The Way We Were: The SNCC Teenagers Who Changed America
 — Judy Richardson

Originally published in Women's Voices for Change, February 26, 2015

Last September I found the box. I was in my building's basement, preparing for my big move to the D.C. area after 23 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had divided what I'd found into stacks — clothing to be donated and archival materials that I was planning to donate. (To Washington University, Eyes on the Prize and other Blackside film materials; to Duke University, personal Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) archives and other work product; to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, copies of the companion book to Blackside's PBS documentary, Malcolm X: Make It Plain; and, to the Roxbury public library, much of my Black children's-book collection.)

Then I opened this one box that I thought contained just old clothing. And there it was: my SNCC staff folder from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Worn and green, it even had my contact information. At the top I'd noted: "N.B.: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, ALWAYS CONTACT ONLY MY SISTER: CARITA BERNSOHN." I'd also written on the folder "History vindicates those who are right!  — James Forman (our man on the scene)." Jim Forman was our larger-than-life executive secretary.

That N.B. was important: I'd been with SNCC at that point for only six months, yet still I knew that something might just happen to me that summer, and I wanted to make sure my mother would hear the news first from my older sister, Carita. Chita, as she was known in the family, was then coordinating Harry Belafonte's SNCC fund-raisers out of our New York City SNCC office, and I assumed she would know how to break the news to my mother.

These days, SNCC is not exactly a household name. The organization was founded in April 1960 by leaders of the sit-ins that began on Black colleges in the South. SNCC was the only national civil rights organization led by young people. Mentored by the legendary Black organizer Ella Baker, SNCC activists became full-time organizers, working with adult leaders to build local grassroots organizations in the Deep South. SNCC focused on voter registration and on mounting a systemic challenge to the white supremacy that governed the country's entrenched political, economic, and social structures.

That's the mini-version, but it helps set the context for my story of how SNCC transformed me it changed my world-view it changed the entire direction of my life. Along with my mother's strong and loving guidance, SNCC has been one of the strongest influences on my life.

Transformation: it's something our 14-hour Eyes on the Prize PBS series on the modern civil rights movement couldn't adequately convey. [Richardson was the series' associate producer and, later, education director.] It wasn't only that our movement changed the country; it also transformed the people who participated in it. Personally, I became stronger, braver, and more skilled than I ever thought possible: I became a new me.

That old green folder brought back images of the SNCC national office in Atlanta (and the words "national office" belie the basic, grungy nature of that beehive of activity).

There was Julian Bond (later to become a Georgia congressman and then NAACP chair), with an ever-present cigarette in his mouth as he dictated the latest atrocity to some nameless Associated Press reporter for distribution over the AP wire.

There was Bobbi Yancy (later to become a major force for years at the Schomburg Center), also on the phone, coordinating support work among SNCC's various black Southern college affiliates.

There was Jack Minnis, our irascible older, white head of research. He could get research from a stone before there were computers, before Google, before Wikipedia. It was important that we always based our assertions on verifiable facts (what a concept!), an assumption I've carried with me.

What I gained through my SNCC experience wasn't just a set of skills, but a strong sense of self. These were nurtured by the staff in the national office, our field staff throughout the Deep South, and the adult local leaders who stepped out on faith, even though they were risking far more than we young people were. Unlike us, they were risking the lives and the livelihoods of their families and their whole community.

One thing I learned really quickly was that folks assumed that I could do just about anything. This began from jump, as soon as I arrived at the Atlanta office. (I had left Swarthmore College, supposedly for just a semester, to work with SNCC full time.) Their confidence in me was particularly amazing because, I swear, if I hadn't been me — and I'd known how little I knew — I wouldn't have let me take on anything. Yet, with sometimes minimal guidance, I was often pushed into the deep end of the pool and learned how to do jobs I never would have conceived of doing before I entered my SNCC world.

First, Jim Forman, SNCC's bigger-than-life executive secretary, found out that I was in my freshman year at Swarthmore College, that I could type 90 words a minute, and that I took shorthand. (For you young readers, this was like texting, but with symbols.) But soon I was talking to SNCC's far-flung network, with little real supervision from anyone. I learned to talk to our field staff in Mississippi, southwest Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas through our 800 number (the WATS line), and to quickly take down the details of a church burning or a beating when someone went to register to vote, and then to relay those details to angry, racist FBI agents or to various people within our national network of supports (reminder: no Internet, no twitter, no FB).

But let me go back to the FBI. I grew up in Tarrytown, New York, home of the author Washington Irving, where our high school football mascot was the Headless Horseman. My father had helped organize the local United Auto Workers local at the Chevrolet plant where the fathers of everyone I knew worked — and where he died on the assembly line when I was 7. My amazing mother became a working mom. She gave me what I now understand was an unusual degree of independence, based on trust. Everyone in town knew and respected my father because of his union work, albeit in the context of Tarrytown's up-South racism. So, even though we lived in Tarrytown's under-the-hill section (read: across from the railroad tracks), I still grew up thinking "Mr. Policeman is my friend."

Now, cut to Mississippi, 1964. I'm sitting in the SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi. Those three particular workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman — are missing, but we all know they're dead. The governor of Mississippi and most white officials have said that whatever happens to Movement workers they deserve, and we continue to call the local FBI office in Jackson to report the latest atrocities. When I call I am no longer Judy Richardson from Tarrytown talking to "Mr. Policeman." Instead, I am talking to some former Southern sheriff who has been bumped up to an FBI agent within an agency that is ruled by J. Edgar Hoover, an absolute racist. I learn — very quickly — to use a tone that conveys "You-will-listen-to-me," even though we always knew our reports meant nothing absent outside pressure.

I also quickly learned that we could never let racist violence stop the movement. And I learned this not only from my SNCC cadre but from the incredible local leaders with whom we worked, who nurtured and guided young SNCC activists and who never — ever — gave up.

Within SNCC I learned that it was important to have group decisions, not decisions handed down from above (and there actually was no "above" in SNCC anyway). These were independent young people who had themselves been leaders in their own right: Diane Nash (who started the Freedom Rides back up after the bus burnings in Birmingham because "violence shouldn't stop the movement"); Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Marion Barry, Julian Bond, John Lewis. They knew that a movement is dependent on the strength of each of its parts. And if you're going to ask folks to risk their lives, they'd better be involved in the decisions the organization is making. Thus, decision-making by consensus. I mean, how do you tell a Ruby Doris Smith Robinson that she "has to do" something with which she may not agree when she's done 30 days jail — no bail — on a chain gang in Rock Hill, South Carolina? When she's been on the Freedom Ride and served 60 days in the dreaded Parchman prison? How do you tell a Jimmy Travis that he "has to" take a certain action when he almost died from being shot in the back in the midst of voting-rights activities, and — more important — had organized his behind off in Mississippi?

This doesn't mean mean that we were singing "Kumbaya" through staff meetings — hardly. These were staff meetings that went on through the night, sometimes for three days, and there was much arguing. But I never remember its becoming personal; it was always about "the work." That didn't mean that you liked everyone in the room — we were teenagers, after all, and someone might be going out with your boyfriend — but it did mean that you had to have each other's back matter what. Our lives and those of the communities we were helping to organize depended on our maintaining our solidarity when it counted.

I recently read a three-page-long Washington Post article on Rev. Al Sharpton. Certainly I don't agree with much of the perspective of the mainstream media — I learned in SNCC how willfully distorted their coverage can be. But in this day and age, I also know that a major national paper like the Post doesn't make up a bunch of quotes. So I was amazed at how many times Rev. Sharpton proclaimed, throughout the article, that the Movement would be nothing without him and his leadership. ("Is there anyone else who can do all of this? Anyone other than me? I'm talking about anyone else?")

I can't imagine anyone in SNCC saying this, and we were surrounded by truly great people: Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mr. Amzie Moore, Mrs. Victoria Gray, and others too countless to mention. Yet no one — and I do mean no one — believed that he or she was the leader. Not even Amzie Moore, who, with Medgar Evers and others, had organized a meeting of 10,000 to 15,000s Black folks in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1951! Even then, the main agenda was challenging voter suppression and police brutality. This in a racist environment where Black folks were routinely beaten or killed for nothing more than disputing a white person over one's wages, or simply for being Black. It is Mr. Moore who mentored and tutored SNCC director Bob Moses when Bob first entered Mississippi in 1961.

Within SNCC, our mentor was the legendary Black organizer, Ella Baker ("Ms. Baker"). She often reminded us that we were not the leaders, we were the organizers. It was the community organization that was important, not any one person. That we were organizing communities that could survive even our deaths. That we were organizing local leaders from the bottom- up — who sprang from the organizing itself — not imposed by others from the top down.

It was the early presence of Ms. Baker that helped create the political and personal environment that helped ground us. It was she who called the young sit-in leaders together at her alma mater, Shaw University, so they could begin to coordinate their efforts. It was often her networks that we used when we moved into a community. Most important, it was her political philosophy that grounded SNCC: the sense that people at the grassroots were important, that "strong people don't need strong leaders," that they had to have their own voice ...not yours.

She also emphasized the issue of radical change, particularly regarding economic issues. As early as that first SNCC founding she reminded the young people that the sit-in movement had to be about "more than just a hamburger." This awareness of our responsibility to combat economic inequality is clear in SNCC's speech at the 1963 March on Washington, as delivered by John Lewis (and I say it this way because in SNCC a lot of folks had their hands in that speech, as well as all other major SNCC statements and decisions). The SNCC speech asked, "What is there in the [proposed 1964 Civil Rights] bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to insure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?" That's the SNCC that I came into!

SNCC made me aware of the world — both here in the U.S. and internationally. I remember talks with my Atlanta Freedom House roommate Betty Garman (who was a grad student at UC/Berkeley) about the struggles in Nicaragua and throughout Central America. I remember picking up Forman from the Atlanta airport after his attendance at a London anti-apartheid conference and being excited to hear what had gone on. Or going to meet Kenya's vice president, Oginga Odinga, at the formerly segregated Peachtree Manor in downtown Atlanta. The meeting had been arranged by Jim Forman after he'd directly contacted Mr. Odinga (not through the State Department contact). In fact, we took our "One Man, One Vote" from the slogan of the African anti- colonial struggle.

Before I end, let me also mention briefly a word about the skills I acquired in SNCC.

In the early 1980s I became Director of Information for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, based in New York City. The commission was heavily involved in the coalition that was challenging the police brutality and racially motivated cases that were plaguing the city (the police shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, the death of Michael Stewart after being beaten by police for drawing graffiti in a subway system; the racism in Howard Beach that led to the death of Michael Griffith, etc., etc.).

One of the first things I did as the commission's information director was to research, then distribute, a 10-page chronology of police brutality and racially motivated violence in New York City over the previous several years. I didn't learn this in someone's J-School. I learned it in SNCC, and patterned it on a document I still have: A Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in Mississippi Since 1961. This was the 17-page chronology that SNCC's research director, Jack Minnis, compiled for distribution during the 1964 Mississippi Summer. It included photos from SNCC's photo department, along with reports of the various assassinations, church burnings, and house fire- bombings, and was based on the daily reports called in to SNCC's national office in Atlanta by our field staff in Mississippi. The purpose of both chronologies was the same: to clearly show that these incidents weren't happening because some individual police officer just hadn't had enough sensitivity training. It wasn't happening because a certain group of white folks was displaying errant behavior. No, it was about systemic white supremacy. And the way you show that is through a well-researched pattern of violence and intimidation over time.

But more than anything else, it was the sense of closeness — of family — that I always felt within SNCC, and that continues to this day. In fact, most recently, after a year's work, our SNCC Legacy Project (SLP) has launched a wonderful new website,, in collaboration with Duke University. The website will be useful to folks, particularly young folks, who are interested in who we were, what we did, and why we did it ... and in the local activists who guided and nurtured us. SLP is also working on other projects, including those that connect us older activists with the new generation. I am still surrounded by my friends of 50+ years ... and we're still working on social justice issues. I am incredibly fortunate.

Through our continued work together  — and the grounding that I got in that cauldron of young activism  — I've been able to move along a continuum: from SNCC to helping to found a major black bookstore, begun by SNCC folks; to my documentary film work (e.g., Eyes on the Prize and, most recently, Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968); to our SNCC women's anthology, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. For me, it's all been part of the continuing work begun when I chose to step into "The Movement."

We really were a band of brothers and sisters, and a circle of trust. (Today, this would be called the organization's culture). I recently read a quote about Mrs. Susie Morgan, a local Mississippi activist. She was said to be someone who "covers all the ground she stands on." So many of the people who helped form me in SNCC were like this. And, like the quote by author Mary Helen Washington that we use in our SNCC women's anthology, Hands on the Freedom Plow, they were the many "strong Black bridges we crossed over on."

And they changed my life forever.

Copyright © Judy Richardson


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