When I left little Tarrytown, NY, for Swarthmore College (PA) in 1963, I had no idea I would become involved in a movement that would change my life forever. I didn't know that I'd be connected to an amazing group of young SNCC activists who, like me, were in their late teens or early 20's... and who were changing the world as I knew it. More importantly, I didn't know that I would stay connected to this group — through continuing activism and various projects — for the rest of my life.
I am still surrounded by my friends of 60+ years... and we're still working on social justice issues. And we all still believe that we can move this mountain. I guess that's Lesson #1: Surround yourself with folks who really do believe that social justice change is possible. Stay away from those folks who think nothing will ever change and, therefore, that they are absolved of ever doing anything to make that change.
Through our continued work together — and the skills and grounding that I got in that cauldron of young activism — I've been able to move along a continuum: from SNCC, to work in documentary filmmaking (the 14-hour PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, etc.), education (Visiting Professor at Brown University, NEH teacher institute co-director), and activism (communications director for the United Church of Christ's racial justice agency during the 1980's racially motivated violence upsurge). My work has always just been a continuation of the skills and values I learned in SNCC.
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 the influence in my life. Personally, I became stronger, and braver, and more skilled than I ever thought possible. I became a new me.
However, 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 livelihoods of their families and their whole community.
Amazingly, SNCC folks quickly found a place for me... and assumed I could do much more than I, myself, thought I was capable of. This was particularly amazing because, I swear, if I hadn't been me — and knew how little I knew — I wouldn't have let me take on anything. Yet, 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 that SNCC world.
The images of my first entrance into the small SNCC National office in Atlanta — back in the fall of 1963 — remind me of all those I have to thank for the skills that I continue to use — all these years later.
The SNCC office was small, but it was full of energy.
There was Jim Forman, the executive secretary, who found out I could type 90 words per minute and that I could write. I became his secretary, which soon gave me a broad birds-eye view of SNCC's various projects — in Mississippi, Alabama, Southwest Georgia and Arkansas — as well as our extensive support networks.
Soon I was talking to SNCC's far-flung network of Friends of SNCC, writing letters to attorneys who had donated their time, transcribing the mass meeting speeches of SNCC's amazing staff, and joining the SNCC staff who made twice/daily calls to our far-flung field staff through our 800 number (the Wide Area Telephone Service or WATS line) to quickly take down the details of a church burning or the beating of someone who'd tried to register to vote (our main aim: to get Black folks registered to vote without getting them killed).
I'd then call the FBI. Again, I grew up in Tarrytown, NY, home of the author Washington Irving, where our Sleepy Hollow High School football mascot was the Headless Horseman. My father had helped organize the United Auto Workers (UAW) local at the Chevrolet plant (which we all just called "the plant"), where the fathers of everyone I knew worked... and where my father died, on the assembly line when I was 7. He was treasurer of the UAW local at the time. My amazing mother then became a working mom. Everyone in town knew and respected my father because of his union work. So, even though we lived in Tarrytown's under-the-hill section (read: across from the railroad tracks), and experienced its "up-South" racism, I still grew up thinking "Mr. Policeman is my friend."
Now, cut to Mississippi 1964. I'm sitting in the SNCC office in Greenwood, MS; those three particular workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — are missing, but we all know they're dead; white folks in positions of economic and political power have said that voter registration workers deserve whatever befalls them, since they shouldn't have been "messing in white folks' business," 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, NY talking to "Mr. Policeman". Instead, I know that I am talking to some former white southern sheriff who has been bumped up to an FBI agent within an agency that is ruled by its director, J. Edgar Hoover, a true racist. I learn — very quickly — to use a tone, even as a 19-year-old from Tarrytown, that conveys: "You-will-listen-to-me," even though we always knew our reports to federal government meant nothing unless there was 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. Another lesson learned: you may not see the major change you're working for (or maybe, you see only small change, in your lifetime). But... if you just sit around and do nothing — then nothing changes and the folks coming behind you have to deal with the same racist stuff you've been struggling against.
Within SNCC I also learned that it was important to make group decisions, not have decisions handed down from above (and there actually was no "above" in SNCC anyway). SNCC staffers were all independent young people, many of whom had themselves been leaders in their own right. There was Diane Nash, a leader of the Nashville Movement, who ensured the Freedom Rides continued through to Jackson, MS after the bus burnings in Alabama because violence shouldn't stop the movement.
There was Ruby Doris Smith, who had come out of the Atlanta Student Movement, had been jailed for over a month in the dreaded Parchman Prison in Mississippi after the 1961 Freedom Rides, and who ran that SNCC National office with incredible administrative skill, steely resolve... but also much empathy. Some dubbed her "the general".
These young SNCC folks 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. And, once a decision was reached — often after 2- or 3-day staff meetings — it was understood that even those who disagreed would abide by it. We also sang "Freedom Songs" at particularly tense moments to remind ourselves of our enduring bonds, one to the other.
It didn't mean that we were singing "Kumbaya" through staff meetings... hardly. But I never remember arguments becoming personal; it was always about "the work". That didn't mean you liked everyone in the room, but it did mean that you had to have each other's backs... no matter what. Our lives and those of the communities we were helping to organize depended on our keeping our main focus on the mission, rather than on personal disputes.
That was among the many things I learned just watching the legendary strategist, Ms. Ella Baker, SNCC's mentor and the person who shared with us her grass-roots organizing philosophy, and her networks. Ms. Baker would only inject herself into the meeting if it was really going off the rails. Then, with her steady hand and mind, she would help guide the conversation with pointed questions. That guidance was based on her long experience with grass-roots organizing in Harlem in the 1940's, and then through leadership roles in the NAACP and SCLC.
Otherwise she'd just listen closely to the discussion. (And... listening — a skill I learned from her and other SNCC folks — is a really important one that has served me well in conducting film interview.) So, I watched how she moved in the meeting and outside. How she'd take folks aside — outside the meeting — to ask how they were doing, if she suspected a problem. She genuinely wanted to know if you were okay, both because she cared about you, but also because she wanted to know if you were dealing with some personal problem that might affect your work. That was a particular concern if your worry about that personal problem — and resulting lack of focus — might (even further) endanger the local people you were organizing to register to vote.
She often reminded us that we were not the leaders; we were the organizers. It was the community organization — and the local leaders who sprang from that community — who were important, not any one person. We understood we were helping to organize communities that could survive even our deaths.
I also learned that brilliance and knowledge has little to do with educational level. Some of the most brilliant strategists and organizers were considered "uneducated" and unfit for leadership because they'd been denied formal education by a racist system.
I also learned specific skills from SNCC folks:
When I worked at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice at the National UCC in New York City in the 1980's, I compiled a chronology of police and other racially motivated violence, based on Minnis' 1964 compilation, A Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in Mississippi Since 1961. As the communications direction I called around to other activist groups to get any information they'd already compiled, then I drew up one big chronology. After one reporter got the press packet I'd distributed, he was impressed and called to ask if I was a journalist. I said: "No, I learned it in the civil rights movement." (I didn't reference SNCC, since in the 1980's, most folks were unfamiliar with the name.)
The purpose of both chronologies was the same: to clearly show that these racist incidents weren't happening because some individual police officer just hadn't had enough sensitivity training. No, it was about systemic white supremacy. And the way you show that is through a well-researched, well- documented pattern of violence and intimidation over time.
SNCC made me aware of the world — both here and internationally. I remember talks with my Atlanta Freedom House roommate Betty Garman (then 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 South African anti-apartheid conference in London and being excited to hear his analysis. Or going to meet Kenya's Foreign Affairs Secretary, Oginga Odinga, at the formerly segregated Peachtree Manor in downtown Atlanta, a meeting arranged by Jim Forman. In fact, we took our " One Man, One Vote" from the slogan of the African anti-colonial struggle. In SNCC, I was in the world!
We SNCC veterans have taken our SNCC skills and values into a variety of work environments: through our work as teachers (K-12 and beyond), lawyers, health care professionals, engineers, journalists... you name it. Where we go, SNCC goes.
But, more than anything else, it is the closeness that I continue to feel when I'm with my SNCC family. We really were a band of brothers and sisters in a circle of trust. And it is that strength and trust that continues to energize our work together... even now as we continue to fight for a just world.
Copyright © Judy Richardson
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