Jane Stembridge – A SNCC Origin Story

Maria Varela, 2021

Bob Moses and Jane Stembridge died within 3 days of each other. Perhaps Jane did not want to be on this earth if Bob wasn't. And she went first.

Yet Jane and Bob's bond has traversed decades as a part of SNCC's origin story. On the occasion of Jane's passing, SNCC Veteran Casey Hayden wrote: "Jane and Bob were right there together in SNCC from the time when there were only the two of them and Ella (Baker) in the office. They shared deeply. Their world views twined around and reflected each other. They stayed close all these years. Now they have died within three days of each other. The serendipity of their deaths seems a benediction for us all."

Most SNCC folk and our allies have been deeply affected by Bob Moses. We can all tell stories about what he meant to us. But few of us and probably fewer of our allies know about Jane Stembridge.

Jane Stembridge, a white southerner born in Cedartown Georgia, was the daughter of the late Rev. Henry Hansel Stembridge and Lois Sawyer Stembridge. Reverend Stembridge was a white Baptist minister who, according to Jane, was unwelcome in his own church as he had a Christian commitment to witness a gospel that eschewed segregation and its violence.

She recounted to Casey a trip they took together in 1963-64 to visit other white ministers in Alabama and Mississippi. They wanted to persuade them to restrain their congregations from acts of violence towards the civil rights movement and towards the college students soon to journey to Mississippi for the summer of 1964. They were not welcome and not particularly successful. Casey noted, "the task they undertook required a courage parallel to that of early Freedom Riders."

In May 1960 SNCC convened its first organizational meeting and voted to hire a temporary office worker during the summer. Jane accepted Ms. Ella Baker's invitation to take a position as temporary administrative secretary. One of Jane's responsibilities was administrating an upcoming October gathering of activist student leaders from various sit-in movements, primarily based at HBCU's, to be hosted by SNCC. She noticed that most of the inquiries and commitments to attend came from urban based students and student groups. Jane felt it critical that rural areas be represented.

At this point, Bob Moses had come down from Harlem to volunteer services to the movement. Stembridge and Baker suggested that he travel across the Black Belt South to invite young leaders in small towns and rural areas to the October meeting. Ms. Baker gave Bob names, addresses and letters of introduction to her network of veteran civil rights activists. This trip to the bowels of US apartheid changed Moses, enervated Stembridge and left a permanent legacy on SNCC of Ms. Baker's 'theology' of nonhierarchical movement building which focused on encouraging bottom-up leadership of ordinary people.

Between 1961-1966, Jane was in and out of SNCC. Like a moth drawn to a flame she seemed only able to stay so long before having to move apart. But Jane Stembridge left a permanent legacy to the civil rights movement. She spread poetry as an expression of how to survive this often violent, conflicted, and transformative movement to dismantle US apartheid.

Some Jane Stembridge Poems

"She found Poetry everywhere" SNCC veteran Mary King Wrote in Freedom Song. Jane..."heard it in the cadences of the speech of community people. She found it sitting over coffee. Hers had no literary tradition, no school of thought...no literary style"

"Jane and I worked together against segregation," Casey Hayden remarked, "and her poetry informed my view of those years. A believer in the power of love, she was loyal, brave, funny, and deeply moved by — and humorous — in spite of our human foibles."

SNCC veteran and historian Charlie Cobb, when asked about how Jane Stembridge impacted his life wrote: "Poetry; it was Jane who pulled me into writing poetry. In a house in New Orleans, in a year I don't remember — 1962 or '63, Jane was passing around her poetry for a group of us to read. For the first time in writing, I recognized the people and Movement I was part of. I didn't know Jane well then but saw enough of myself in her words to want to do the same myself."

Some Charlie Cobb Poems

SNCC folks so appreciated Jane's poetry that several got together to publish a book that would be called "I Play Flute." Enough poems were harvested during this era to fill four poetry books: Two ("I Play Flute" and "Hoe Trails" by Charlie Cobb) were published in 1966 by SNCC workers but lack of funds prevented the printing of two more poetry books by civil rights workers. Seabury Press published a second edition of "Flute" in 1969.

When presented with the poems that folks had selected, Jane commented "Why did you choose those poems? Some were a product of a seven-second impulse." SNCC staffer Maria Varela, who coordinated the publishing effort responded, "the book has 20 editors...mostly SNCC people. We had chosen the poems because they were milestones in our history...and in a sense, these poems weren't hers anymore...they were ours".

The book was printed at Mr. Henry Kirksey's print shop in Jackson Mississippi. (In 1979, Mr. Kirksey was elected to the Mississippi Senate, one of the first two African American men elected to the Senate after the Reconstruction). Kirksey commented to those helping assemble the book, "I don't like poetry.... but while printing these pages, I couldn't get some of the poems out of my mind."

"Poetry of desperation" as some called this era of creative writing, came from the hardships, violence, burn-out and hopelessness but always with glimpses of beauty wherever it could be found.

The imprint of the origin story of SNCC, fashioned by Ella Baker, Jane Stembridge and Bob Moses is captured in a tapestry of 60-year-old stories and poems of hers and others. Jane Stembridge's story is woven not only in her poetry...but in the poetry that she released in others.

Copyright © Maria Varela, 2021


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