Remembrance of Women in the Freedom Movement
Joyce Ladner
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

If you ever saw a group of highly individualistic people, they were in SNCC. We had staff meetings that would last for days and days and you'd think you're going to arrive at a decision after all this dialectical stuff goes on, and then someone jumps up and says, "Well, who gave you the right to decide?" and then you start all over again. Ivanhoe Donaldson, God bless him, was one of the main ones, and Stokely Starmichael, and Courtland Cox, and the Howard University crew — we used to dub them that because they had studied with Bayard Rustin in New York and they were much more ideological than we locals. I was a local Mississippi person, and had a very strong local black southern identity. So there were all kinds of clashing identities based on how people perceived themselves and their roles and the purposes for being In SNCC.

I looked through Clay Carson's book on SNCC, In Struggle. Clay is a historian from Stanford who has written the definitive work on SNCC, and I've got a quote from it. What he writes is that "Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep rooted and every much as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro. Not only did male staff members feel 'too threatened; to face the subject but many female members were as unaware and insensitive as men, just as there are many Negroes who don't understand they are not free or who want to be part of white America." It goes on to say that, "SNCC should force the rest of the movement to stop the discrimination and start the slow process of changing values and ideas so that all of us gradually come to understand that this is no more a man's world than it is a white world." This is [partially] quoting the SNCC position paper on women.

I'm reminded of an incident that occurred with my dear sister, Dorie. When Dorie was about twelve years old and I was about eleven (she always says I'm the older), we went to the grocery store — Hudson's Grocery in Palmer's Crossing, four miles outside Hattiesburg, Mississippi — to buy some donuts. There was a white cashier, a man named Mr. Patton who had no fingers on his right, hand. Dorie paid Mr. Patton for these donuts; he gave them to her in a brown bag. As she reached for them, he reached over and touched her breasts, which were just beginning to develop. She took the bag of donuts and beat him across the head. Now, why did I tell you that story? I stood there as the little sister watching this. We went home; we ran all the way home, we literally ran, and told my mother what happened. She said, "You should have killed him."

That story has a great deal of importance because we were just two little black poor girls, eleven-, twelve-year-old girls, growing up in Mississippi where you have all these stereotypes about how everyone's oppressed, how people don't even know that they're oppressed. We knew we were oppressed. We always knew. We also knew, however, that we came from a long line of people, of women, who were doers, strong black women who had historically never allowed anyone to place any limitations on them. Therefore my mother could say to us, "You should have killed him," and she meant it, because she would have killed him. She would have done precisely that.

Mother never heard of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth; Mother was one of eleven children; Mother went through third grade. But Mother also inherited the tradition that a Sojourner Truth or a Harriet Tubman set before her.

I'm not speaking autobiographically so much as I am trying to strike a responsive chord for a generation of young black women from the South who came into SNCC. Our mothers and fathers taught us that we are "as good as anyone." Never allow anyone to call you out of your name. Never allow anyone to abuse you or to misuse you. Always defend yourself. All of our parents had guns in the home. And they weren't only for hunting rabbits and squirrels, but for self-defense. The South has always been heavily armed, as you well know.

My mother was never involved in the civil rights movement. There were a lot of inherent contradictions in my mother and all the other mothers, because she was terrified of what might happen. When we became involved in the movement she was scared the Klan would come and burn down the house, but at the same time she was the same mother who allowed Vernon Dahmer, who was murdered by the Klan, and Clyde Kennard, who was killed by white racists in Mississippi, to take us as fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls, to Jackson, ninety-four miles away, to the NAACP state mass meetings when Roy Wilkins came to town, when Gloster Current, the Director of Branches, came to town, when blacks from all over Mississippi would come to these meetings.

It was illegal to be a member of the NAACP in Forrest County, in Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, but people carried their cards very proudly, and we as children in the schools used to whisper and talk rather proud and say, "We heard that Mr. Clark, our math teacher, is a member of the NAACP," and we looked rather favorably on those people. That was the tradition that I come from. It was the tradition of my mentors, including Medgar Evers, who I met in early 1956, 1957, around then, when we used to go with these adults to meetings in Jackson. Medgar Evers came to Hattiesburg in 1959. We were in the eleventh grade, and he helped us to start an NAACP youth chapter. He never turned to us and said "You two Latin girls," as we were referred to, "should let the boys serve as heads of this local youth organization." No one ever told us anything about our limitations because of our gender.

When we went to college, 1960, we used to slip off campus. We spent our first year of college at Jackson State, and it was the single most oppressive experience I ever had in my life. I've had a lot of experiences, but never anything that oppressive. But we used to slip off campus and go two blocks up the street to Medgar Evers's office to talk to him, to keep in touch with what was going on. He told us that students at Tougaloo College were going to stage a sit-in. Sit-ins had occurred all over the South, but not in Mississippi.

But the NAACP did not consider it in any way wise to stage a sit-in in a public accommodations facility. What they did decide to do was to challenge another kind of institution. They had Tougaloo students sit in at the public library. We asked him if we could participate. And a very strange thing, the one reason we couldn't was that we would have been expelled from Jackson State immediately on a technicality. If you can believe this, it was that we would have had to sign out, you had to sign out every place you went — to the public library and it was illegal to go there.

So we didn't, but he told us, you can be very helpful, you can go back to your campus and you can tell people quietly, without attribution as to where this is coming from, that there is going to be an event taking place. So we did. We listened to the radio all day, waiting to hear the news about these students sitting in and being arrested. To make a long story short, we helped to organize a small core of people on campus. James Meredith was one of the people. We had to organize a prayer. The demonstration that evening in front of the library turned into a major altercation with the president of the college, who went absolutely crazy and knocked my roommate down and beat a lot of other people up. We marched downtown the next day and that became a protest against the school itself, and they told us not to come back. Tougaloo was the first time I really experienced true freedom.

Also in the spring of 1961, Medgar told us that there was a young man in his office and he said, "I'd like to introduce you to someone." You never asked questions back then; we were quiet He said, "I want you to meet Tom Gaither, he's come here to help Negroes get their freedom." That's all he ever told us. As it turned out, Tom was the first organizer, he was a CORE field secretary who would come in to lay the groundwork for the Freedom Rides. I didn't know that. I never asked about it; I mean, what kind of freedom is he going to help us get?

It was soon after the Freedom Rides, in the early fall, that I began to meet some of the young women and men who were my kind of people. I began to meet people like Diane Nash, later Ruby Doris, and all the other people. And the most important thing was I began to meet local Mississippi people who had grown up feeling as stifled as I, who had grown up feeling that they had ideas they wanted to express and that they couldn't. To have things they wanted to do with their lives and to feel totally constrained is a horrible feeling. When I began to meet other people throughout the state who felt that, who were brought up the same way, it was like I'd died and gone to heaven, to meet people like Susan Ruffin who had lived on like $27 — and Mrs. Hamer and all these other people, and to meet Guyot out at Tougaloo, was just an extraordinary experience.

None of these women I began to meet knew they were oppressed because of their gender; no one had ever told them that. They were like my mother, and they'd been reared in the tradition of my mother and my mother's five sisters. They had grown up in a culture where they had had the opportunity to use all of their skills and an of their talents to fight racial and class oppression, more racial than anything else. They took their sexuality for granted, for it was not as problematic to them as their race and their poverty. And perhaps they didn't know they were oppressed because of their gender, they were so busy trying to survive and to fight day to day. It would have been a luxury for my mother to focus on gender concerns. It would never have occurred to her; neither would it have occurred to me at that time because it was not a problem, it was never problematic.

We assumed we were equal. When we got into SNCC I would have been ready to fight some guy if he said, "You can't do this because you're a woman." I would have said, "What the hell are you talking about?" A lot of the women in SNCC were very, very tough and independent minded. In fact, the most independent-minded people you'll ever meet were in SNCC, men and women. They would argue with a signpost.

If you were weak and didn't have really strong and firm beliefs about whatever it is you thought you believed in, you didn't survive. You couldn't survive. It was one of the most hostile cultures in which you were trying to operate, the external culture. You were trying to operate against a perceived common foe and that common foe was what kept us so tightly knit together, as Casey [Hayden] has so eloquently put it our enemy was always an external one. It was not internal, at least not through those early years, and I think we do have to make a division between pre-1964 and post-1964. There were very, very different kinds of ideas and ideologies and values and so on that operated then.

But for many of us, I think, SNCC gave us the first structured opportunity to use our skills in an egalitarian way without any kind of subjugation because of our race or our class or our gender. And also it's very, very important that we not be guilty here, or ever, of using retrospective analysis and imposing current feminist theory onto the realities of 1963. I think that's a critical fact. I read feminist theory, I teach it, some parts of it, I'm conversant with it, but we can't take those models and impose them onto a different historical era, a different time, a different place. The models that people have described here came out of the context of the times.

Sure there were no women who ever chaired SNCC, but I bet you ten to one Ruby Doris dominated SNCC. We'd have a little joke, is it Jim running SNCC or Ruby Doris? I mean, what was a Chairman? Who cared? Nobody really even cared. People at SNCC were so antiauthoritarian that if they thought you were going to begin to emerge, they'd bring you back down, grab you and snatch you down. Some of the biggest jokes were made about Stokely, Stokely "Starmichael," who does he think he is? But those same people, we still embrace him and love him very much. It was not a hostile, nasty comment at all, but it was just that we were very, very antiauthoritarian.

The point I'm trying to make is the context of time is very, very critical. And that for many of us, SNCC gave us the first structured opportunity to really use our potential, to use our abilities, and to express our views on the world, the state of the world. We assumed we were equal. We were treated that way. Most people who came into SNCC were more independent-minded than most people in the rest of the country; most people on the outside. The faint hearted didn't last

Our relationships were defined, like I said, first and foremost by the task at hand. Matters of life and death were abundant, especially in some of the tough times in Mississippi. I can remember February 1963, when Jimmy Travis got shot in Greenwood. I can remember any number of terrible events when you didn't focus on what we would have considered ridiculous concerns, but you focused rather on things at hand. I think to a great extent that is why we came here now and sang. It evoked certainly within me some of the same feelings, the texture of the same feelings I remember having felt thirty years ago. Those things fortified us against all of these other concerns out there; it fortified us against a hostile racist society. That was our common foe.

And it was within SNCC that this beloved community operated for a while, and it was within that context that I thought I was equal. I thought I was a full participant. Because all of us came with a stronger sense of our own identity, a stronger sense of purpose, I believe. Most of us did. It's not to suggest that everyone was tough and strong and so on. Some people really weren't, and we have a lot of casualties who aren't here today, and I think about that a lot. We discussed that, and but for the grace of God, anyone of us could have been a casualty. It was a very tough time to be a young person growing up, but I think we were emboldened by those experiences.

It was not until a decade after leaving SNCC that I began to read some of the works on the movement, maybe even a little longer than a decade. Sara Evans's Personal Politics [1979] was totally rubbish. I mean, it's revisionist to the core. She didn't even interview the right people, the people she should have talked to who could have told her what really happened. Michelle Wallace, I would put at an even lower scale when she talks about Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman [1979] — I've waited for this chance for about ten years. And given the cheers I guess I speak on behalf of my sisters out there. At SNCC you never know. When I walked down here they all said, "Who gave you the right to speak?" But again, I think it is a real danger, people revising or trying to understand what happened without really taking the time and the effort to understand, to get the story right.

A final point I'll make here is that SNCC challenged authority of all kinds. It's not coincidental that people like Victoria Gray (who is my cousin) talked about having challenged authority as a child. I think all of us did. And what we used in SNCC were kind of shock trooper tactics. What I think that the analysts, the scholars, have gotten wrong, and other popular writers have gotten wrong, is that they say that feminism emerged because of dissension within the ranks. Rather, feminism is an outgrowth; it emerged because SNCC served as a model, a prototype of what could become a better kind of society. It gave rise to not only a feminist consciousness but other groups like gay people, the elderly, students, a whole range of people within the society who had also been oppressed. They began to use the SNCC model to pattern their own movements.

It was not dissension within the ranks. It's true a lot of people perceived themselves as having different kinds of experiences and different interests. It was normal, natural, it was to be expected. But I don't think that we were oppressed women who got angry because Stokely — and this is putting it overly simplistically, of course — because Stokely said that our position was prone. I would have said, "Stokely, what the hell do you mean? What are you talking about?" And he would have laughed and we would have just teased him and moved on. For a movement to use that as a rallying cry is very unfortunate; it's more pathetic than ridiculous. And again, the context was missing, the texture of the times was missing; it's missing so often by people today.

I can remember the men driving, and them pushing us to the floor when danger approached. I didn't want to sit in the front. For black people, black southern people, especially, we understood that as a kind of protectiveness, like a brother would protect. But someone else, if you were coming from the North, if you were white, if you had a different set of experiences, you might have perceived that to have been discrimination or whatever. Maybe you would have wanted to drive.

I wanted to make one last brief point I've been thinking about organizing tactics that SNCC people would have used that would help us to begin to organize low-income black people. What kind of organizing would work, how could we stop kids from killing each other at twelve years old? I'm not content to sit here and talk about what was. I think the important thing is to address whether all these wonderful things we've just said about our glorious past, admittedly, the most important period of my life, whether we can extrapolate something from that period that could work today when we see black people and poor people of all races have sunk to new depths. How can we restore some of this, if not the beloved community, certainly some very basic commonsense organizing? How can we infuse the current generation of young people, young activists, with a sense of purpose and with some of our hope that we still maintain after two decades, to go out and to challenge some of the thorniest problems this society has ever faced?

Copyright © Joyce Ladner. 1988

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)