While it's necessary to situate my story in my SNCC history in order to write about the topics I've chosen for this book, it proved difficult to condense the years I spent in the South. They seemed to deserve so much more attention than I can give them here, and "I" to deserve so much less. I found the right tone in this autobiographical third person format:
Casey Hayden was born Sandra Cason, fourth generation in her little Texas town, where she was raised by her grandmother and her single parent working mom. Attending the University of Texas in Austin as an undergraduate, she was a national leader in one wing of the Student Christian Movement, and was selected for Mortarboard, the national senior women's honorary society of the day. She joined the successful Austin movement in actions against segregated downtown restaurants in the spring of 1960 while a teaching assistant and graduate student in English and philosophy. The following fall she initiated Students for Direct Action, which integrated college area movie theatres.
Casey worked with and for SNCC from 1960 until the fall of 1965. She attended SNCC's second organizing conference in 1960, and worked for Ella Baker out of Atlanta as a campus traveler for a human relations project across the South, taking minutes at staff meetings, helping out in the SNCC office, and riding on the Albany Freedom Ride on her off days, in 1961-62. She joined Friends of SNCC in Michigan and returned to Atlanta as SNCC's first northern coordinator in early 1963. She staffed a literacy project in Mississippi, where she also helped administer the Freedom Votes and the MFDP, and strategized, researched, and wrote organizing materials for the challenge to the seating of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Convention in 1964. In 1965 she initiated a Mississippi photo project and organized poor white welfare women in Chicago.
Casey co-authored two papers which root second wave feminism in SNCC.
The first of the two pieces of writing about women in which I had a hand was composed at the Waveland SNCC conference in the fall of 1964, an important setting. We were in disarray after the summer of '64 on all fronts. The field staff needed to regroup and plan, and the Atlanta administration needed to manage the overgrown staff and raise the money to support us. These needs arose as conflicting, although they weren't necessarily so. I could see both sides. I spoke up for power to the field and decisions to the workers. On the other hand, as Bob [Moses] has said, "We should have helped Jim raise money." While he wasn't talking specifically about the Waveland meeting, this comment strikes me as a good synopsis of this whole event.
In this setting the Waveland Women's Position Paper was definitely an aside. Still, as Bernice Reagon has said, "SNCC was where it could happen." Organizations like the Y, in the Student Christian Movement had educated on the changing role of men and women back in the fifties, and I'd been involved with the Y as a national leader before coming to SNCC. But the Waveland women's Position Paper represents a break out into public political discussion in this generation. It was precipitated by the list at its beginning, noting gender inequalities in work within SNCC, all concerning black women as far as I can tell. The list was probably drafted by Mary King over the months following the women's protest on exactly this topic in Jim's office the year before. The openness of SNCC and the movement in theory and reality, the sheer spaciousness of understanding race as a cultural construct, as well as the invitation to critique the organization which led to many papers at this time, provided the arena. The paper entered the historical landscape when Sara Evans published her book Personal Politics in 1979, and much of the subsequent conversation was about the ideas in that book rather than the paper itself.
So, looking at the actual document, I notice matriarchy is mentioned. I had learned somewhere in one of those human relations seminars I organized or attended that the black community was matriarchal. I don't know if that was true or not, and in fact it may be a theory in great disrepute by now. At the time, because I was from a multi-generational matriarchal family, I identified with the notion and with black women in SNCC. I saw them as powerful and primary, regardless of their formal leadership status, and I saw the movement itself as basically matriarchal. I thought that if men had titular power positions, black women wanted them to be there, and I followed suit. Alice Walker in the title to her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, called her writing "womanist prose." I didn't have that language, but I think now that I saw SNCC then as womanist, feminist with a black twist. I'm not arguing for this position, but that is how I observed SNCC to be at the time. I also had a more white feminist perspective, which had by now become more commonly discussed following publications by European women on the left. That is the perspective of the Position Paper's critique. I was into outing that perspective now, for much the same reasons I came forward in our larger debates, because I believed deeply that honesty builds trust. But I was uneasy.
I used to think this paper was angry, and that I wasn't, but as I read it now it doesn't seem angry. Perhaps a bit scolding, a family squabble. I used to think that I was disinclined to write because I was fearful it would exacerbate racial tensions that I was holding back, but that wasn't quite it, either. The girl I was then was accustomed to hearing colleagues discuss their racial feelings. In fact, she had run workshops which were designed to elicit such feelings from blacks and whites. And her friendships inside SNCC were intact. I think we were all anxious at this time, overwhelmed by the size of the movement we had created and the new racial imbalance following the summer project. The more invested we were the more anxious we were. But my conflict about this paper lay elsewhere.
I was aware that the perspectives and priorities of white women and black women, for the most part rooted in racial and cultural identities, were different. I was anxious to be coming out on one side of this divide, when in fact I straddled them, understanding and identifying with both. My mom, single and working, left my grandmother's house with me when I was eight. My grandmother's house was safety, the old home place after mom's turbulent remarriage, and my grandmother was the center, raising me and running the home as she had raised her own siblings and her five children. Mom was a single working mother, liberal and commenting on the news at the breakfast table as she read the paper and smoked cigarettes, complained about the absence of equal pay in her professional life. So the capacity to see women' s roles as valuable from different perspectives goes deep in my family history. The girl I was at WaveLand faced into these insights, bravely taking the lead in putting the paper together, perhaps, in this instance as in others, beyond her capacity to handle the stress it occasioned.
So that was Waveland. Then I started a cultural project with Emily Adams and Mary, a woman's move, all photographers in SNCC having been male heretofore. There wasn't a single darkroom in the black community in Mississippi. The project first aimed at building one and putting cameras and photography into the hands of local people. We ran into some problems with SNCC photo in Atlanta about fundraising. After that, I took seriously the notion that whites should work with whites, which was now being tossed around quite a bit. Ivanhoe Donaldson said to me years later, "Casey, when we said whites should work with whites, we didn't mean you. You just didn't want to go through all that." He's right on the latter. No one said the former to me at the time.
I chose the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago, officially SNCC staff on loan to an SDS Economic Research and Action Project for the summer, to experiment with organizing poor whites, Appalachian migrants. Gender contradictions inside the project, that is, contradictions in the interests, and even in the safety, of the women I was organizing and the street thugs SDS was organizing, led directly to the memo Sex and Caste, which sparked organizing among white women on the left. I had to have some help, get some other women involved. The paper critiqued the culture from a feminist perspective and then argued for conversations among women inside the movement as a way to strengthen it, hoping honesty, openness, and mutual support among women would strengthen the radical momentum we had generated so we could all keep going together. I don't know why I said that, when it wasn't working for me. Maybe because it wasn't, and I didn't know what else to do, I drafted this piece with a pencil on a train ride back east from Berkeley, where I'd traveled with Mike James of SDS after Chicago, en route to a labor organizing workshop at Highlander, fall of 1965. Mike paid for my ticket.
So that was the women's memos. The second is not usually credited to SNCC, but it was written as a direct result of work for which SNCC was paying my salary, a generous move toward interracial class solidarity that has also not been recognized.
Social movements are chaotic and ambiguous and creative. And so was I.
At the first of our historical reviews of SNCC in the mid eighties I was on a panel on women in SNCC. I cried all the way through my talk. That's how much the loss of SNCC still represented to me at that time. The other women were coherent, and talked to the topic. I talked about SNCC culture, rather incoherently, as it turned out, due to all that weeping. I had a purpose to in this approach, however. I thought our culture was where the women in SNCC were truly revealed, and that this was what made SNCC unique. Since that time I have come to see the many ways in which what we see is both what we get and what we bring to our experience, and also the extent it represents what we need to see. SNCC was a great fit for me, reconciling many competing needs on my part. I could be good by being bad, and vice versa. I could be powerful by deferring. I could break taboos effortlessly, and I could escape the claustrophobia of my experience of the culture of the white South.
Being an elder means one has some wisdom, which shows up uninvited, and not always pleasantly, mostly as a result of hard won self understanding and forgiveness. So having owned my life more completely, I don't write about "we" much anymore, or talk about essences, and I try to avoid generalities. When I wrote the words below 15 years ago, I thought I was writing history. Now it seems more mythical than that. But myths are both true and untrue. I've carried this one around in the attics of my mind for years, and talked about it for years, too. I couldn't write it now, but it captures the vision and the experience of the young woman I was, inside SNCC, in the South in the 60's, back in the day:
The SNCC I knew was radically humanistic, placing human values above those of law and order, insisting that values could and should be acted out to be realized. One's actions were in fact the source of the unity of ends and means. Nonviolent direct action was a transforming experience — a new self was created. We assumed a new identity and this new identity was, I believe, the essence of SNCC. We actually experienced freedom and equality — in race, in gender — not completely, but perhaps as close as it gets. We actually experienced integration. We may have been the only people in this country who ever really have.
Relatively free of our socially defined identities, we found our identities in the community with each other. Mirroring each other, we could see ourselves in this new way. I saw the people I worked with as my tribe, my family. We lived communally, sharing living spaces and funds and food. We were almost totally without personal possessions or lifespace. Both our lifestyle and our work style were supportive and loving. It really was the beloved community, grounded in nonviolence and the southern black world of the church. It was womanist, nurturing, and familial, springing from the underlying philosophy of nonviolence, which was neither western nor patriarchal. Loving each individual ensured loyalty , which was both a means and an end.
Nonviolent civil disobedience created a new community of folks willing to risk everything for their beliefs. Together as this community, I thought, we were new people, free of the old stereotypes of gender, class, and race. This was the beloved community and the point was to organize it everywhere, redeeming the culture, underminging the old power structures — women's culture and black culture, merging for me in the southern freedom movement, especially in SNCC, free of the constraints and values of the white patriarchy, would lead the way.
Strategically, nonviolence had to do with where you put your weight. If you didn't have any weight, you had to figure out how to throw yourself around to catch the other guy off base. We acted this out as volunteers and then we started doing it full time. We created a profession for ourselves. We gave it a name — we called it organizer. We funded it. We also funded ourselves to be publicists, theorists, mythmakers, and speakers, printers, and car mechanics. To be an organizer was very asexual. What you could do, you did. There really weren't any limits.
Part of the SNCC style required us to reshape time. Restless and impatient with the pace of external change, in contrast we slowed time and reshaped it to meet the needs of our own internal work. Everyone should take all the time they needed to formulate and present their ideas. All basic disagreements needed to be ironed out before we took action, so we could act in unity. You couldn't ask someone to risk his or her life without agreeing on what they would risk it for. We worked by consensus, because people should choose the way they might die and because we were all of equal value.
This kind of decision-making fostered mutual trust and strengthened us. When we trusted in ourselves we could afford to distrust and question everyone and everything else. We especially didn't trust the press, and tried hard to live inside our own vision of ourselves. Trust kept us going, preserved us from selling out, and held us together. Holding together was our first order of business, so we had little hierarchy. Didn't need it. Didn't tolerate it. In this regard we were like a family of siblings.
As a white Southerner, I considered the southern freedom movement against segregation mine as much as anyone else's. I was working for my right to be with whom I chose to be with as I chose to be with them. It was my freedom in question; however, when I worked full time in the black community , I was considered a guest of that community , which required decency and good manners, as every Southerner knows.
I viewed myself as a support person; my appropriate role was to work behind the lines, not to be a leader in any public way. In fact, one of the major goals of SNCC was to create a new kind of black leadership. This idea of new and uncorrupted local black leaders could be traced to Ella Baker. Traditionally, as soon as leaders rose up, they were no longer of the class they sought to represent and couldn't be trusted. So, new black leaders were needed.
I chose not to work in the field except in the comparatively safe setting of Tougaloo, on a literacy project, for which I had a background in English education. Being a white woman meant that wherever I was, the Movement was visible, and where there was visibility there was danger: my presence carried with it the possibility of lynching for my male colleagues.
Working in an office in no sense meant that I did office work as it is traditionally understood. I carried weight, and in all my numerous roles in SNCC, I did the work all the way up and down: the headwork of research and strategizing as well as the footwork, the physical work. That means I did my own typing and mimeographing and mailing and I also did my own research and analysis and writing and decision-making, the latter usually in conversation with other staff. I was self-directing, although often in consultation and community with others. I thought we in SNCC stood the division of labor on its head.
As we said at the time, both about our constituencies and ourselves, "The people who do the work should make the decisions." There were no traditional secretaries in SNCC, with the exception of Norma Collins in the Atlanta office, and there was no office hierarchy. I was at the center of the organization, unlimited except by my own choices and challenged at every turn to think and do and grow and care. The need was great in the Movement for skills of all kind; I had some and I was happy to be useful.
During these movement years, angry white men chased me out of Heywood and Fayette counties in Eastern Tennessee at gunpoint. At the trials following the Freedom Ride to Albany, Georgia, on which I traveled as a designated observer, city police dragged me from a courtroom after I sat in the black section. White men rear-ended my car and ran me off the road outside of Greenwood. I worked in offices without air conditioning in the summer and barely heated by tiny open gas heaters in the winter. In Atlanta I lived in a rat-infested garage apartment near Five Points and a tiny hot apartment in a black project. I lived in the bucolic funky Literacy House in Tougaloo, Mississippi, as well as on various couches and in and out of suitcases. I often owned only the clothes I wore, usually denim, usually had no money, and was often fed by kind local people. I hitchhiked and drove, took trains, buses, and planes and sometimes hid under blankets on the floor of integrated cars. I worked hard, partied hard, laughed a lot, loved a lot, was often frightened and was sometimes lonely on the road.
The worst stress was knowing that only I and a very few others at the phones in the offices, with the contacts to the press and federal agencies and our far flung supporters, stood between the people we loved in the field and their injury or death, and that there was little, and sometimes nothing, we could do for them. This was especially true when our three co-workers were killed in early summer 1964 and our calls out of Jackson could not save them.
I both found and helped create in SNCC a world that worked for me: all for one and one for all, organizing rather than directing and dominating, a model I believed could work for deep social change. Like children we were wild, pragmatic, spontaneous. But we were supported by our nurturing family structure, which enabled us to keep going and circumvent, overthrow, and. organize a mass movement right out from under the established order, both black and white. Sisters and brothers.
And, as Chuck McDew first said, many minds, one heart.
Casey initiated the book Deep in Our Hearts, Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement. Her memoir, "Fields of Blue," appears in that volume. "Body on the Line," an autobiographical essay on Satyagraha, was published in Being Bodies, Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, eds Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon (Shambhala, 1997).
Today she is close to her children and lives with her partner, the Episcopal priest and community organizer, Paul W. Buckwalter, in Tucson, Arizona. She says, "Our home is large and funky and old, and our neighborhood is home both to Tucson's historic black churches and school and to an assortment of today's young radicals. The peaceful back porch looks out over the distant mountains."
From Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. Copyright 2010, by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha P. Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Wheeler Smith Young and Dorothy M. Zellner. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This chapter, in whole or in part, may not be reprinted, photocopied, posted on another website or distributed in any way without written permission from the University of Illinois Press
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