SNCC Women
Remembrance of Jean Wheeler Smith
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

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

I don't usually get into setting the record straight; I usually don't worry about the record, but there is this one point on which I have some strong feeling and that is the common notion that women were oppressed in SNCC. I just was not oppressed in SNCC. I wasn't subordinate, I was high functioning. I did anything I was big enough to do and I got help from everybody around me for any project that I wanted to pursue. And I know we can put shadows to it and so on, but I wanted to strongly make this point and then maybe move to the shadows.

Stokely gave me my first ticket south. I think Stokely respected me. I think his comment about women, "the position of women being prone," was humorous; he's a funny guy, and there was a lot of sex in SNCC. We were twenty years old. What do you expect? I think Stokely respected me and respected the women he was working with at that time. I think he might have wanted to be a successful male chauvinist, but I just don't think he could have gotten away with it.

I wanted to give you some examples of how I as a woman was very much enabled to function to my highest potential. I've heard several references to the death of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in Mississippi, and I remember that when they were missing and we learned that they were probably dead, we all said, "Well, we have to go to Philadelphia [Mississippi], we can't let this go by, we can't appear to be afraid." And so I guess it was ten or twelve of us decided to go and people volunteered and I was one who volunteered, and nobody ever said, "You're a girl, you can't go." There was just no thought that I couldn't go at this very stressful time into this dangerous situation because I was a woman.

As I remember it, I did everything that everybody else in the project did there. I was scared all the time, but I think they were scared too. I remember that at the end of the time that I was in Philadelphia and the convention organizing had been accomplished, a bus came through. Bob Moses was on the bus and Bob wanted to know, did I want to come up to the convention, to the challenge, and I said, "No, I think my work here is more important than going to the convention." He said, "Fine," he got back on the bus, and I stayed in Philadelphia.

I just had so much freedom to decide how I was going to work and so much support for my decisions that I never ever felt this sense of limitation that people seem to be referring to. I think if we talked about it some more, it would probably fit into Casey [Hayden]'s notion that at least before 1965, we were such an egalitarian group that there wasn't room for the limitations imposed by structure. People had titles, but the titles didn't matter. And especially they didn't matter when you were in Mississippi by yourself and there was some sheriff coming toward you with his gun drawn. The title of you or the guy next to you just had no significance.

I want to say something about the female role models that I had in SNCC. Again, I think that the examples before me were of strong black women functioning at their potential. And I want to disagree with Mary [King] a little bit. It seemed like you were making a distinction between people like Mrs. Hamer and Mrs. Johnson and Miss Baker and us, and if you make that distinction then that pulls them away from the group. They really were a part of the group as far as I'm concerned. It didn't matter whether you got paid or not. I mean, you were making $9.64 anyway — some people made $27, I think, if they were married. The money didn't make any difference. The title, as I remember it, didn't make any difference.

So I saw Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Hamer, Miss Baker as part of the group. And they were great role models for me. I still remember Miss Baker monitoring our activity, making sure we were thinking straight, making sure that we were looking at the economic side of things, making sure that this process of arriving at consensus was one that we were carefully sticking to and that everybody was participating in the decision making. She was so powerful that actually I really wasn't even that friendly with her, but she was definitely a woman who was functioning at her highest potential.

Mrs. Johnson — I remember in particular, June, that your father stayed home and took care of the children while she went to jail. I remember very clearly, I was staying in Mrs. Johnson's house, and I had a place on the bed and June's father was on the floor sleeping to accommodate us SNCC workers, and I just can't see that that was a male-dominated chauvinist situation there. I think that throughout our relationships and our working at least until 1965, that that just wasn't the case.

And I remember Martha Norman and I were working for [Charles] Sherrod in Albany and he wanted to keep us and protect us, and we didn't want to stay there; we thought that Greenwood was a much more sexy place to be, much more exciting and dramatic and powerful, so we waited for Sherrod to go to jail, and as soon as he went to jail, we left at midnight to go and work where we wanted to work in Greenwood, which was much more powerful and dramatic.

I wanted to give some other examples of powerful younger women in the group. Ruby Doris Robinson everybody had incredible respect for. Ruby was executive secretary for a while, but she seemed to run the place as far as I know. My memory is that one day I was sitting around the office in Atlanta, I think I was drinking Cokes and flirting or something, and Ruby came over to me and said, "Get up and go get your license. If you want to go" — I wanted to go to some project — "you can't expect someone's going to drive you there," so it was Ruby who made me go get a license. I remember Annie Pearl Avery, she was a gun-toting cab driver, just completely independent, and functioning in what you would consider to be a typical male role, if you wanted to call it that.

I was thinking about what could be the reason for why this difference in opinion has developed. I don't claim to know much about the women's movement, so this is speculation, but I think one reason is it's a convenient difference; that is, as the time has gone by the history keeps getting rewritten and revised to the convenience of the people who are rewriting it Maybe also there were some differences between the way the black women in the organization experienced their situation and the way the white women experienced it I wouldn't say for sure, but it's something to think about Caseyand I seem to have had about the same experience, but it may be that that changed in later times and that after about 1965 people didn't feel as much a part of the organization and how things were being run.

My sense was that although admittedly the administrative structure on paper was men, the women had access to whatever resources and decision making that they needed to have or wanted to have, and I don't remember being impeded in this. I think another way to understand how we could have arrived at differences of opinion about this is that people had different views about what SNCC was. My view, as I look back on it as a psychiatrist, is it was a human potential movement and that what we were doing on a very large scale, had much in common with what I do in my therapy work on a small individual scale. We were creating a trusting and loving atmosphere and a supportive atmosphere; we transmitted the expectation that change was possible, people were going to get better. We let the person lead. We let the person we were trying to organize, lead. We let him express what was important to him and then we followed. And having let him lead, we then did two things: we'd point out the contradictions; that is, you say "You want this and this, they don't go together; could you look at this another way?" And then we would offer an alternative solution to the solution the person we were trying to organize had historically operated on. That is the way that I understood what I was doing when I was there. And if you look at it that way, then the hierarchical stuff just doesn't matter that much, and I don't think it mattered at least until 1965. I wanted to be pushy about that because I may not get this chance again in another ten years or something, and I do appreciate that there are a lot of grays and shadings to this.

See Women & Men in the Freedom Movement (a discussion) for background & more information.
See also Women in the Civil Rights Movement for web links.

Copyright © Jean Wheeler Smith. 1988

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