of two events to celebrate and discuss
Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.
Introduction — Chude Allen
About the Book
Caught in the Middle
Group Discussion, Part 1
Federal Prosecution of the Albany Nine
How and Why Did You Become Active?
Jane Bond Moore
Terrorism and Blacks in America
A SNCC Blue Book
Time to Get Ready
Using Photography for the Movement
Peggy Dammond Preacely
Simply in My Blood
Telling Our Stories
Letter to My Adolescent Son
Elizabeth (Betita) Sutherland Martinez
A Hidden Place
White SNCC Workers: A Major Issue
Black, White and Tan
Group Discussion, Part 2
Women in SNCC
Courage and Fear
Finding the Publisher
Jane Bond Moore
Peggy Dammond Preacely
Chude: I'm a member of the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, and I have passed out a copy of all the different things on our website that are either by women or interviews with women so that in addition to the Hands on the Freedom Plow you can go to the website and find further information. In particular, I wanted everyone to know that there are many wonderful interviews and memoir pieces by women on the site. Cathy will tell you, for example, that you can see a longer version of her piece that's in the book on the website.
I'm going to start by reading a poem that's on the website to kind of try to set the feel of the time. And I want to say that this poem, which is called "To Be Twenty Again," is a very popular poem with young people, which I'm surprised about, but the thing that most surprised me was one time a counselor called from a high school in Michigan and asked if she could read the poem at an all school program. And she wanted to ask me a little bit more about who I was and what the experience was. And then she said, "I want to ask if I can change one word in the poem?" That's weird, I thought. And I said, "OK, what?" She said she wanted to take out the word "white," because she was an African-American. And I was completely moved, because this to me is so much a white girls' poem. [Laughter] And to find out that, for her, it had resonance. It was just very touching. So this is called, "To Be Twenty Again."
To be twenty again,
believing with such fervor,
sure of the way,
committed unto death if need be.
Willing to offer myself without reservation,
to share my talents and hopes
To be twenty again,
believing change is possible
because I have changed,
believing barriers can be lifted,
because I have known friendship
across the color line, deep friendship.
To be twenty again
and to know the power
of a social movement
that transforms its participants
as well as the world,
to know I've found a place,
a way of life that allows love of God
and commitment to justice
to flourish side by side.
To fall in love again and again
with life and idealism as it manifests
first in one and then another
young man's eyes.
I lived so intensely,
believed so absolutely,
felt so acutely.
I had the energy to do so
and lacked the experience
to feel afraid or use caution.
I grew outside the bounds
of my white, middle class upbringing.
I grew outside the experience
of my professors at college.
There were times of connection
times of anger
and fear of losing all we'd worked for.
There were times of trust
and times the trust shriveled
in the light of a sharp afternoon.
Oh, to be twenty again
and refuse compromise.
To believe justice is attainable.
That love will replace greed.
To believe people can live
and work in mutual respect for one another.
To be twenty again
and believe it is all possible.
So that was to try to set the tone. We were young, most of us. This book is by women who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of them were on staff, or they worked a number of years with SNCC. It is, as any of you who have picked it up have seen, quite exhaustive. [The authors present today are] going to share a bit. And then we're going to open to discussion, because we find the discussions just so exciting. And we're looking forward to that. Thank you.
I wanted to start by saying this is quite an occasion for me, because of the 50 years, but also I actually have a friend from my elementary school present, Lucy Johns, and some of my writing friends from more recent years. And then my son, Jonah, and my daughter, Carmella, and my daughter by marriage, Beth, are here, and Zane and Jasper, my grandchildren. And I also would like to acknowledge that Rosie French, who's 16, is here and I'm very happy to see young people here.
Before I start, I did want to say, especially to Jasper and Zane, who've been a little confused and maybe frightened by some of the images, that you'll come to understand what this was all about as you get older, and I know your mom and dad will help you understand.
About the Book
So, the story of the book. The book includes the stories by 52 women — 5 of whom have passed on in the course of this process and their names are recorded up front in the book. [The book] is organized somewhat chronologically by — we begin with the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, which were the opening of this era of the Civil Rights Movement, and we move through the various SNCC field projects, Southwest Georgia, Mississippi — there are two sections on Mississippi — and there are a large number of Mississippi vets, I know, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also Cambridge, Georgia and Alabama; I believe I'm missing one, but you'll be able to see for yourselves.
And what happens is Alabama was one of SNCC's last projects, and Southwest Georgia was one of the first, and so we really do move chronologically through SNCC's history. And the bridging materials explain and take up key issues, so with Southwest Georgia, which was one of the racially integrated projects, there is a bit of a discussion in the bridging material about integrationism as a belief system in SNCC which was primarily a Black-led organization that worked in the Black South.
I believe that the way the book has been set up it's accessible so that I think the 16-year-old could read it. It's mostly in people's own voices, but it's not an oral history. By and large, people wrote their own pieces, and it represents a cross-section. We were very anxious, and I'll say a little bit more of this in a moment, that this be a book which reflects Southern experience.
In terms of our process, we started in 1995, and we initially, after meeting a little bit and narrowing it so that, for instance, people who were only in the South for the summer of 1964, if that was their only experience, we did not include them in the group in the book. But if you had worked with SNCC, either as staff or community person in the South, then you were included.
Probably if you printed out all of the original manuscripts we received, it would have been about 2,000 pages, so there was an editorial process that was involved. And it was complicated, because people wrote what they remembered, but then, for instance, with my piece, Martha Noonan said: "OK, you can say Bill Hanson was beaten up on the front steps of the Albany, Georgia courthouse, but why don't you say" — because Martha knew this — "that his clavicle and his ribs were broken?" So we added in factual material when we could, and we also had to do some cutting.
In order to represent the Southern and Black nature of the book, we did end up doing a few interviews of people from Southwest Georgia, and Annie Pearl Avery in Alabama, Gloria Richardson who has her entire piece, from Cambridge, Maryland. Those pieces then were turned over to the [interviewees], and they then turned them into their own pieces.
Overall, in terms of the book, many of the women had had some sort of social and political experience. Peggy and I actually knew one another from something called the National Council of Christians and Jews in New York City. Cathy Cade, I know, was involved in church groups and some other groups. Maybe she'll talk about that. Many people had been involved in their NAACP or other groups. And, by the way, joining the NAACP in the South was a political act [of courage] in the 1950s. Many of the white women in the group had had experiences crossing racial boundaries before they came to SNCC. I'll talk a little bit about that, and myself.
And so I'm going to go to the opening of my piece. I was in Southwest Georgia in 1962 and '63, and then I returned to college. I was 19 when I went South, and I promised my mother that I would return and finish college. Now many of us broke those promises we made, but I was so young and I was actually very sick when I left Southwest Georgia. I caught hepatitis in connection with being in jail.
My sister and I grew up on James Street in a Greenwich Village household headed by two women, our Jewish birth mother, Eunice Spelman Holsaert, and Charity Abigail Bailey, our African-American mother by affection. When I was seven, we spent a year in Haiti where my sister and I were in the racial minority, and our female household was noteworthy. Scene of a historic slave uprising, Haiti, the first Black-run republic in the Americas, prompted a pride in Charity that I took on, because I loved her so much. In my child's heart, Haiti and Blackness and rebellion were one.
Charity came into our lives when I was four. She taught music at my school, the Little Red School House, and the staff there were generous, radically child-loving, anti-racist teachers. Since preschool I have loved school, and as I grew, I pressed my definition of schoolhouse deeper and deeper into the world. In 1954, at the end of the McCarthy era —
That could be a whole lecture in itself...
— my 10-year-old classmates and I studied Negro history, so-called Negro history. We learned "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Black national anthem, in which the stormy past gives rise to hope.
And I mention this because I think you have to have some basis for understanding that the world can change, and I was given this by my family and my school.
We rode the subway to Harlem Schomberg Library, and I borrowed books about Harriet Tubman, whose story of courage appealed to me, and John Brown, whose violent righteousness stunned me. I was 10. That May we ran a freedom timeline from one end of our classroom to the other, from Crispus Attucks in the 1700s, to Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman in the 1800s, to leaders and events of the 20th century. During the last week of class, on May 17th, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision on Brown vs. Board of Education. When we tacked that New York Times article about Brown onto the end of timeline, we had learned down to our bones, no matter how dire the circumstances, history can be changed by people like the Abolitionists, by people like us.
As we fast forward, I go South to Southwest Georgia. And I wanted to [that] say the South at that time — and my remarks to Zane and Jasper a little bit reflect this — the South at that time — the way things were was enforced by brutality and oppression and a level of violence that's hard to imagine. Although we also know in this day of Oscar Grant [a young Black man shot to death by transit police in Oakland], that we're not living in utopia yet.
I wanted to mention, for those of you who don't know, that the U.S. Southern system of racial separation was the basis, it was the design, it was the blueprint for apartheid in South Africa. It's not like apartheid came up over there on its own. They copied us.
In addition to the entrenched violence, etc. in the Deep South, the federal government's role was not quite the so-called White Knight that it's been made up to be — particularly in the case of Southwest Georgia, where they prosecuted nine of the leaders. The year that I was in the South, when I was sitting in a tent in Terrell County, the federal government said they could not protect vote workers in Terrell County when we were threatened, and when a house was shot into, and yet, out of Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, 20 miles away, the federal government was flying planes to circle 24 hours a day continuously over Cuba because it was 1962 and 1963. So this powerless government that couldn't protect us was doing this thing.
One of the ways, in addition to brutality, that the Southern system of separation of the races was maintained was by myths, and I'm going to read a little bit about that. When I got to Southwest Georgia, — and this is about the myths —
Mr. Marion Page, an Albany Movement officer and our landlord, told me the story of James Brazier. Years before in 'Bad Baker' County, Brazier had been beaten to death in jail. Mr. Page went to pick up the body for the funeral home. When he lifted the body, Brazier's broken bones clicked like dice. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights listed Brazier's death as 'the last recorded lynching in the U.S.' There were other Southwest Georgia cautionary tales. There was a lynching tree in Lee County where four men and one woman had been lynched in one day. In Baker County, Black people weren't supposed to drive through town after sunset. White merchants in Bad Baker would sell only RC Cola, not Coke or Pepsi, to Black customers.
Totally arbitrary, but part of the system. And Baker County, by the way, is the county from which Shirley Sherrod comes from, who was in the news.
[In 2010, Shirley Sherrod, a Freedom Movement veteran from Southwest Georgia, was fired from her Department of Agriculture job after Fox News used doctored videotape to smear her with false accusations of "reverse-racism."]
One night, Penny Patch and I were alone in the dark Freedom House. From outside, an intruder smashed the window beside our bed. We crouched on the floor while through the curtain he ran his hand over our bed, groping through the litter of shattered glass, hoping to reach us. We called the police, but that man, like many who attacked the Movement, was never arrested.
But as terrible as those things were, as frightening as some of the images are, I think it takes the human capacity to transform things in our imaginations to say that it is possible to have another world. And so the next paragraph I'm going to read is a little bit about that transformation.
Everywhere, the rural crossroads of Southwest Georgia were points of power. White men owned the land adjacent to major crossroads and at night guarded those intersections. But we drove past the lynching tree and eased through the intersections on our way to mass meetings in Terrell, Lee and Sumter Counties. In tents, on the sites of the burned churches, in the charred rubble of segregation, the Black South sheltered a Movement that was participatory, Black-led and integrated, a redemptive community. The Movement lived the future in the peanut fields of the past, opposing racism, sexism, elitism. In those tents, I understood two things: That I would become a teacher, and that, as Bayard Rustin said at a planning meeting for the 1963 March on Washington: Demanding racial justice in the United States in those days— and even now, I would add —
was inherently revolutionary.
And I would like to leave you with a thought that no matter how difficult our times are right now, no matter how insurmountable our obstacles seem, no matter how entrenched power seems to be, we all continue to have that ability to imagine a different world. And particularly in this room, we can make a difference, just as that little 10-year-old girl learned when the Brown decision was made, which is not to say that the Brown decision and its aftermath weren't flawed. We're not at utopia yet, but we have a tremendous capacity to imagine making change. And so thank you very much. I'm thrilled to be here.
I want to begin by thanking the people who put this event together: Chude, Jean, Bruce, Kathy Nostrum. For all of us who've been in the Movement, every time we get together is a precious moment, and thank you for your work.
I want to thank the editors of the book. Without their letter of request back in 1995, I may never have looked at my letters to my parents when I was in Southwest Georgia, my journal, my father's report to the FBI, and I certainly would never have interviewed my siblings and learned what it meant to them to have me be in the Civil Rights Movement. And I learned a great deal from that.
I want to say that what's in the book is a shorter version of what I wrote. You know, when they sent that letter out — I don't know if they encouraged us, but they mentioned writing 30 pages. [Laughter] And so I did. And that longer version is on the CRMVet website for which I want to thank Bruce for all the work he does for that.
[See My Family, the Movement, and Me for the longer version.]
I know quite a number of college students have read that memoir and used it in papers that they've written, and it also means that when they write to me, I don't have to write their paper for them. [Laughter]
The book! The book reminds me of what I've forgotten. The book fills in information I never had but that I can use and relate to and work with. And I'm very grateful for the articulations and the useful generalizations that are part of the bridge pieces of the book.
So in thinking about what I wanted to say today, I discovered that being in the Movement continues. I mean, SNCC may have ended in the late '60s, and when I left the South I left with a heavy heart, feeling that I was leaving the Movement, but it turns out it isn't so. I have recently found six new family letters of love and respect about my work in the Movement, from grandparents, parents, a great-aunt. I keep gaining a new depth of understanding of my participation, not just as an individual which is how I thought of it as a young adult, but as part of a family. When I first started working on this in response to the letter from the editors, I was so excited to see that I had letters that I had kept in all my moves, that I had journals, and that I had my father's report. The details were just so precious. But last night at midnight, I finally admitted to myself how painful it is for me to read my father's report. I'll leave it at that.
[As described in My Family, the Movement, and Me, Cathy's father reported to the FBI on the Albany Movement and his daughter's activities.]
The other part of the process continuing is that I've widely been known as a photographer in the lesbian community since the 1970s, but it is not widely known that I was both inspired and literally taught by photographers in the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, I want to say that Maria Varella, coming into Jeanette King's living room with one of her early prints of Jeanette's baby saying: "Look at this! Look at this!" Has stayed with me. It was the moment when I knew that women could be photographers. And I didn't know that until that moment. And so I'm so glad that Maria's here today.
I want lesbians to know the history of our connection to the Civil Rights Movement. This summer, I was able to lead such a workshop at a national meeting of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. There were four of us there who had been active in the '60s Civil Rights Movement, and 40 people came to the workshop. There will be many more opportunities to unite these two movements of my life and finally bring these pieces of my life together.
Writing for this book, based on journals and letters, has again increased my valuing of writing. I have a personal history business, helping people record their life histories. I create archives for people. I am now keeping a journal on what it is to be an aging lesbian. I encourage everyone here and everyone I meet to keep a journal, to create your archive. It's my current form of activism. So now I'd like to read you a little —
"Caught in the Middle"
Thursday, June 22, 1963
Dear Mom and Dad,
As I'm sure you've already heard, things are happening down here(we're talking Albany Georgia)
. There are about 15 white students on the staff. The Movement is using two houses in the Negro community. Cooking for summer staff is done by a neighbor lady, wonderful breakfasts, paid for by the community. I'm to stay with a family, I think. Last night I was at the house where the senior staff stays. As yet —I had come the day before, let me say that.
— I don't feel I'm ready to go to jail, but it's a definite possibility. I am becoming convinced the direct action is the only hope. There will be no concessions without pressure, and the Negro community has had all it can take. Publicity is now of major importance. I feel awfully naive, but did you realize that even after last summer's demonstrations, the demands for desegregation of the public facilities, an indication of upgrading in jobs, lawful conduct of the police, a biracial negotiations board, etc. have not been met at all.
[Laughter] None of them.
If I do go to jail, I won't till I feel ready, and there will be other white girls in jail with me. There are several things you can do. First of all, I'll be all right. They won't hurt us, for they fear the publicity. Can you find me some news contacts with Chicago newspapers and radio? You can give them the office number. If I do go to jail, the policy is jail, no bail. It usually takes about two weeks for trials to come up.
P.S. Whatever you can do about the publicity contacts will be greatly appreciated.
Then there's some field notes of what I did that day in the book. Okay, now we're on the next day. Friday, June 23rd, a letter written to my parents from the Albany City Jail. [Laughter]
Dear Mom and Dad,
Felicia Oldfather and Miriam —who's right here, it was Cohen then
— just came to join us in jail. Also, a drunk white woman has been added to the cell next door. I'm fine. I'm losing weight.
[Laughter] That was a good thing in those days.
Felicia said that Joyce had talked to you, and you were great. It was a great relief for me to hear that. Relationships here are very interesting. Penny Patch, a veteran activist, dislikes policemen so much that she talks to them as little as possible. Joanie Robinowitz, another veteran, manages to keep her dignity while giving the officers a lot of lip. They seem to have a kind of respect for her. There are seven of us now in an 8x8 cell, all white females in the Movement. The jail is segregated of course. There are four sections in the jail: Black male, Black female, white male, white female. Our cell has two bunk beds and a mattress on the floor for the seven of us.
Now I go on to my father. After I was arrested, my father flew to Albany to convince me to come home. As an engineer, he was used to investigating and writing reports about his empirical findings. And he was determined to talk to all sides of the struggle. He got a lot of conflicting emotion-laden information. My father was terrified for my safety. On the other hand, before he left home, he was convinced that the Freedom Movement was a Communist plot. So I'm going to read a few pieces I've picked out from his report that he ended up giving to the FBI.
You know, last night I started envisioning someday going through that report and writing an accompanying interpretation of what I think was going on at that point. At this point, I just want to try to give you a sense of the range of information he was getting, and I hope you can intuit a little of the reactions he was having. I mean, I am moved by the fact that he could still see the strengths and find his way to the SNCC office in the dark and sit for two hours and see some of the strengths, at the same time that he was believing what [Albany Police Chief] Pritchett was saying to him. There's a lot of conflict going on there.
I need to work with this more, but it's so painful for me. Finally, I admitted how painful it was to me to look at this. Okay, so first my father finds his way to the SNCC office after no taxi person would drive him there. For two hours, he talks with Joyce [Barrett], Prathia [Hall], and [Charles] Sherrod.
Prathia was a young Colored girl, about 20 to 25, with a good mind and very commanding presence — somewhat masculine in her authority. ... We discussed the situation regarding bringing white Northern girls into this situation as irritating to the white population and that there was a real danger of great violence on the part of the whites. ... They said that they felt that the white girls being there was channeling the explosion of pent-up emotions into nonviolent action.
So the next thing he does is he meets with a white segregationist attorney and the Chief of Police, Chief Pritchett.
Chief Pritchett came over, and we discussed the situation for about an hour. He said that when the particular complaint re: Cathy's organizing activities came in, the detectives went into the area and saw these girls going from house to house. When asked for their identification, they would not show it. —(Not true.)
— When told that they had to come to the City Hall for investigation, they flopped on the ground, and one white girl refused to pull her skirt down below her waist. Fortunately, she was wearing undergarments. But this behavior by white girls in front of a crowd of 30 to 40 Negroes was simply not rational! —(There was no crowd.)
— He felt that the white people of Albany were being very restrained, that the Negro elite, and in fact the great bulk of Negroes were having nothing to do with the Movement.
Next he goes to the local FBI. This is all in one day.
After some of the off-the-record discussion, I said it boiled down to whether or not Chief Pritchett was honest with respect to the things he was telling. They stated he was honest.
That night, my father goes to a mass meeting.
Prathia Hall is an excellent preacher with a beautiful contralto voice, and she introduced me as the father of Cathy who was one of the girls in jail. The meeting was closed by the singing of more Freedom songs. Several kindly people came up and introduced themselves to me.
So I hope that gives you a little feeling of range, but there is much more. And you may have a whole different interpretation. So to just complete, the judge found us seven white girls guilty of vagrancy. We were given a sentence of 60 days on probation under the jurisdiction of our parents, and this sentence would be suspended if we went back home. I agreed to go home with my father for the weekend on the condition that I could come back on Tuesday. I was home for a day and woke up the next morning, and my mother told me that he was in the hospital having a nervous breakdown. I was in Chicago for two weeks, and then as a compromise, I spent the rest of the summer doing office work in SNCC's Atlanta headquarters. I felt quite literally that to save my life, to be alive, I had to be in the Movement.
I just want to say that at the moment that I decided to stay in the Movement, even though my father was in the hospital, it was a matter or choosing life. That if I didn't do it, I would be dead. and that's something you can say to young people too, and it's actually a decision you have to keep making in your life, and sometimes you don't have a movement to do it with.
I just want to add one more thing, that in the last few years I've felt like I've been part of two Movements, and I feel them coming together in my life more. One of the ways that they're coming together is that I'm having to leave this afternoon to go to a memorial service of a leader of my lesbian community that I'm very connected with. Thank you.
Jean Wiley: I wondered whether you might have questions or comments about what you've just heard. I'm aware that you've only heard the Southwest Georgia part, but it wasn't a lot different in terms of the atmosphere in other parts of the Deep South where some of the others were.
Federal Prosecution of the Albany Nine
Mike Miller: Well, I'd like both Faith and Cathy, if they would, to explain about the Justice Department prosecutions of the SNCC people in Southwest Georgia for those who may not know.
Faith: There were an amazing group of teenage activists in Albany. The spring and early summer of 1963 was a time of incredible foment. It was the year before the '64 [Mississippi] Summer Project, but Danville, Virginia exploded. Birmingham, Alabama exploded with the dogs and the fire hoses and later that year, the four young girls murdered.
And in Albany, Georgia, there were a group of teenaged kids who just kept saying: "Oh, we're gonna go down and picket this store," and the next thing you knew, 40 of them would be in jail in Camilla, just bus 'em away. And Joanne Christian Mants piece in the book speaks a lot about that summer, but one of those stores that kids younger than Rosie, picketed was a — I think it was kind of like a clothing store, run by a white man, in "Harlem," which is what the Black section of Albany was called. And they picketed because they wanted Black people employed at that store, and SNCC people weren't even in charge. Okay, so they got [arrested and] shipped off to Bad Baker County or somewhere and were in jail for awhile.
[The were arrested for the "crime" of peacefully picketing. Constitutional rights of free speech did not apply to Blacks or civil rights advocates in the Deep South in those days.]
Some time later, three or four weeks later, or a month or two later, the Justice Department said that the owner of that store [had been] a juror in a federal case. And therefore [the Movement activists] were charged with [retaliating against] a juror in a federal prosecution. Eventually, thanks to [civil rights attornies] Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz and one other attorney — Michael [Sanders] maybe — they got it thrown out. It actually was one of the first cases where the jury selection process was the determining factor. The case was thrown out because no Black people were on the jury.
So in a way, it ended up to be good, but the [mother of one of the arrested children] Albany had a mysterious illness afterwards where she just — the stress was such that she couldn't get out of bed for over a year. I think. It's in my piece. And Joannie Robinowitz was — Joannie's father, Victor Robinowitz, I think it's safe to say here, was a left wing lawyer, was the lawyer for the State of Cuba, so there was probably lots of stuff going on in prosecuting those people.
Woman from audience: After 911, the use of the term "terrorism" became so prevalent, I started using those words to refer to the system of oppression in the South. And I wonder from some of the veterans here whether that's appropriate? When I talk to younger people now about what it was like then, I use those words, because they know those words.
Scott B. Smith: I think it's very appropriate. My name is Scott B. I think it's very appropriate to classify and let the students know that we were acting in another period of time, that we were dealing with — they were terrorists. That's all they were. They terrorized us in one way after another, but just as soon as Black people got together and wanted to fight back: Oh! We've got to be nonviolent! That irritated the living hell out of me. [Laughter]
Maria Varela: More African-Americans were murdered under U.S. apartheid since the Civil War than were killed in 911. It was terror.
Jean: I do use the word "terrorism." I did not always do that. But it did used to bother me that we'd say somebody's house was bombed or somebody's scalp was smashed and all the other — and it did bother me that these sounded like individual acts when in fact they were happening across the South, across the same town. I mean, I saw this in Montgomery, Alabama, so I was happy to seize on the word "terrorism," because that's what it was. A reign of terror, in my experience.
Peggy: What is lynching by any other name, if not terror? Terrorism?
How and Why Did You Become Active?
Second woman from the audience: There's a book called No Sanctuary that some people may have seen. It's this amazing photographic essay about lynching. But the concept of no safe place, I feel like — terrorism to me connotes, you know, individual, like you said, but this was like state-supported, state-sponsored, state-sanctioned. There was no safe place. Not the courts, not the police, etc.
And I wonder, I heard Cathy say, and Faith in a different way, that they joined the Movement for their own survival as well as to, you know, "help" those other people. And it just seems like it was an enormous leap for people who were coming from the North to step into this sea of probable death, or possible death, and for the Black people who were in the South, a certain number of people probably felt like they could survive better by just going along, because it was so dangerous.
So what was the thing — and I guess I'm particularly interested from the point of view of what we tell our children and our students and so on these days, because these days people are so into protecting themselves and concerned with their own comfort and making it and so on, is what made people in those days really risk their lives to be in this struggle. You know, Cathy, one day she's a privileged child in Chicago and not sure she wants to go to jail, and then she's in jail two days later. I mean, it must have been an enormously steep learning curve there. [Laughter] You know, I'm kind of interested in those dynamics, how people ...
Cathy: Well, first I need to say, and it's probably in the book, that my parents were Midwesterners, but when I was in high school my father got a job and was transferred to Memphis, so I ended up going to segregated Memphis Central High School at the very moment that Central High School of Little Rock was being desegregated. I was raised a Unitarian, and I'd already experienced the Emmett Till murder while I was living in Chicago. I mean, all of this history was right in my face, I had gone to an integrated high school in Chicago, I would come out as an integrationist at my Memphis high school. You know, coming out as a lesbian was nothing compared to coming out in Memphis high school as an integrationist. I lived in a segregated white community unable to have friendships with people of color, my own age. So, that's some of the background that I was coming from. You know, it wasn't right! It wasn't right, and I hadn't been able to change it as an individual. I couldn't live the way I wanted to live.
Audience member: Cathy, tell about the joint meeting between the two churches —
Cathy: Oh geez! [Laughter] All right. Across the street from my high school was the Unitarian Church of Memphis. I was the chairman of the youth group. My sister, who was 5 years old could go home with the Black woman who worked in our house and play in their neighborhood and be with those kids and have a good time. I was too old. I couldn't do that. When the son of the woman who worked at our house came over to talk to his grandmother, I would try to talk to him. He would run around the house, run away from me.
So here comes the day when somehow there's some communication between a Black Baptist church and my Unitarian church, and they're going to get the youth groups together. The first time, the Black kids are going to come to our church. We have a discussion, and we're all excited. It went really well.
Then the next thing was for us to go to the Black church. We go to the Black church, and all the young people are there, but then there are all the adults who are sitting around too. There's all this food. We had never thought of preparing food when they came to our place. There were questions and discussion, and I remember adding a little more Christian input than I might have in my answer to the adults. Afterwards, the young man who was the head of the Black Baptist student group comes up to me, and he's furious with me. He is just trembling, he's so furious with me. I find out that he had invited us to come over on "the second Sunday," and I had wanted us to go over two weeks from then, so I thought we were in agreement, but I didn't know what the "second Sunday" was (i.e. the second Sunday of the month). So when the second Sunday came, all the young people were at the Black church, and all the adults, with all that food — and we didn't show up!
I had gone through a lot of not being able to have the life I wanted to have, and the Freedom Movement was an opportunity. My getting in the Movement was also enabled by the fact that when I was in college, the Spelman Exchange Program started at my college. I was able to go to Spelman in Atlanta the spring of '62. That's what got me into the Movement. I was there only three days, and we were picketing the Georgia State Legislature. I was ready, you know? It was a need I had.
Wazir Peacock: [Cathy] covered some of the stuff that I was going to talk about what brings you in [to the Movement]. It just doesn't happen. The experiences in your life that causes it. They just pile up, and you say enough is enough. You got to do something.
Jean: Even though you may not be aware of all of the individual things that help to take you to that decision, that's where you're led to. That's where I was led to, and glad to be.
Third woman from audience: I'm just curious. Is that what takes you beyond the fear? I was born in 1964, and the society we live in today, I feel sometimes afraid to sign my name to a petition because of things like the Patriot Act. And I wonder, is it just the fact that you — you're so focused on the everyday injustices that you just say: You don't have time to think about being afraid?
Jean: Uh no... [Laughter] It wasn't it for me. No, in my case, the fear was there. It was very real to me. It was very real that I, and the people I was working closest with, were in jeopardy of losing their lives, and in fact, several did. I mean, people that I was close to, several did. So the racist acts, or the acts of terrorism, didn't stop long enough for you to say: "Okay, now I can breathe and shore myself up." They were constant, against you or somebody you knew and cared about.
Bruce Hartford: Every time when we speak, this question of what motivated you? — Why did you? — How did you come to? These questions are always asked, and they're good questions, and they're important questions. But I have to say, every time I hear those questions, I think that there is another question that never gets asked, which is to ask all of the people who were not in the Freedom Movement, who did nothing in the face of sit-ins and bombings and Freedom Rides and terror — why not?. Nobody ever asks that. Some day I would love to come to an event where there is a panel of speakers who were not involved and did nothing, signed no petitions, and ask them why didn't you do something?
Audience member: The Ralph Waldo Emerson question.
[In 1846, the philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay a poll tax that would be used to enforce slavery laws and finance the U.S. invasion of Mexico. His best friend, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked "Henry, why are you here?" Thoreau replied, "Waldo, why are you not in here?" Thoreau later wrote "Resistance to Civil Government," about civil disobediance and Nonviolent Resistance.]
Kathy Emery: I've had the incredible pleasure of listening to the Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans tell their stories throughout six years and hope to continue to provide venues for the next six, at least the next six years if not more. And I can testify to what Bruce said about this question comes up all the time, and as a high school teacher of 16 years and now a teacher at San Francisco State, trying to get students to commit themselves to doing social justice work, it's been a question that has been something I've been thinking about for, I don't know, 30, 40 years.
And certainly the Ralph Waldo Emerson question is key. Starting [from the question]: "Why are you out there?" Not, "Why am I in here?" I think that's the answer.
I think that it's not just the experiences people have; it's the capacity for reflection upon those experiences and the ability to make a connection among those experiences. As a teacher for the last 30 years, there's always been maybe 20-25% of my students who cannot deal with abstraction, cannot deal or live with ambiguity. And listening to all the vets, what I see they have in common is the ability and capacity for reflection, the ability to live in the world of ambiguity, the ability to deal with tension, to deal with multiple hypotheses, to have an ego that they've put on the back burner as well.
I mean, these are all sort of personal characteristics that go beyond having courage, having strength, having knowledge. There's also this incredible personal quality that they all share. That is one of the reasons why [it's important for] as many people as possible to have the kind of experience we're having this afternoon, and to listen and be inspired by not just what you guys have gone through, but the way you talk about it and the way you present yourself, just who you are as people. And there are people out there who need to be inspired and want to be inspired. I mean, a lot of people today really want to do things, and there's just not something to attach themselves to. To me, social movements happen when everyday people act together at the right time. So we have to keep the light alive until the moment presents itself to rebuild community and rebuild the infrastructure that was there.
Kathy Sloane: Not to dismiss at all what you're saying, I think knowing how people choose to live, what came before them, or what was part of their lives is important to the story. As Charlie Mingus said, when somebody asked him about improvisation — Charlie Mingus the bass player — said: "You can't improvise on nothing." So, I thank you for telling your stories and for this book. I think young people do need to see what part of their lives that are already intact can propel them forward.
I did a book a few years ago with a program out of Stanford called the Stanford Medical Youth Sciences Program, and the book was my photographs, but more importantly, it was stories of the young people who had gone through this program and who are now doctors or lawyers or whatever. And I had an issue with the writer who kept talking in the stories she was doing about how Stanford had "saved" these young people. And I kept saying: "You know, they wouldn't have been here if they didn't have families, communities, teachers, somebody, somebodies who were such an important part of their life that they got themselves this far." So yeah, we have to know what brought us. Thank you.
Fourth woman from audience: Part of what is so amazing about SNCC was it was really organizing. Base-building organizing. And also a level of [democratic participation] that I think we don't see much of now. And I was just wondering what you all — what you take from it in terms of that kind of organizing.
Jean: In my case, much of it is a discipline that I found hard — especially as a young person. I mean, you had to be really dedicated in order to accept the kind of discipline [required for organizing] — and nonviolence requires discipline, like nothing else. And I see you nodding your heads, so we know in this group.
And it requires the discipline, but it also requires a real hope in the future that maybe, just maybe, you might — I mean, remember, going back to Chude's poem, 20? We're just coming out of the McCarthy Era. Yeah! Where, you know, don't get me started on the '50's [Laughter] — So this is real freedom, personal freedom and release and relief in the midst of doing good for a very good cause that has got — at some point, you know in your gut — has got to get solved, has got to get moving. But the extraordinary sense of freedom that it brings, even when you're facing a loaded shotgun, as I did. So to answer your question, that's part of it. And that's a discipline that I don't see these days, and I don't know how you bring about change without such discipline, and without such a vision or a dream, but the discipline has to be learned. And I think it's up to us to try to teach it, in any way we can.
Cathy: I would use the word "commitment" too, and I'm really glad you brought up about base building, because there's a sense in which one of the most important values that SNCC had was belief in the local people and in building the community. It was hard. I mean, there was a lot of hurt and distress in the local community, and that came up too. And it happens now in organizing in Oakland. It's hard to do community organizing and base building and hang in there year after year and have things fall apart and people disappoint you. But I'll tell you that the whole idea of being a community activist, to me is the highest goal that you can [have]. Everything that I've done has always felt less than doing that, and I mean I think that's true for a lot of us, that we went on and we did other things in our lives that people think were good things. But in the back of our minds we're always going: "Yeah, but we left the community organizing, the base building; we're not doing that anymore." So it's very key and important, and it was very hard.
Fifth woman from the audience: Yes, I think what you said about hope is not here today. Many young people have no hope, and I think that's one of the most — I started when I was 13, because I had hope. I still have hope. And I'm a very strong activist, but the kids today do not have hope. Nothing can help, they think, and that, I think, is what we have to inspire in them, if we can. And thank you so much. The book is wonderful.
Sixth woman from the audience: It's a wonderful panel, and thank you. I teach, and talking to students now, some of whom are activists — I teach at UC Riverside — one of the things [that comes up] in talking over the period they're living in now and the differences from the '60s, [is the] issue of generational legacies, which I think is sort of younger generations learning from older ones and interactions. One of the things I was curious about in your experience in the South and with SNCC was whether you had, in various communities, the opportunity to talk to people who had been in earlier struggles in those communities. I know it varied, it's a part that I just heard bits and pieces about. I've Got the Light of Freedom talks about that, [and I'm] curious if you could comment on whether that was also part of the building blocks in SNCC and in those communities.
Cathy: When I was in jail in Albany, I got to know Joannie Robinowitz. You might recognize her last name, her father was a leading lawyer, and she came from a family who had been Communists in the '30s. That was the first that I had seen, a real live person who had been part of the movement of the '30s. And I learned a lot about it when we were in jail. So that's one place I learned. The other thing is when we were in Mississippi we were taught about the sharecroppers' union [Southern Tenant Farmers Union], that had been in Tennessee. And that blew our minds. So we were taught some, I think it was Bob Moses teaching us that. There were older people in the community who were definitely models for us. [But] I don't remember them talking about particular actions or movements.
Jean: Another serious misconception about the Movement is that Northerners, many of them white, went down and started the Movement. We all — certainly all of us who are of a certain age, know that nothing comes from nothing. There's got to be something there, [though] it may not be perceptible to some eyes. You know, my hero was Ella Baker. And I actually wanted this book's title to be "Ella's Daughters." But she was my main one, and I used to watch her, just watch her. I just wanted to be in her presence. Remember that it's Ella who sends the younger students to Mississippi, to do what? Hook up with her generation, Ella's generation, right? To see what kinds of things they want to do.
So this thing about springing from nowhere, I don't — I would love to see things, to see the seeds of things happening among young people here today, but I'm not really dismayed that I don't, because nobody saw the eruption of the student sit-ins — February 1st, 1960 — and that sparked a nationwide student movement. You all know; you were in it, that went everywhere — to the war, to cities. We thought it was unstoppable. We were wrong, but it was fun for a long time. Nobody foresaw that in the '50s, so it gives me hope to know that, well, I don't have to see it. I just have to believe that there's a seed there somewhere, and it's growing. It's gonna grow. But things do look dire.
Sixth woman: I've Got the Light of Freedom talks about that, and Robin Kelley's Hammer and Hoe, and I was wondering if there were people you remember specifically — I mean, this is because I'm a historian. I love the details in terms of a real interaction where you worked.
Jean: In my case, no, because I was also trying to show up for my classes [as a teacher at Tuskegee]. Many of my students did out in the counties, and I certainly met several of the key people. Bob's mentor [Amzie Moore], Mr. Steptoe, and of course there was Fannie Lou Hamer. I did get to meet those people, but later.
Chude: I just wanted to comment, if you've never read it, Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which is a young people's book, is a story about African-Americans in Mississippi organizing in the '30s, and they're not going to win. And the young child — because it's from the child's point of view — says, 'You know, we're not going to win this boycott.' And the mother says, 'I know, but we have to show the next generation that we were struggling.' So that doesn't answer your question, but I think it's such a wonderful book.
Jean: That's exactly it.
Terrorism and Blacks in America
Jane: Before I talk about my piece, I did want to say something about the terrorism issue, and I think that with any reasonable look at the history of Black people in the United States, you'd have to say that we've been living under terrorism since we first came here. We came as slaves, then after the Civil War there was a Reconstruction which was like that and didn't do much, and then the national government abdicated, removed the troops, and left the Black people living in the South to the mercy of the slave owners who then re-enslaved us through the Black codes.
There was what became eventually a national movement by people like William Bedford Forest who was a Confederate soldier and he founded the Ku Klux Klan, and they deliberately terrorized Black people throughout the South and the Midwest up until very recently. And something I was reading, or maybe that someone said — they talked about the last recorded lynching. Well, what about that man who was dragged to death in Texas? If that's not a lynching, I don't know what is. And if that's not a terrorist act — so I feel that Black people have been subject to — have been living under terrorism since we came to this country.
So, that's my take on terrorism, and yes, I do think — I mean, obviously racism is terrorism. And incidentally, in my old age, I've started teaching, and I found out that Black people were not the only people who are subject to that. I mean, we know about the Japanese internment, but how many people know that Mexican-Americans were lynched and were segregated in Texas and in California. They had places where Mexican-Americans and Blacks could only swim in California in the public swimming pool on the day before they drained the water to clean it. You know, once a week they would drain the water and clean the pool, and when they did that, or the day before they did that was the day that Blacks and Mexican-Americans were permitted to swim. So there is terrorism. It's not restricted to the South, and it went throughout the United States, and it wasn't just restricted to Black people, though I do think that —
Audience member: Native Americans.
Jane: Yes, Native Americans too. Yes. I mean, the Trail of Tears. And when you think about the Trail, once you start looking into it, the Cherokees weren't the only Native Americans to have a Trail of Tears. Many other groups had Trails of Tears too. So yes, and I think it's the not telling people what this country has been like and at the same time letting them know the gains people have made — if both of those were presented together, I think people would be more hopeful and would be more willing to take part in movements. So that's my thing.
"A SNCC Blue Book"
["Blue books" are several sheets of lined writing paper folded over and stapled with a blue paper cover. They are used for hand-written answers to essay questions in college exams. Many graduates still recall them with dread decades later.]
So to get to my piece. My piece is called "A SNCC Blue Book." And the reason I called it that was because I got a list of questions [from the editors] that you had to answer, and it felt like a test to me. I mean, what if I write the wrong thing? Will they even put my piece in there? So it felt like a — it was kind of an ordeal just to go through and think about it.
And one of the reasons it was sort of an ordeal for me is that I was never a worker for SNCC. I had a brother, Julian, who was really active in the Movement, and when I was in graduate school in Indiana, he was writing me about what they were doing to students in Atlanta while I was dealing with graduate school. [Later] I had my roommate [in Atlanta], Dottie Miller Zellner, who introduced me to much about politics, and we had an apartment together. Many, many people came to our apartment, and people talked and I learned through that and did things through that. And then my husband, Howard Moore, Jr., who was, I would say, one of the main attorneys for SNCC. So that's what the '60s and the Movement was for me. So I'll just start and read sections from my piece.
In 1960, the year the sit-ins started, I was in graduate school at Indiana University. I read the newspapers and got letters from Julian about the Atlanta Movement.
Because when the sit-ins started, they spread throughout the United States, or to the South, through the medium of television and newspapers. Atlanta has a lot of Black colleges. It's called Atlanta University Center, and those students got together and they did things with support from adults, some of which the support was trying to tone them down, but nevertheless, they did give them support, of a kind.
I was envious but not surprised that he would be involved with something exciting and interesting compared to my boring and frighteningly baffling graduate school classes. The only Movement thing I did in Indiana was to march around Bloomington with other students, asking for support for the sit-ins. One old man spat at us, but other than that, no one paid us much attention.
And while that was happening, I was thinking: You know, this is so nothing. How can people actually take part in demonstrations where they're attacked? Where people are putting out cigarettes on their faces? Kicking them, doing all those things? I was just amazed and overwhelmed and in awe of people who had the courage to do that.
I came back to Atlanta, and at some point decided to work instead of continuing graduate school. I got a job at the Southern Regional Council, an organization that works towards interracial understanding in the South. That's where I met Dottie Miller. We were both clipping and filing newspaper articles about the Movmement, the Klan, the racical right.
I'll have to say that we thought of a new way to do it and sort of forced ourselves on the SRC people, and then years later I came back and tried to use them. And actually the way we thought was very messed up. It was almost impossible to find the things. But at the time, we were convinced that our way was much better than the way they'd been doing it. We obviously convinced the people in charge.
So Dottie and I decided to get an apartment together in Atlanta, and for me, that was kind of a wild thing to do. Not many other young Black women that I knew had apartments, but we did get this apartment, out from the center of Atlanta.
Our apartment was on a side street, parallel to a major street that must be named Martin Luther King Jr. Drive now. You got there from the Black community by driving down West Hunter, which I believe is now Martin Luther King Drive, through a neighborhood of lovely homes of the Black bourgeoisie with manicured lawns and shrubbery, until you reached our neighborhood. Although it was in Atlanta, it had a rural feeling about it. The grass was wild. There were many trees crowded together. The flowers were as likely to be in tin cans on the porch as in pleasant little beds on the lawn. We lived in an apartment building, but the other homes on the street could have been in a small Southern town. The people who lived there were not like the university professors who were my parents' neighbors at the Atlanta University Center. These were people who worked in factories and as domestics and who rode buses long distances to work. Dottie and I must have seemed like a strange and exotic couple to them — two young women, one white and one Black, living alone together in an apartment. Still, with the tolerance that was typical of Black people then, no one objected or complained.
So we had this apartment, and lots of people from SNCC came over. There were parties and different things. All kinds of strange things happening. I don't know, I was just thinking of some of the things that happened that I didn't put in here. I remember when people started wearing Afros and people — some women, I'll have to say — made mean comments about my hair, because I couldn't get it in an Afro. And I was complaining about it to Howard [Moore] and James Foreman, and they teased me to no end. They were telling me I should buy a wig. I should buy an Afro wig. [Laughter] I should do this. I should do that. We had a good time.
Another time I remember we went to a party in the white section of town, and I think it must have been maybe with Casey Hayden or some people like that who had an apartment, and we were singing Freedom songs which we often did, and the police came. And actually, he told us, he said: "Oh, I would arrest you, but I heard you singing those hymns [Laughter] outside, so I'm not going to arrest you." I guess he thought we were — I don't know why he thought we were a religious gathering or not, so — he was a white policeman, and he just looked at us and made this little announcement and then went on and left us.
So let's see, everything at SNCC was going on, and then my life was moving, sometimes parallel, sometimes branching out, so eventually, I got married, had children, was still living in Atlanta. I remember — in fact, we first lived in that same apartment that Dottie and I lived in, and a couple from SNCC moved in. They were an interracial couple — a Black woman and a white guy. I can't remember their names now, but at any rate, they were living underneath, so they had parties. And oh, it was just so infuriating to me, because I was up there with a baby. I couldn't leave the baby. I couldn't go to the party. So I was always yelling down: Be quiet! You're waking up my baby! And having little temper tantrums about the parties. So I was feeling this real tug between, as I say in the book, between being a proper young bourgeois matron or kind of a wild hippie mother or just a wild hippie. And I had this idea that children should have a very regularized life, so I was trying to bring my children up that way, but I didn't really like that kind of life, so I was very torn up about it, but that's what we did.
And during this time, the things I did in connection with SNCC at that time — well, one thing I did was type for my husband, because in those days they had typewriters, not computers. And he was a lawyer; he had to file briefs, so I was always typing briefs. And every time any national event came, we were never there. I was always in the office typing the briefs. When the Chicago [Democratic] Convention  was — I was typing the briefs. When the Atlantic City Freedom Party — I was typing the briefs.
And in fact my husband I were just talking about it last night, because I just got the book last night, and he said: Oh, that was the brief of blah-blah-blah. I forget, and he remembers the name of the case. But I felt deprived, you know? Why am I here typing the brief? I know that was important and that the lawyers didn't make much money. They didn't have anything. I was free, you know, they didn't have to pay me, but it was still a trial to me.
Then during this time, Betty Friedan came down. I don't know if everyone knows Betty Friedan. She came down to Atlanta, and she interviewed people in SNCC, and she interviewed me. And so I was just thrilled to meet her. I had read her books, and it really struck a chord with me, you know this sort of tyranny of staying at home and doing housework and keeping care of kids. And as everyone knows, it's never finished. You know, you just do it over and over and over again, till you think you're going to go batty. That's what my children say I was always telling them: You're driving me batty! So I told her that, and then some other people in SNCC told them: Oh, we just love having men tell us what to do, which was actually not true but they meant it as a joke to her. But I felt kind of betrayed that they weren't more honest with her, and I was sort of out there as the only person who was complaining about the patriarchy.
And then finally I want to end up with talking about how I got into it, why I was interested, why did Julian get into it. And it really came from our family, my family, particularly from my father, Horace Mann Bond, who was an administrator at various Black colleges, what are now called Historically Black colleges. But he was a scholar of Black history, and he loved — he was a "race man." He just loved Black people. He thought Black people were the most wonderful people in the world. He thought we were heroic, that we have withstood and advanced on all kinds of horrible events. I mean, he just — I suppose it's a wonder — I don't know why I didn't become a Black racist. He was so staunchly for Black people and was always telling us about the history of Black people and what happened and what happened here, what happened there, and how people struggled and overcame.
So when the sit-ins started, there was nothing that — I mean, I think Julian and I had no choice but to take part in that. My grandfather too — his father — was a Civil Rights person. He worked in Civil Rights in his day. So we really had no choice but to take part in the Movement. And I'll have to say, when I think back about those days, they were some of the most wonderful days in my life. I mean, I just wish everyone could experience that camaraderie of working with people and knowing that you're accomplishing something and actually seeing things change. I mean, not only the Civil Rights bill but the end of the war in Vietnam which was connected closely with SNCC.
I eventually went to law school here [Berkeley], and I remember I was sitting in law school, in a course called federal courts, when the professor or someone came in and said: The war in Vietnam is over. And I thought: Wow. You know, I felt I did something to that. I helped in that. You know, I had a part in that. And I think having that knowledge that you can actually change, be a part of a change, is such an empowering and wonderful feeling. That's it. Thank you.
Maria: Jane, I think your porch was the site of the first and last time in my life that I sang a solo, I'm told, but I don't remember, because we had been through one jug of red wine and we were working on a second one. [Laughter] And somebody said I broke out in a song like, "Bridge Over Troubled Waters"? I don't sing. And I didn't even like that song ... but that kind of represents how many of us often did things beyond ourselves in the movement. So, thank you for helping me place that memory.
[Today] I live and work in Northern New Mexico. In 1967, when I was in SNCC, Julian [Bond] called me up at Tougaloo (Tougaloo was both a college and an adjacent community ... I lived in the community not at the college) where I lived and said: "The National Conference for a New Politics is being held in Chicago (August, 1967) and we have invited Reies Lopez Tijerina who was a Mexican land grant leader from New Mexico. Would you please come to Chicago and be sort of as a hostess to him? We're not sure how much English he speaks and we want him to feel comfortable". And as a result of that — because everything in SNCC was through friendships and relationships — we did things that we never thought we would do. I ended up in New Mexico because of Julian's invitation which resulted in my meeting this man who then invited me to come to work in New Mexico.
I moved from Mississippi to New Mexico in 1968, and I've been there ever since. I work primarily with Mexican-American and Native American communities around issues of economic justice, environmental justice and preserving traditional land and waters. More recently, I'm working with Native Americans whose whole communities, land and water, have been poisoned by the uranium industry, starting in the early '40s as they mined uranium for the bomb, and then began to mine it for nuclear power plants, and today [they] are just terrified that with Obama's new initiatives — the administration seeks to do more nuclear power plants — that they will again be re-poisoned as more is mined. So if anybody tells you that the nuclear industry and nuclear energy, is clean, please give them my email address and I will set them straight.
All right, so that's what I'm doing. And to support my organizing habit, I occasionally teach at Colorado College. I teach a course on SNCC and have taught sustainable community development at the University of New Mexico.
How I got into this work is again through relationships. During my high school and college years, I become involved in the Young Christian Students, which was a Catholic organization that was based on the fundamentals of what today we call liberation theology and social justice. And so I left college and went to work on the national staff of the Young Christian Students. ,What we did was to attend National Student Association's annual conventions to be a presence there. There I met Casey Hayden and Tom Hayden and people who were in the process of forming SDS, and they invited my organization to be a part of the Port Huron Conference.
[Organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and held in June of 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan, the conference was a major turning point for student activism in the early 1960s. Out of the conference emerged the "Port Huron Statement," an activist manifesto that influenced politically active youth across the country.]
It was Casey Hayden who wrote me in 1962 and said: "Would you come South and work with me in the SNCC office? And my first reaction was: "No!!." I was petrified of all the violence that I heard about from SNCC folks. But here I was working on Catholic campuses and at Newman Centers across the Midwest urging people to support the Southern students, to support the sit-ins, support the Freedom Rides, send money, invite speakers to campus, work on this issue right on campus. And I'm asked to go. And I honestly did not want to go at all. So I didn't even answer her letter for three months. And then I'm laying in the bottom of a bunk bed at some Catholic woman's college in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I'm thinking: "You are such a hypocrite!" You get to the point where you just can't live with yourself, so reluctantly I got on the bus, and I thought: "Atlanta, well it's a big town. I'll probably be okay".
So [in the summer of 1963] I get there. But before I am to start work at the SNCC office, I am invited to be a part of a summer training session held in Atlanta, of young — and I mean 13, 15, 20-year-olds from around the deep South — who just on their own, (because there was no SNCC organization in their Southern community) — were walking out of schools, having sit-ins, going to jail, getting beaten terribly. Nobody had ever been there to do any training in terms of non-violent tactics or movement strategies. So this summer training school which was supported by the National Student Association and SNCC brought these young people to Atlanta for 6 weeks and held workshops on movement strategies, black history and non violence. SNCC Field secretaries like , and Frank Smith and Bernard Lafayette came in from Selma [Alabama] to speak to these kids. They were brought in as role models and mentors for these kids. And one day Frank, being a good organizer, said to me over lunch: "Well, how did you get here?" So I told him about the Young Christian Students, and he looked at me, really intently, and I'm thinking: "What? Did I say something wrong?" So then I see him go over and huddle with Bernard Lafayette, and the next day they come and they say: "What do you think about working in Selma" [Laughter] I said: No. [Laughter] No, I don't think so. They said: "Look, in Selma, there is a French Canadian priest named Father Maurice Ouellet. He was the pastor of the African-American Catholic parish," (which were scarce in the South, believe me) "And he's the only one who's opened up his church facilities for voter registration classes. We're really worried he may get pressured to stop because some people in his congregation are not very comfortable with him doing it, and his bishop hates it. And we need this man badly, and would you just go?" It's like: Oh, sure Frank, (sarcastically) yeah, I'll just go.
[See SNCC And the Fathers of St. Edmund Mission for more about Father Ouelett and SNCC.]
So they go and talk to Ruby Doris [Robinson] and Jim Foreman who said: Yeah, she should go but she should stay incognito and work out of the parish. 6 weeks later I find myself on my way to Selma to work. I guess what I want to say is we got pushed to do things, both men and women, that we probably never would have ordinarily considered back home. And there has been a lot of discussion in the historical literature about the role of women in SNCC and most of it is not correct. Hands on the Freedom Plow is going to go a long way to correct the record on both the role of women and the way we were treated. there's that oft-quoted joke of Stokely's that in some feminist literature makes it look like he was making a pronouncement: "What is the place of a woman in the movement: prone on her back!!" He said this one night when some of us had gravitated to the dock (at Waveland Mississippi) with a jug of red wine. Stokely was streaming one joke after another (of which that 'prone' joke was a very small part) and we were helpless in our laughter. You had to be there to know how funny it was. Because Stokely, believe me — I mean, if you ever met his mother you know he respected women because May Charles was a phenomenon of her own.
The question is often asked, Why did you go South? And this has been part of our conversation today. And certainly, like many of us, I had a fundamental commitment to a kind of Christianity that said: You're not a Christian if you're not involved in social justice work. I had also, through my organization which was an international student organization, met young students from Brazil, many of whom were disappeared or killed in the 1964 coup. Their families don't even know where they are today, probably dead. We Met people from Africa who fought on the side of social justice issues, as Catholics. And so it was kind of like a part of the fabric of my value system which did get challenged with the invitation to go South.
But also, it was the relationships. The people you met who were the smartest people in the world. I mean, I tell you, these folks were so smart, and they just had a way of touching you and holding a conversation with you that made you equally important as anybody else. And they had your back. We had each other's back. And you don't leave a situation like that and go back home, because then there's one link taken out of the chain of strength that we had with each other.
Time to Get Ready
Here are some excerpts from my chapter. This piece takes place in 1964.
I look down at the speedometer, and it was hovering at 115 mph. My 1957 Packard hunkered down and propelled the three of us down Mississippi Interstate 55. Glancing to the side, I saw the two-toned Chevy with its white occupants trying to pass us ... yet again. The barrel of a long gun poked up between the two men in the front seat. It seemed like an eternity since we left Memphis and got on the interstate. Earlier that day, my companions, which were an older Black woman and her daughter, and I had left the SNCC gathering at Highlander Center in Tennessee. We were on our way to the Mississippi Delta. Traveling in an integrated car in daylight had left us a little tense.
When we stopped for gas in Memphis that evening, I thought that the cover of darkness meant that the worst of the journey was over. Then I turned from the gas pump and saw the white male occupants of the Chevy staring at us. It was the fall of 1964, open season on Civil Rights workers.
So, we got on the interstate, and they followed us. And I thought, 'Well, I'm going to push this Packard.' So I moved it up to about 120, because it's just us. The Chevy on the highway. And so I thought, 'Well, maybe they just have 6-cylinder,' and can't come up to speed. You may not be familiar with this car (a 1967 Packard), but it's like the size of — half of this front row, and it's a solid wonderful car. My companions were deathly quiet, and I just knew that I was not going to stop. No way, on this road, with no one else around. And I was just going to go until either the gas tank gave out, or we reached the end of the speedometer.
Then, a semi truck looms up on the horizon, and I'm thinking, 'Well, gee, you know, they probably won't do anything in front of witnesses.' So I raced up to the semi and passed it and then delicately tried to maneuver in front of it, hoping that they couldn't a) keep up, or b) do anything with the driver there as a witness. I kept trying to keep the gap between us and the semi not too big. The semi driver must have been freaking out. He dropped way back, and then he kind of sped up. And I stayed as close to the front bumper as I dared.
We hovered close to our guardian semi for another few miles. The panic welling in my throat was held at bay by my companions' silent composure. Signs to the Batesville exit emerged. I shot back up to 125 and I made the exit with neither truck nor Chevy in sight. I left them in the dust. I cut the lights and floated down the exit ramp into welcome darkness. The semi and the Chevy roared over us into the night. There was not a word spoken as we continued through Batesville, on our way down to the Delta. The terror gradually subsided. Finally, in small murmurs, with a few chuckles, we dared to believe it was over. I thought that the Packard Company must have been God's chariot maker.
We learned how to walk the killing fields. We learned all kinds of survival skills. Even today, Once I go into a small town, I know how to get out. And we learned that in the South, because you never wanted to be where you couldn't get out if you needed to. So many of us went from great fear to this ability to cope with terror and stay alive. Most of all, what kept us going were the relationships we had with each other.
Prathia Hall (one of my heroes) in her chapter in Hands adds another factor. She writes that the songs and prayers that were a part of every meeting, and she says that "they fashioned fear into faith, cringing-ness into courage. Suffering into survival. Despair into defiance. And pain into protest." And she captured the kind of transformation that you have in the sort of fiery heat of having to deal with this kind of danger, while trying to find 'normalcy' in our daily lives as we went about our work.
So what was my work? My work was in the beginning to do a literacy project in Selma which got blown up when my students — I had recruited four African-American students to work in the Selma Literacy Project to teach literacy in a Freirian way, using the current politics as a way to teach reading. The students arrived in Selma in June and then in July Lyndon Johnson signed the [1964 Civil Rights Act that desegregated public accomodations], The project staff went to the Tastee Freeze and got summarily arrested.
There was a law passed in Selma that three or more people could not meet — anywhere — without a permit or they would face arrest. So then we were on a list. Jim Clark targeted us, and there was no way we could continue the project. Some of the Selma Literacy project staff stayed on to work with SNCC. I went to Mississippi at the request of some SNCC organizers who needed education and training materials. The objective was to teach literacy by training people to participate in projects that the local community felt were important. It might be, for example, the agricultural elections (ASCS) which were very important for farmers. Or in Batesville they were doing an okra co-op, and could I please put something together that could teach co-op members what the fundamentals of a co-op are and at the same time tell the story so that other people in other communities could do co-ops like this?
Using Photography for the Movement
My training and educational materials depended a lot on photography. I felt it was important for black people to be portrayed as doers and as leaders....not as victims. And I kept bugging SNCC photographer, Bobby Fletcher, to come with me to photograph people in action. He finally said: Why don't you just take the pictures yourself? And I said: Because I don't know how to. He said: Well, learn!!. Richard Avedon and a bunch of other photographers had set up a project with Matt Herron in New Orleans where any SNCC member who wanted to could go down and learn the fundamentals of photography. And so I did. Matt told me what camera to order, and I started shooting in the Spring of 1965.
While I was just doing photography for utilitarian reasons, I was drawn to the power of what was around me as I watched people come out of themselves into their work. It commanded my lens. It was like I wasn't really in charge. It was that those moments were in charge in terms of what I captured. Not all of it was great images. Some are pretty crappy, but I caught things that no one else did which gave a visual context what we were doing.
Some SNCC supporters had brought to us the technology of film strips. I was experimenting with them as support for educational and training materials. A film strip could be made for 10 cents, and it was easily transportable to remote rural areas — as long as you could plug in a film strip projector. And I found that visuals were so much better in terms of communicating training concepts. Community People went beyond what you would expect, than if they just had a talking head trying to teach the materials. One of the organizers up in the Delta who were trying to do a union of crop pickers asked for materials on farm workers' unions. So I went over to California, and with the help of Cesar Chavez and a couple of his organizers, I developed a whole film strip on how the farm worker union organized and what it was doing. Interestingly enough, the filmstrips did more than help communities act. They opened up a view on the world to many who had never traveled outside their communities.
Father A.J. McNight, an African-American priest who founded several Southern cooperatives invited me to a meeting in Louisiana of farm workers from all over the region — many of whom had been evicted from their plantations. They were trying to figure out how to get some sustenance and work. I showed my Batesville okra co-op film strip, and then I showed the one about unionizing efforts of primarily Mexican and Filipino farm workers in California. Flickering up on the parish hall walls were photographs of union organizers and field workers being assaulted by white growers and hauled away to jail by white law enforcement. When the strip ended, there was a long silence. I was thinking: Oooh. I just missed the mark on this one. In the audience was an older gentleman who had worked all his life on a plantation in Tennessee and was now homeless, evicted as a result of his participation in the Movement. He rose up, and with tears in his eyes, he said: "You don't know how it feels to know that we are not the only ones." It was as though his life's burden of racism — I always get emotional reading this even though, I've read it a hundred times. It was as though his life's burden of racism was now shared with other people of color. Racism was no longer only white versus Black. And I think that that's a slogan that we need today: We are not alone.
And while I think among activist communities we've probably done a lot of good in terms of cultural alliance building, I would say at the basic public school level, our kids don't know each other's history. I speak to Black student groups on college campuses. I speak to Latino student groups. When I get to the point where I say: "We have to understand each other's histories. Yes, we are very distinct, but yes, we have shared oppression. Yes, colonialism is different than slavery, but the outcome much the same." ... it feels as though these words are falling on deaf ears. And I think much of it is because the educational system has either omitted or sanitized to paralyzing boredom the histories of people of color. Yet this history of oppression replays itself over and over in this country. There's a friend of mine who is organizing farm worker unions today in North Carolina, and about four or five years ago, he was told by a plantation foreman, he says: "We don't need niggers now. We've got new niggers," And he pointed to the Guatemalans in the field picking crops. And so that whole concept of plantations and slavery persists today, only now it's us.
[Maria sets up to show slides of some of her work]
Jean: While Maria is setting that up — she's very modest. Her photographs are wonderful, and she's been known as a fine photographer for many years. And she is one of only two, as I recall, women photographers in SNCC. The other one being Doris Derby.
Maria: Okay, one of the things that some of us did, and this is because [Highlander Research & Education Center] kind of provoked us to do this, was to do poetry. I call my poetry the "Poetry of Desperation." People often ask: why don't you still write poetry? I honestly don't feel called to it unless I am desperate. But some of it is in the book and I included some in this power point.
"We never knew whether we'd sleep
or if morning would come,
and we never knew would it do any good."
By this time in the Movement, 1965, it became: Okay, we'll do this, but where's it going? This photo of a long, muddy Mississippi road was the kind of organizing conditions that SNCC workers faced. This [poem] is in the book.
"It was the winter of evictions
of striking field workers,
of old people freezing to death under damp flower sack sheets,
of the Klan still celebrating the murders of the three: Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.
We came back from Atlantic City crowned in powerlessness, to start all over again on lonely plantation roads."
The next photo was taken at a protest on the abandoned Greenville air force base. This is an interesting ironic turn of events. What could evicted plantation workers do to find housing and jobs? No one seemed to care about them, least of all the federal government. Requests were made of the Air Force to let people habitat the empty air force base — which they totally ignored — they didn't even answer any phone calls or any letters or anything. Finally, after trying to do this through appropriate channels, homeless farm workers went to the base and occupied empty barracks.
Of course, within 24 hours, the Department of Justice guy came down and said: "You have to leave." And people said: "Where are we going to go?" He said: "I don't know, but you have to leave." And 24 hours later, the National Guard came in and began evicting people. And so these photos portray an evicted group of people bewildered and confused about where they could go next. They packed up their meager possessions in their suitcases and the soldiers herded them off the base. And what was so ironic about this is at the same time the U.S. troops were herding Vietnamese refugees out of their villages in the Mekong Delta into the jungle on the assumption that their villages were hiding places for the Viet Cong. And here in the Mississippi Delta, the people were African American, citizens of the United States — not Vietnamese — and the outcome was the same.
In this photo, taken in Rosedale Mississippi, these kids were voracious in their inquisitiveness. "Where are you from? What are you doing here? Are you a Freedom Rider?" Questions never quit, and they kind of lived where they lived, right up into their faces.
Here is a photo of a freedom school just packed with kids. Freedom schools were so popular in the African-American community, especially, in rural areas, that they often just didn't have room for the all the children. So this photo shows what the first day might look with people hoping their kids could get in, and the teachers wondering: What are we going to do with these kids? We don't even have enough crayons or paper or anything. Mississippi Freedom Schools were the precursor to the federal Head Start program.
I call this photo, "Amy's First Day." She was just petrified. And the children wore their best "goin' to church" clothes. And most never missed a day. But those were the children who had 'church' clothes and shoes. Those that did not were not able to come to freedom school.
This photograph is of Doris Derby in African garb. A lot of the work that was done in some of these Freedom Schools was around history and culture. Doris did this unit on Africa, working with really young children. SNCC always wove culture into everything. It never was just strict voting rights. It was cultural work, economic development, meeting basic needs of families etc.
In this photo, 16 year old June Johnson carries a sign that says "I wonder if White Power is dying." I want to talk a little bit about Black Power. A lot of those on the left and in the media who criticized black power said that the Black Power ideology came from Northern militants who imposed it on the Southern young Black people who were manipulated. Nothing is further from the truth. What I saw through my lens was that many folks who came out on the Meredith March that had never come out before. They would not march under the non-violent rubric, because they didn't trust themselves. They weren't going to do that. They didn't want to spoil it for Martin, but basically when somebody threw out that slogan, they picked it up as an expression of what they felt deep down.
Stokely and I don't know about how many people had been working in Lowndes County [Alabama] all Spring with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) which was the first Black Panther Party. As far as I know, this photo of a young man wearing a hand-drawn panther may be the first Black Panther t-shirt. I call this photo: "My man in Canton" and if you go back just a little, if you look at the expressions on these guys' faces, this is a different kind of feel to this march. It did make some people uncomfortable, but I have to say, in terms of SNCC's original base and some of the new young people, we may have failed in not reaching out to them.
Also a lot of people don't know that Bobby Seal and Huey Newton contacted the LCFO leadership and asked to borrow their logo for the national Black Panther Party? And they were given permission. What you sometimes read in the history books is that the Black Panther Party in Oakland appropriated the the black panther logo, and nothing is further from the truth. They asked respectfully for permission.
[See The Black Panther Symbol for additional information.]
This photo was taken in Holmes County [MS] which elected its first state legislator in 1967. The Freedom Democratic Party in Holmes County was made up largely of black families who owned their own land. The Holmes County movement is why I decided to move to New Mexico, because Mexican Americans in the Southwest were in danger of losing their land which would deepen poverty and be an assault on the culture. There were things that people in Holmes could accomplish because they didn't depend entirely on the white man for their existence. African-American landowners protected their homes and churches and their schools with guns before, during and after the movement. Not that they were toting guns to implement guerilla action; it was all about and only about self defense. Anybody, who says that Black Power injected violence into the Movement didn't understand first of all, that carrying a gun was a part of the way of life in both black and white rural southern communities. Secondly, it was very clear that armed families kept violence at bay. The Klan rode at their own risk in Holmes County. The Holmes County movement was the first to put an African-American into the Mississippi State Legislature since Reconstruction.
Many of these photos are part of an exhibit called "This Light of Ours" comprised of photos of primarily SNCC photographers. It opens in Salt Lake City this summer and will travel to Chicago and Memphis. It would be great to get it here in San Francisco. It needs 5,000 square feet. There's 130 images.
Peggy: Hello, brothers and sisters. What are we missing here today? Music! And singing! That's what we did in SNCC. So I can't sing, but you can. [Laughter] So I just want to ask those of you who have voices that can raise — just sing for a minute, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," do you know that one?
Peggy: Thank you! Thank you. Okay. I just want to thank my ancestors for being here today, and pay tribute. I'm so grateful. I'm grateful for my parents, for my ancestors that escaped from slavery, from Macon, Georgia in 1848. William and Ellen Craft went to Canada and escaped to England and came back after slavery and founded a school for escaped slaves.
I want to thank the nameless Black families that gave us a place to stay in the South when we came down [with SNCC]. I'm from New York, and many of us came, and they opened their homes to us. And I want to thank the nameless white families who at night snuck up to us and said: We're not for this, and they brought us a basket of food in the late night. And they were brave enough to stand up against segregation when it was not popular for them to do so. And I wanted to speak to some of the teenagers they've left here today, because when we were teenagers we asked ourselves: How could we tell our children that we existed during this time, and we did nothing? So I came from an activist family. I was blessed, because I always had to put my mouth and my feet where our beliefs were. So I just want to read a little bit from the piece that I have in the book.
Simply in My Blood
In the 1940s, my brother and I were recruited to integrate the Dalton School, a private school in New York City, the school whose students came from prominent New York activist families who fostered liberal ideas and stayed at the cutting edge of social reforms. Hank and I also became part of a group of Black students from other New York private schools who became involved in SNCC in the 1960s. Our social lives revolved around social justice and political issues, and our activism in the Freedom Movement. Of course, my brother and I followed the path of Munroe Trotter and his legacy of protest. It was simply in our blood.
The fifties were a very exciting time for me to be a teenager. I was a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews —where I met Faith
— and we sponsored several Kenyan students to study in New York and later U.S. cities due to a response to a request from Kenyan student leader, Tom Mboya. Mboya became a major trade unionist in Kenya and was later appointed by Jomo Kenyatta to be Independence Minister of Economic Planning and Development in 1963. The international involvement created a sense in me that I belonged to the WHOLE world. My brother and I were also active in the Harlem and New York chapters of the NAACP, and Stokely Carmichael, who sat around our kitchen table and later became chairman of SNCC, was my brother's pal. Together we all formed the Harlem Brotherhood Group, under the NCCJ. And one of the things that we did was literally to sweep the streets of Harlem, with brooms, up and down Lennox Avenue —I think it's Malcolm X Boulevard now
— in order to get folks to come out of their houses and discuss correcting some of the unjust conditions. We used to meet at the Harlem YWCA and YMCA and at local churches and other organizational halls.
Harlem, at that time, was a friendly and accessible community. It was like a small town. We had our own shoemaker, a butcher shop, and other stores. The merchants were Jewish, West Indian, and Italian. I was never afraid in Harlem. We didn't even have to lock our door, most of the time. Bob Moses lived near our home and so did Ronnie Brown and Don Harris and others who later joined the Movement. Some of my peers at Dalton also became involved. They included siblings Paul, Jeff and Holly Cowen, Penny Patch, and Andy Goodman, who was murdered in 1964 in Mississippi along with two other Civil Rights activists, James Chaney and Micky Schwerner.
Harlem was an incredible training ground for Black activism. There were so many Black organizations and institutions including the Countee Cullen, later the Schomburg Library, the YWCA's Emma Ransom House and St. Philip's, —which was my church
— St. Philip's Episcopal, and Ebeneezer Baptist Church. We heard Malcolm X speak at the local Muslim mosque, and we hung out late into night at Michaud's famous Black book store on 125th Street.
What did we Harlem teenagers do on a Saturday? We got up. We did our homework and our chores, and then we grabbed our picket signs and went down to the local Woolworth's store in support of the Southern sit-inners. The people I picketed with in those days were both Black and white, from my own Harlem community and from the whole of New York City.
And I just wanted to frame the issue for the young people today that there is something that you feel, that you know, that you have to do in your community. The discussion came up: What were we... how were we brave? And I think each person finds that inside of them, that seed of what they have to do, and it's no different today. Somebody said they were afraid to sign something because of the Patriot Act. Well, we were afraid, but you know, when you have a choice, what is it that you could do?
Sure, I came from a middle class Black family, and I could've been in the Cotillion, but I didn't. Instead, I was walking a picket line. So, you have to make your choices at a time in your life when you know if you want to tell people: I was there, and I did nothing. We know this happened during the Holocaust. We know it's happened timeless places all over. There are disappeared ones in our community now. Those who have no voice. Those who are our poor. Those who are our disenfranchised. I work in public health, and every day I see young women who are forced to deal with their bodies in ways because they don't have money. So it's not a question of what we did in those days. It's a question of what are we doing, right now. What are we doing now and every day to make a difference in the world?
I'm still working full-time and today's my birthday. I'm 68 today. And I can't think of a better place that I would want to be, I'm telling you. It was just fortuitous when Jean called and said: Would you come up here?
My very best friend, who was in the Movement with me in Albany, Georgia, died of breast cancer in 1988, Kathy Conwell. Kathy's a filmmaker and a writer and an incredibly gifted woman, and she made several films, and if she were alive today, we would be seeing some of her incredible art. So I miss her terribly, and we were teenagers together and doing things that only teenagers do, dreaming of going to Paris one day and dreaming of all the things that you dream of doing. But somehow we found ourselves in the fall of '62 chopping cotton in the back fields of Dawson and Lee County [Georgia], and I have more information about that in my story [in the book], if you read it.
I really think that everything that I want to say and wanted to say is in my piece. It's called: "It Was Simply in My blood."
Telling Our Stories
I also wanted to thank another colleague of mine who's passed on who taught at the University of California. Her name was Professor Veve Clark. One of the reasons that my piece is in this book is [that] one of her students, when the call came out for us to contribute, he interviewed me, and in 10 hours of interview, I just kind of got to spill my guts. And it was because she wanted her students to interview someone that was living that was a part of history so that the history would come alive for that young person, and so it was a privilege for both of us.
You know, we were in the room, and he would ask me questions, and I feel sorry for the editors, because he had to edit out so many inaccuracies that I — you know, when you're recalling memories that you really hadn't — I mean, I'm a journalist and a writer and a poet, but I hadn't ever put things down in kind of a sequential order. So I really urge people to do that. And the other thing that Veve and I do is we interview our elders. I urge you to do that right now. Get a tape recorder, take it to an auntie or an uncle and get them to tell you their stories, because their stories will die with them unless — You know, you've heard on NPR the — what is it called? StoryCorps.
And what we did is we became filmmakers and are a part of filming them and listening to their stories and playing the music that, in some ways, helps them do their memories. So you take a scrapbook or a family album and with them, you share it, and you open it up, and the stories come out. And many of the women that I interviewed in San Francisco in the '70s when I was a student in film at San Francisco State became just so alive. You could watch them remembering things, and of course in 1970, some of the women I interviewed then were 90 and they remembered their ancestors who were slaves.
So whether you're from Africa — your family — or England or Holland, every family has a story to tell. And that was what, I think, affected me very, very profoundly in the South was being a part of a community that was much different than where I had grown up in New York City. Where we were accepted into the homes, and I tell some funny things that happened in my piece, so I hope you read that. I'm just so grateful to be here today.
Two of my cousins are here who live in Oakland and Concord. I live in Los Angeles now. I'm in Southern California in Long Beach, California, so if you come on down that way, I urge you to look me up. We're going to be doing some book signings and some other things there. One of my colleagues here, Shirley Rodriguez, and I went to San Francisco State together. We graduated in 1975, and so we became filmmakers and journalists, and we're still telling our stories. So I'm here to tell my story, but the message I want to leave with you is that you have stories to tell too and that you have legacies, each one of you. And so I want to applaud you and thank you for coming.
Jean: Hi, folks. I won't be reading from my book. I hadn't really planned to that much, but to tell you the truth, I don't have the right reading glasses, [Laughter]. What I wanted to talk about was how I came to what I did write. My piece in the book is entirely a letter. It's a letter to my adolescent son, who is no longer an adolescent it's been so long since we started [the book project]. But this was one — I agree with Jane — this was one of the hardest assignments I'd ever had, and I was a reporter.
But for me, it was trying to figure out what aspect — there were so many aspects of the Movement. So many that I myself experienced, so where to start? Where do you go? A couple people mentioned the list that was sent out, some of the things that we might want to write, but I really don't remember a list. What I remember is asking a few of the editors very early on what would — is there anything that you'd especially like me to focus on? Nope — anything you care to share.
Well, I'm a person who likes to talk, as some of you in this room know. And I like to write, but telling me: Anything you care to share, leaves me in a state of terror, to tell you the truth. So it took me forever to try to figure out how to do this, what to say. I was swamped by images and memories and faces that I wanted to see again, and places that I wanted to be. I couldn't find a consistent voice.
Letter to My Adolescent Son
And then I got it. It was after a sort of an awkward moment with my teenaged son, and I thought: Here it is right here. I discovered that I was seeing SNCC through a lot of different lenses that — not only looking at it presently and into the past but even when I was in the South, even before I got to the South, one lens I was using was the lens of a budding writer. So I was seeing it as kind of story and plot and drama and interesting interlocking of setting, and you know, I was going to town. And of course, there was no place better for drama than SNCC. [Laughter] I mean, it was like — This is wonderful!
I was also looking at it from the point of view of somebody who grew up primarily in Baltimore. It's really Washington and Baltimore but primarily in Baltimore. So that meant that on February 1, 1960, I was already in the South. Now a lot of Baltimorians, they thought the South was the Eastern shore of Maryland, down in Cambridge. That was very much the South, and Baltimore was very much segregated as was Washington, D.C. at the time. That's where I was actually born. Just about everything was segregated. So it looked different because it was a city. It was an industrial city, but some of the — many of the symptoms of segregation were already there.
We're also — me and all of the other people — we're also coming out of the 1950s, which is a very strange — some of you have heard me say — a very strange period in the life of this country. You recall McCarthyism, of course. That didn't affect me personally to my knowledge, because I was just too young to know, but it was the tone of the entire country and it was the tone that no matter which direction you took, at some point you were going to get slammed. If it was an independent direction and position, you were going to get slammed with the Communist scare, the Red scare. I've always thought that it's to SNCC's credit, absolute credit, that: We're not going there. That's you guys' problem. That is not our problem. We are inviting anybody who's willing to come in and put their bodies on the line. I have never forgotten — it was such a wonderful thing to do, and it was so courageous mainly because these people were my own age. You know, we were all the same age, but to come out of the fear and fog of McCarthyism was a tremendous step, and SNCC paid for it. It paid for it big time.
I'm in Baltimore and the sit-ins strike, and there I'm both observer and participant. February 1, 1960, I'm in my second semester at Morgan State College which is now Morgan University, and I know first-hand that while the sit-ins surprised any number of people, especially a lot of people in Baltimore, they weren't all that surprising on the campuses. By the way, Morgan is a traditionally Black college, for some of you who don't know.
There'd been a lot of activity and movement in high school that accelerated and intensified once in college. There were lots of meetings between the various colleges. I was in student government, and I would end up being one of the people directing folks into the picket lines and into jail. And although I myself didn't go to jail until later when it was my turn to go to jail — by the way, jail became a badge of honor. If you kept just sending other people, that wasn't going to work. You had to eventually get there yourself.
So I'm not thinking about the South at this time, the Deep South — you see me doing it too, because Baltimore didn't consider itself South. Of course, it was the upper South, very much — and it doesn't occur to me that I would be going deeper into the South until I'm finishing up graduate school in Ann Arbor, where there was so much activity on the campus in organizing people to go to the South for the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
I didn't go to Mississippi that summer, but I got to the South, and where I got was a perfect place. It was Alabama, right next door, where I hadn't known there was so much activity happening until I actually got there. I'm at Tuskegee at this point, teaching there. Most of you know that Tuskegee had its own tradition of resistance, but not of the direct action kind. So another role for me became — very quickly became — not only a newcomer to the Deep South and a teacher, but also a teacher-activist.
Another role for me quickly became to organize students to go out into the counties, to go to Selma, to get the basic training that Maria mentioned in nonviolent direct action so that they could protect themselves. That was a really very, very exciting time. It was dangerous. I sometimes had a lot of misgivings about it, because I was then ushering young people into an unknown danger that was not comfortable. I have some of that in my piece. Not a lot of it, because I was trying to get somewhere else in my letter to my son.
I wanted to remember the good — I wanted to remember how much fun the Movement had been. We all hear and know about the brutality and the terror and the horror and the fear, and I wasn't sure that he was going to know that there is also fun in activism, that there is also joy, even, in activism. I wanted my son to know about the good times, how music — any time you talk to anybody — anybody who was in the South during those times, they're going to mention the music. They're going to mention the freedom songs, because as Prathia [Hall] said so well: That's what gave us the courage. It wasn't that the fear disintegrated; it was that it wasn't sitting out there all by itself. There was a great deal of courage, and there was also a great deal of camaraderie, of people who you hoped would be your friend for life, and I am very happy to say that just about everybody I ever met in SNCC became just that, a friend for life, many of whom my son had grown up with, many of whom he called uncle and auntie. I wanted to broaden it.
And you never know where activism is going to take you. You never know where it's going to lead. You just jump on board and go with the train. SNCC, for me, was a wonderful place to jump on board and just go with it. It expected me to do that.
I also wanted to dispel as briefly as I could, without going into a lot of detail, this myth about the position of women. Well, you know, it needs to be brought up because I think it's deliberate, that all the academics, everybody keeps getting it wrong. Well, hopefully this book will help, but part of my piece talks about the fact that — sentence says something like: I never found before or at any point after the Southern Movement, the freedom that I found inside it as a woman. Never. Never. For one thing, curiosity and energy, intellectual energy as well as physical energy, these were all treasured, and they were all expected from the men as well as the women. So it gave me a confidence that I could never have found, in the early '60s, anywhere outside SNCC. It gave me the feeling: Well, I can do this, and I can achieve.
But in SNCC, you had to do it — you had to learn fast, as a couple people have said. There was no time to fool around, you know? The good thing was everybody was learning fast, and therefore, you knew that you were going to make mistakes. And I made a number of mistakes, but the interesting thing was that people moved on. There wasn't the level of betrayal and sheer nastiness that I would discover when I left the South and returned to the North and the West. I never saw that there with anybody. The arguments were intense, to be sure, but people would argue forcefully, argue strongly, but everybody knew the next morning, everybody was going to be where they said. So, you know, you could argue, and actually some of the arguments were really quite stimulating and some of them were a little terrifying, but the point was everybody was going to be where they were supposed to be come the next day. I never quite saw that since, either.
So I wanted — [my son's] name is Cabral, and in my piece, I tell him — now that's something he already knew — but I tell him even your name is influenced by my experience in SNCC. Where else but SNCC would I have even heard of [Guinea-Bissau rebel leader] Amilcar Cabral? Where would I have heard of the [Third World] liberation movements? Where would I have known that, yes, for the rest of my life I am an adherent and practitioner of Pan-Africanism? I had a graduate degree, and I needed the intensity and the bravery and the curiosity of SNCC to get me places that I simply could not have gone in the atmosphere of this country in that period of time. So I remind him that he is named for Amilcar Cabral, the liberation fighter who was killed while fighting the Portuguese.
I end by stressing to him that I hope that this gives him some idea of the richness, that I'm not diminishing the hard times, and I actually did mention a couple of the hard times, because it was also during the writing of this that I realized I was still grieving. I lost two students, students I was taking out into the county — yeah. One of whom was Sammy Young, Jr. who Jim Foreman wrote the book about [Sammy Younge, Jr.]. I lost one of my dearest friends, Ralph Featherstone, so, you know, it was an intense time. It was a time that I wouldn't take nothin' for this journey — you know what I mean? I wouldn't take nothin' for this journey. I had to have that, and thank God I did. Thank you, everybody.
Jean: There's nobody in the Bay Area who doesn't know Betita, and admire and respect her tremendously. Her daughter Tessa is going to read from some of her piece in the book.
Tessa: Good afternoon. I'm going to read part of my mother's piece in Hands on the Freedom Plow, entitled "Neither Black nor White in a Black/White World." It begins like this.
A Hidden Place
One evening almost 40 years ago —This was written five years ago
— I was with Jim Foreman, the former Executive Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at a friend's house in Puerto Rico, where I had been helping Jim prepare a first draft of his book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries. We had gone there to get away briefly from the pressures of SNCC work and concentrate on the book. That night we were talking about the Puerto Rican people and how they seemed to come in every color, from vanilla white to ebony.
'We're all Black, don't you see?' Jim said. 'African people and Puerto Rican people and Mexican people, we're all Black in the eyes of racism.'
I thought to myself, 'There's a lot of sense in that and a reason to unite in common struggle.' I knew that more enslaved Africans had been brought to Mexico than the number of Spanish invaders who went there and that over time they mixed in. But Mexicans and other Latinos also have their peculiarities: language, culture. We don't want to give up all that. So I said nothing to Jim, because the truth seemed to be somewhere in between his thought and mine, in a hidden place we had yet to find.
White SNCC Workers: A Major Issue
Sitting together at a 1965 staff meeting, Ella Baker and I whispered almost the same words to each other about SNCC. 'I think we need an ideology. It's a heavy word, ideology, but I think we both meant an analysis that provides guide posts to fundamental social change, a world view accompanied by principles, strategies and tactics.' For me, such a world view would be founded in Marxism with a Cuban revolutionary accent.
Headed in a very different direction, a faction of Black SNCC members focused on the presence of white people on SNCC's staff as a major problem, even the problem. SNCC took its first organizational step on that issue at the Kingston Springs, Tennessee staff meeting of May 1966. White activists should organize in the white community while Black activists continued in the Black community. Everyone agreed. Since SNCC wasn't organizing in the white community, this decision signaled to white staff: Go do your own thing. It is necessary, but not for SNCC to do.
Some months later, at the full staff meeting held on the New York estate of Black entertainer, Pegleg Bates, a louder note was sounded. An hour or two after midnight, those staff still present voted to expel white staff members. Several Black SNCC leaders opposed the decision, and the next morning Jim Foreman dramatized his concern by moving to dissolve SNCC and hand over its assets to help newly independent African nations. This motion failed, but the meeting did agree that whites should stay after all, however without voting rights. In any case, only seven white staffers remained.
Black, White and Tan
The white staff debate signaled an identity crisis for SNCC, and I gradually stepped up to questions of my own. There were two Chicanas on SNCC's staff then: Mary Maria Varella and I. As far as anyone seems to remember, we were classified as white, even though I did not consider myself either white or Black. I also do not remember identifying myself as Mexican-American until I wrote a long paper to SNCC's Atlanta headquarters titled, "Black, White and Tan" in June 1967. It was my first attempt to air some thoughts as a Mexican-American. The term Chicano/Chicana was not much used on the East Coast as yet. In that paper, I described the racism experienced by Mexicans with the goal of showing linkage between the Black and Brown struggles.
No response to that paper ever came. I do not remember being surprised or hurt by the silence. I knew that almost everyone in the United States at that time saw race relations in strictly black/white terms. A blinding ignorance about Latino/Latina-Americans, Asian, Pacific Island-Americans and Native Americans marked the whole society. Among most Black people, other peoples of color might be seen as allies but rarely as part of a fundamental racial paradigm. I don't remember how SNCC viewed Arab-Americans. The belief in Islam may have made a difference there.
Later that year, I stepped down as head of the New York office, yet I continued to work under Ivanhoe Donaldson and with Kathleen Cleaver who was also new on the staff. But after the trip to Cuba with SNCC in 1967, I left SNCC to write the book, The Youngest Revolution, a personal report on Cuba. Thinking about a Spanish-speaking revolution consumed me. The ground of my life was shifting, stretching. Then came August 1968, the season of global revolutionary movements.
On June 5, 1967 in New Mexico, 20 armed Mexicanos active in the land struggle had taken over a courthouse when police violated their right to organize. A year later, a friend asked me to go with him to Northern New Mexico and start a bilingual movement newspaper about the land struggle there. Something clicked, but still, could I do a newspaper in the Southwest where I had never been? That would be really arrogant. But, why not go visit for a week or two?
On the day of my flight to Albuquerque, a crisis involving SNCC and the Black Panther Party exploded in New York City. Plans for a joint press conference at the United Nations, demanding freedom for Huey Newton collapsed in the face of unresolved conflicts between the two organizations. The plane left with me on it, upset because I had wanted to spend my life tearing down the prison called white supremacy, and there was no better place to do it than alongside African-Americans. Working for SNCC from 1961 to 1968 had therefore seemed perfectly natural. What would be natural now?
When the plane landed late that night, you could see the soft, mysterious shape of the Sandia Mountains nearby in the moonlight. The warm air reminded me of a nighttime landing at La Paz, Mexico. A voice inside me said, 'You can be Martinez here. It feels like home.'
Later, another voice would say, 'This New Mexico has its own prison of white supremacy. It is more of a colony where the police and judges and many officials are Brown, but real economic and political power is in white hands. The Brown people were born colonized, not enslaved like Blacks, but white supremacy dominates both.'
So, 'The two prisons are really one, and the fight is really one, said the last and loudest voice. Let us tear down all such prisons together. Go liberate.'
That was the hidden place of truth I sought in that earlier conversation with my beloved friend, Jim. That is where I have tried to live ever since. That is tomorrow's great meeting place.
Scott B: There is one question that always bothered me, when I was in SNCC, was the very fact of how the blacklisting worked. I understood what happened to those who were involved with the Red Scare and McCarthyism. But what about Black people concerning being blacklisted? When did that occur? How did it occur? How did it function?
As I got older, and as I've been involved in the Civil Rights Movement practically all my life, Stokely and I had a very interesting conversation about that in Lowndes County. We were sitting outside, sipping on some hooch and talking about how things were, how things should be. That's when the issue came up concerning the blacklists. Many people in SNCC, many supporters in SNCC, have undergone unknown to them, many horrible things have been done to them because of their viewpoints and their positions they took years ago, and it's still going on today. Right now, we have our youth running around, don't have any direction. Whose fault is that? It's our fault. And what caused that? Certain, small, little things would happen in our lives that would change all that. But I'm very glad to be here with you, but I get very emotional and get upset when I mention about Ralph Featherstone. It's just too much to take sometimes.
Freedom Songs and Change
Peggy: I just wanted to piggyback on something that someone mentioned from one of our speakers today, about what happened with those jailers that jailed us. Faith and I were in jail in Crestfield, Maryland in 1961, on the Eastern Shore, and it was Christmas time. And we ended up singing Freedom songs, and little by little, the jailers ended up singing those Freedom songs with us. Remember?
So, you know, ultimately some change, I think, has to come about through confrontation. And that is something that we know. And other, I don't know how you would characterize it, maybe usurping it from someone, but they ended up perpetuating the very thing that we were trying to do — without them even realizing it. So I just wanted to mention that, because it happened over and over and over again, even when I was in a stockade in Georgia, and they were shooting outside. We just kept singing the Freedom songs, and little by little, that message subdued some of their activity. So it's just something that sticks in my mind, and that's why I started with singing, because I think whenever we're gathered together here, we have to continue to raise our voice in song. And that's what our Southern brothers and sisters taught us. It's so important, that song is just endemic and a part of who and what SNCC was all about.
Mike: Now, you're talking Black jailers or white jailers?
Peggy: No, white jailers. The white jailers. There weren't any Black jailers. [Laughter] You know, in the one in Crestfield, we were upstairs, and we could just hear them. In the stockade, we could see them, because they were trying to intimidate us by taking the shotguns up and down and outside. So sometimes you could hear them from their offices or their cages or wherever they were. It wasn't like them coming and singing jointly with us, but it was something that was infiltrating, and I guess is what I wanted to convey.
Women in SNCC
Seventh woman from audience: Well, I can't quote who said it, but the old saw is that the women who were in the Civil Rights Movement — the only good spot for them was prone.
Cathy: "What is the position of the women in SNCC? The position is prone." That's the quote.
Seventh woman: It was very offensive, and so I was wondering can you comment on that? You Jean, had made some remark about having to struggle through the position or something.
Jean: No, I made a comment that I didn't have to — I found both the women and the men equally supportive and helpful in keeping me safe and in keeping me learning how to do things to keep other people safe as well. I saw absolutely no distinction.
I mean, I was literally nurtured by a number of SNCC men including the man who is said to have said that, who was [Stokely] Carmichael. And I remember when I heard it — I mean, he was one of my mentors, one of the veterans that I worked with when he and several others came out of Mississippi and into Alabama — and I knew when I saw it, I could see his face, so I knew it was a joke. Because first of all, he had chosen several women as [directors of] Mississippi projects. So there was that. And knowing Carmichael and his weird sense of humor, I could understand that he might have said that, but I certainly never dreamed that he thought that, and none of his actions [indicated that he] did either. I'm talking about this from my own experience, but I've certainly heard the same from other women, both white and Black.
Hardy Frye: I would just like to thank you for [clarifying] Stokely Carmichael's comment [about women's position in the Movement]. Having been around the Movement and teaching about it in the university, I've had to confront that question over and over again. And no matter what I would say — that I didn't recognize it either, what I [experienced] in Holly Springs and other places I had worked — it was like it was hitting on deaf ears. That it was against feminist theory which I'm not against, I'm for. I'm very glad to know that somebody [has now dealt with] that question in the literature, because I think it prevents us from getting through [to people] what we were all about.
I mean, I'm not going to argue that we weren't somewhat sexist, but we certainly were attempting to address it. You know, the question that comes up in the classroom is that SNCC was sexist. And that somehow that diminished the woman's role in the Movement. And I would say: No. The reality is, I think, that the literature didn't address it. It's just out there, and it automatically becomes negative. That's all. And I'm glad [Maria] addressed it.
Eighth woman from audience: I'm thinking about the memo that Casey Hayden and Mary King wrote, and what I'm inferring from what you say is that it was for white men internally in the organization. It was addressed to the white men in the Movement. I'm asking you to speak to that memo and the content of it. It talks about women doing the mimeographing, not being seen as a first class citizen in the Movement so that there was another dynamic besides the protective dynamic that you're saying that came from interaction between white women and Black.
[SNCC Position Paper: Women in the Movement was written and presented to a SNCC conference at Waveland MS. in the Fall of 1964. It addressed the roles of women and men in SNCC in general, not specifically Black or white.]
Chude: I think that [regarding] the question of women in the Movement, there is a distinction to be made about white women and the danger they brought — we brought — especially in Mississippi and the Deep South. Many times I've seen over the years in women's liberation discussions about the Southern Freedom Movement that this is disregarded. This was serious. You could get people killed doing nothing but trying to be an activist. There were four [civil rights workers] killed in the Summer of '64 — the three who were murdered that we know were murdered, and one Black worker from the project in Holly Springs. Now we don't know whether [his death] was intentional. He was killed in a car accident [under mysterious circumstances]. But one thing I now know is that he did tend to drive around in Benton County and elsewhere with white women.
And so therefore, the reason that white women in, for example, the Summer of '64, tended to be working either in the office or in the [Freedom] Schools — more traditional female work — was in part because it was dangerous in many places for white women to be in the field. Now there were always exceptions. In our project in Holly Springs, one person who had a car was Aviva Futorian, a white woman. So she started a Freedom School in Benton County, but she had a car. After that summer, some of the white women who stayed — Ivanhoe Donaldson, our project leader, sent them into two counties in northern Mississippi which were so dangerous that he thought that they were more likely to be able to make inroads as two white women than any of the Black workers. But it was two white women. They did not go in an interracial group.
Jean: It goes back, to what Chude mentioned about white women and Black women in the Deep South. I understand that it's true what Mary King and Casey — and by the way, they're both in this book as well, and I think they address this issue. While it was certainly true that more white women were pretty much confined to office, secretarial kinds of things, it was precisely because of what Chude raised, not moving around in the counties with other Civil Rights workers because they would be a target. They, meaning the women, would be a target — not only themselves a target but whoever they were with, a target. So yeah, there were instances [of that].
That doesn't mean that Black women didn't man those desks and typewriters and telephones as well, but one of the first things that I had to do was learn how to drive at fast speeds on unpaved roads. I was not allowed to go in and out of Selma and other rural Alabama counties working in the Movement without learning how to dodge, and dodge quickly, those armed trucks — those men, you know, armed men with shotguns, hanging out of their — I had to learn how to drive on the dirt roads and get everybody where we were supposed to be safely. And I resisted, by the way, I resisted that. Of course, I didn't bother to tell anybody that I had just learned how to drive. [Laughter] I had just gotten my license in the first place. But, you know, I felt — okay, I'm being treated [equally] here. I've got to learn just what the men do, and I went on hours of lessons. I had to prove I could do it. So, there were differences; I agree.
But see, I'm always puzzled by this thing about — I'll try not to preach here — about —
[Many in audience]: Go ahead!
Jean: — about sexism in SNCC or sexism in the Movement. Because I'm thinking, well, did you check out the Berkeley campus? Did you check out Stanford in 1962? '63? '64? Give me a break! The entire country, you know, was [sexist]. And so this constant dragging in this question to make it look like this was the only place in the country that was sexist to its core? And we're seeing other things, this means of denigrating a lot of what some people found most valuable, that they learned about themselves as people. And I think it's intentional. It's not accidental, because we're all here, you know? And that's one of the good things about this book is that it shows you many people in many capacities working in many capacities for the Movement in the South.
Cathy: One of the things about being in the Movement for me was living in Black communities, and living in Black communities, I experienced the strength of Black women, the leadership they often provided in their families and in their churches. I came from a middle-class family. My mother did not get paid for her labor. I had one friend whose mother had a job and got paid for her labor, and I hung out around that mother a lot and watched her, and I saw the power that she had because she got paid for her labor. I was very inspired by that.
It's not to say there wasn't any sexism in the Black community. Why wouldn't there be? I would say [for example] that there were a certain number of SNCC cars, and they were assigned to people. And the number of men who had control of SNCC cars was far in excess of the number of women who had access to SNCC cars. So I say this to try to give you a range of information. [But] I too resent the way historians and academics have misused that quote and have overstated the reality and importance of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement.
Ninth woman: Can I just make a final point? It's known that one of the consequences is the record that women left the South and those who lived in New York went back to New York and started consciousness raising groups. That's not accurate? That they were not motivated by that [memo]?
Chude: Well, let me say, I am one of the women who started the Women's Liberation Movement in New York City. I'd never heard of that memo.
Ninth woman: Oh, I did.
Chude: I know you did, but I didn't. Remember, social movements do not come from one place. They come from a lot of places.
I want to make one other point — in her autobiography [From the Mississippi Delta], and I believe it's also in [the film] Freedom on My Mind, Endesha Ida Mae Holland makes the point that when she goes into the Greenwood office, there's an African-American woman typing. She didn't believe African-American women could type. She thought the woman was just pecking. She talks about this being such an amazing wonderful thing. So when we start thinking about sexism meaning that women are in the office, let's realize that we're denigrating that work if we say that's sexism. And I just think that is a reminder that for her — that a Black woman could be in the office typing and could have the kinds of responsibilities that women in those offices had — that was liberation. It wasn't oppression.
Cathy: So, I have another angle on this, for white women — not for the Black women but for the white women. The Civil Rights Movement was about integration and desegregation, but the Freedom Movement was also about Blacks' self determination, and it was about that way before we had the "Black Power" slogan and the Black Panthers. So, in '64, if you're a white woman in the Movement, what is your role? What can you contribute when the main need is for Black self determination and Black leadership and the Black community seeing that they can do it? And one of the answers to that is [to contribute] whatever skills you might have that might be like typing, or for [Maria] it was photography or making slide shows. I mean, that's another reason that we were in the office is because it wasn't appropriate for us to be the full-out leaders in a movement about Black self determination. So that's what happened to some of the woman, the white women.
Faith: I wanted to say about the woman question, we could obviously stay here all night, but in this famous list [of questions from the editors] that Jane mentioned — things that people might write about — one of the things we mentioned was the role of women in SNCC. That was an obvious thing that people might talk about. Of the hundreds of women to whom we sent that list, asking them to contribute, nobody, with maybe two exceptions, chose to write about being asked to be on their backs.
Most people said [their participation with SNCC] was affirming. We were young women of the 1950s. I grew up in New York City where, when I went to get summer jobs when I was in high school, the classified ads in the New York Times were for women — jobs for women and jobs for men. I'm sure it was everywhere, but it's shocking to young people, and that was like a, you know, very respectable paper, etc.
So yes, the men of SNCC were also the product of the '50s. They were also, many of them, the product of not only the South, but Southern theological institutions. And so I think it's extraordinary, despite the occasional incidents, that they rose above backgrounds to look at the real theology and say: All people are equal. And so Charlie Sherrod, my project director, insisted I learn how to speak publicly. I really didn't want to. He said: If you're a soldier in this army, you need to learn how to speak in public and actually, of course, I came to love it. [Laughter]
We can't go through it all, but it really is striking that in this book where women were invited to talk about how awful it had been to be a woman in SNCC, that's not present in this book.
Chude: I wanted to make one comment. We have a Discussions section on the website. I was asked to speak on a panel about women in the Southern Freedom Movement, so the Bay Area Veterans had a discussion [Women & Men in the Freedom Movement]. And afterward, I mean it just knocked my socks off, that's why I want to tell you to read it, because it's so interesting because of course we got into sex. Not just, you know, roles, but sex. And the men's stories are fascinating, what the men have to say. And then I realized, when Bruce had given us the edited copies [of the discussion transcript] to look at, that always the discussion of women in something is when sex is discussed. You don't ever say "men" and then talk about sex. So I realized, we needed to name this "Women and Men in the Movement." So I just wanted to add that, and I encourage you to read it, because I've never read anything like it anywhere else.
Mike: Did the question ever arise among the editors of whether any SNCC men should be invited to write? Or was it from day one —
Faith: It was from day one. And we did make some choices like, the men are present in women's pieces. But when we started this book, which was 15 years ago, there was even less literature than there is now. There's actually been several good sized books about women in the Southern struggle.
Jean: I think the book as a whole — apart from the question of sex and bedding down, it also shows the rich variety of roles that women played and the way that we picked those up. And as I said, we had to pick them up fast and move with them, and yet other women as well as men were involved in it. You can't come away from this book and continue to have — unless it's totally willful — a distorted view of women in the Southern struggle. And I'm saying the Southern struggle. I mean, it's SNCC women, but in my head, it's the Southern struggle. You can't come away from it without having that sense. So it's very powerful, and this book really did need to happen. [Laughter]
Man from the audience: I'd like to offer a comment on that. I [worked] in the Laurel office, Mississippi, the COFO office in Laurel, from early July to the beginning of September. The head of the office was Gwen Robinson And she was dynamite, and she ran the office. She was from SNCC.
Man from the audience (continued): One other comment addressing something you said at the end of your topic and that was I found it really easy to be nonviolent in Laurel, because so many of the local community were into self-defense. [Laughter] With 30-30's and double barrel shotguns. The guy I lived with, and I was the only [civil rights worker] in his house. His house was really secure, and he had a screened in porch. And he would be on the porch in a rocking chair every day with a double barrel shotgun across his legs as we walked down the dusty streets to register people to vote. The singing gave us lots of security, but so did the self defense.
Faith: Well, I did want to say about the guns — there were guns in the South on our side. They weren't particularly used, but if you read Gloria Richardson's piece, she talks about hearing the guns in the Black community click as the white people go through. And I was in houses that were guarded by people sitting out front. I also want to say that I heard Willie Ricks in the summer of 1963 use the expression "Black Power," which is not generally known. It was an isolated incident. It's in there.
Sharon Martinas: I just finished reading the entire [Hands on the Freedom Plow] book, a lot of sleepless nights. I can't urge you enough to do it. One of the things that impressed me so much, not only the commitment, which I already knew, but the incredible courage in the face of life and death. And I know from my own experience — I was in Selma in a Freedom School in '65, and that was my first experience. I had commitment, but I was scared shitless. And so I guess my question to you is two-part. One, if you could speak a little about where that courage came from and the choices you made to exercise it then, and how your experience of acting on that courage has impacted your activist and organizing work in any particular ways since then.
Jean: I think if I had thought of it in terms of courage, I wouldn't have gotten very far. [Laughter] I thought of it more as a place and a cause that I needed to be into. It was not enough to read it in the newspaper, to be told about it at a fundraising activity when field workers came up north to raise money that was always scarce. I needed to be there. And I needed to do it even while I was terrified. And on many occasions I was terrified. I'm going to admit it straight up.
And I wish that we had talked about that. See, I thought I was the only one. [Laughter] We talked about everything under the sun, as I remember, except the fear that we were carrying around, both for ourselves and for each other. And in my case, it was for my students. I lost a couple of students — dead. So to answer your question, courage didn't come into it. It was just something that compelled me and that I knew that I was absolutely in the right place. It didn't occur to me: "Grab a train and head back to Ann Arbor. Maybe this ain't for you."
But I wish — I really wish — that we had talked about this more among ourselves. We could have eased that so much better. I thought everybody — I thought nobody was afraid. I thought: Okay, well it's me, because the others are more veteran than me. I didn't realize that once you had been in the Movement for three weeks you were considered a veteran. [Laughter] And especially if you went to jail. If you spent three days of those three weeks in jail. I didn't know that. So I don't think you start out — I guess what I'm saying is maybe we don't start out with the first thing on our mind as courage. Maybe there's something — some other foundation.
Cathy: You know, I had had to fight to have friendships with Black kids my age, and so to me to be in the Movement was finally getting there after many failures. So that's one thing. The other thing, we were young. I mean, death — death didn't really — I mean, I'm 68. Death is real now. [Laughter] Seven of my friends died this year. The other day I realized, you know, 100% of us are going to die. That's quite a statistic. [Laughter] But the thing about not talking about death — what I remember was we didn't talk about our feelings and being afraid of death, but we joked about it a lot. How we handled it was making jokes, and laughing, and getting the tension off of us.
And then how do I use it today? Well, I think of two things. The other day I went for a walk with a friend and our dogs at the Berkeley Marina and I was kind of showing off, and I said, "Let's go back this way, and let's go up that steep way. If we get halfway up there, and it doesn't look like we can do it, we can come back down". Well, we got halfway up there, and it's harder to go back, and it was muddy. It was really scary, and I just had to slow down and think and just do it. Just do it, Cathy. And I got to the top. And you know, I really do connect that with some of what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement.
The other thing is I belong to an organization, and I brought up an idea in the organization that a number of people were really against, and one of the women looked at me, and she said, "Cathy Cade, you have to have a lot of guts to bring that up." And I thought, "I have done things that are so much scarier than this. You cannot begin to compete."
And the last thing I'll say is at the recent Old Lesbians Organizing for Change National Conference, we had a workshop on people who had been in the Civil Rights Movement and were now in OLOC. We were speaking, and it was like this. And my favorite quote from that is this woman saying, "Well, most of us came out after the Civil Rights Movement. After being in the Civil Rights Movement, when I came out, I skipped the closet." [Laughter]
Jean: There were two other things that we didn't talk about [in addition to] the terror around us and how terrified we were. There are two other things we didn't do that I think as I grow older — I see that we should have done. One, Chude talks about in one of her poems. We didn't grieve. We didn't allow the time and the space to grieve. I don't know why that was, but we didn't. And some of us would be grieving for years and decades, and in some ways, I am, myself, now. If I were working with young people, that's one of the things that I would hope that they find and help them find.
The second thing that we didn't do to my satisfaction is consult with the other generation, to the extent that we should have. I mean, there were giants — Howard Zinn, but you know, you couldn't not — because Howard Zinn was everywhere, you know? But just consult more, listen more. I feel that very strongly now since I'm not being asked to share a very rich experience, and we're constantly looking for people to ask us to speak at their places.
Kathy Sloane: What I love about this book is that there are so many voices in it. It's pretty unusual to collect 52 voices in one book. I think even 52 is still a selection from hundreds or thousands, so those of you who either worked on the book or knew of it in the many years of working on it, would it have been very different if it had been a different 52 people? And if so, how? Can you even speculate about something like that?
Faith: I don't know, but we made a commitment to ourselves and to the people in this room very early on that anybody who sent us a piece, that piece would be in the book. There were some people, Taylor Branch, I think was one, who said: Oh, you have several really strong pieces, and: Oh, you also have several really weak pieces. And we, as a group — we often disagreed about other things — but we made a total commitment that anyone who sent in a piece, we would include them, which I think, because we didn't say what was good or bad, increased the diversity. And we did, as I said, work to include Black Southern voices that might not have been. So yes, it could've been totally different.
Mike: So this is 52 out of how many who were sent the survey?
Faith: Well, we need to look that up. I remember a little over 100 and then somebody would say: Oh, you know, Maria's out in New Mexico, or, This one's in North Dakota. Or we'd see people at conferences. Probably 200 to 250 total. Martha Noonan has one hell of an address book. [Laughter] Handwritten, in pencil. And then some other — Reggie Robinson has a fantastic address list, and then like the Mississippi Vets list.
Jean: Another question to you, Faith. You raised the question about 52, you and Mike. Isn't it so that one of the reasons the book took so long to find a publisher was because many had advised you to cut and cut and cut and maybe cut out, and you refused to do that. That's the story that I thought I heard some time ago, that you insisted that those who contributed got in the book, in the final analysis.
Faith: Some editors did suggest that, and I think somebody like Taylor Branch, and it may not be he, but somebody who was established suggested that we just cull out the strong pieces, but then you're injecting, of course, your own view of what a strong piece is. We did have probably 2000 pages of what used to be called typescript, hard copy, and we ended up with about — I think probably about 800.
And lots of interesting issues. One of them that we dealt with was we wanted to keep people's voices, but we also wanted people to be proud of what was there. And at one point, Martha figured out the only people — there were just a few of them — who had the word "ain't" in their pieces were all Southern Black women. And her position, which we eventually adopted, was that maybe that wasn't cool. But it's a choice. I mean, we wouldn't have insisted somebody [change their wording]. And it evolved, so people sent in pieces. Peggy sent in a piece early on. By the time we understood the weight of this book, people were revising their pieces too. And we learned a lot about the Movement, just because of what we read.
Finding the Publisher
Second man from the audience: How did you get to the University of Illinois? How did you get a publisher?
Faith: Right. Well, we met with the agent, Ralph, for six years and never got accepted, including — we had four contracts offered to us. The University of Illinois, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina. Each of the editors for those presses had turned the book down in a less edited version when it came through the agent.
When we decided to market it ourselves, a well-known Civil Rights historian — we asked him to look at it several times — he went into the University of Illinois, put the book on the editor's desk and said: You need to publish this book.
I also think it's — when you read it, there's so much merit. Granted that many books with merit do not get published, but I think this book really almost had to get published. And if it had been published by a smaller press, we still would've done — I think that things like this event sell this book and get the word out. And they have a great history of publishing books about Civil Rights issues, justice issues.
It was the only press where the woman who — the editor who offered us the contract was a woman. They were all white.
Chude: We would like to end with singing. And I'd like to suggest that we all stand. And Wazir is going to help us lead.
Wazir: "Oh Freedom."
[Group sings "Oh Freedom"]
Wazir: We will end, as we always end —
[Group stands, links arms and sings "We Shall Overcome"][Applause]
[Excerpts from Hands on the Freedom Plow used with permission of the authors.
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