching shoulder-to-shoulder coming toward us. Time stood still for me — then they walked right by us. They couldn't even see us! I remember thinking: What does it mean that we are this threatening enemy and they can't even see us? Then I wondered: Are they human? The irony struck me since I'd heard so many white people talk about the inhumanity of Negroes.
We left the building, and that was the end of that demonstration. I spent the rest of the semester taking classes at Spellman and Morehouse. In Howard Zinn's class on Modern Chinese Revolutionary History I got to write a paper on Chinese women fighting for women's rights (in 1962!). I went into the Black neighborhood going to door-to-door, encouraging people to register to vote a few times, but mostly I hung out in the nearby SNCC office and listened to the stories of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Frank Smith, and Frank Holloway about their lives growing up, and about the year before when they had gone on the Freedom Rides to Jackson, Mississippi.
The next year I went back to Carlton College where we did a lot of Movement support work and raised money. In the years that followed I worked in Albany, Georgia; New Orleans, and Mississippi. In the late '60s, I was part of the early Women's Liberation Movement. In the '70s I took part in the Lesbian Feminist Movement and I became a photographer — inspired and taught by the photographers of the Southern Freedom Movement. I want to tell you that at this very moment on the third floor there is an exhibit of photographs of lesbians of color by Len Keller including a few my pictures. I hope you get to see it. This is one of the few occasions I get to celebrate both my Civil Rights background and my lesbian background in the same building.
To conclude: being at Spellman and going on this demonstration was when I got to learn the power of showing up, taking a stand, and listening to other people's experiences. Thank you.
Copyright © Cathy Cade, 2010
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the this story belongs to Cathy Cade.