Women of SNCC Recall Roles in Civil Rights Battles

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(WOMENSENEWS)–My first contact with SNCC began when I joined a busload of Swarthmore students traveling to Cambridge to support locally-led demonstrations against segregated facilities. The trips were organized by the Swarthmore Political Action Committee, the campus Students for a Democratic Society chapter. I initially went on a lark, not out of any great commitment. I was, after all, away from home–and my mother–for the first time in my life, so I figured why not?

One of my first demonstrations took place at the segregated Choptank Inn, a dark, smelly bar and grill. I don’t remember much about the place, just the big white man standing in the doorway telling me I couldn’t come in. For me, all the little slights, all the small acts of racism I’d experienced growing up became bound up in this one man. And I became absolutely enraged. But I had now found a constructive vehicle through which I could struggle against the racism–and that was SNCC.

At that point, for me, the Cambridge movement was SNCC. More specifically, it was Gloria Richardson, the firebrand local leader of the movement, and Reggie Robinson from Baltimore, the veteran organizer who had been assigned there after the local movement requested SNCC assistance.

I watched Gloria–tall, thin, fearless, ramrod straight and dressed in a shirt and jeans–leading the mass meetings and demonstrations and never backing down, even in the face of National Guard rifles and suffocating tear gas. I watched Reggie Robinson, not much older than me, working in tandem with Gloria, moving the crowd, strategizing with her and others around Gloria’s kitchen table late at night (a number of us lived in her house). I decided this was a world I had to join–if only for a while.

A Different World

It was a world very different from where I’d grown up, in Tarrytown, N.Y., about 25 miles north of New York City. Tarrytown, home of the author Washington Irving, was steeped in tradition. I went to Washington Irving Jr. High and Sleepy Hollow High School, and our high school mascot was "The Headless Horseman." Yup.

I grew up in the "under the hill" section near the railroad tracks. The main employer in town was "the plant," the Chevrolet plant where the fathers of everyone I knew worked: black folks, Italians, Poles–everyone. My father had helped unionize the plant, where he worked on the assembly line and was treasurer of the United Auto Workers local. When I was 7 he had a heart attack and died "on the line," leaving my mother to support my older sister, Carita ("Chita"), and me.

My mother immediately got a job as a clerk at Macy’s in nearby White Plains and managed to keep food on the table and still send Chita a little spending money after she was accepted to Bennington College on full scholarship.

Leading Two Lives

By January of my freshman year I was going to Cambridge just about every weekend, and generally landing in jail. Coming back to campus was like coming back to another life–reality had now become my SNCC/Cambridge world, with all its camaraderie, passion, immediacy and overwhelming sense of purpose.

I would return to campus on Monday or Tuesday and miss some of my classes, so my studies began to suffer. Adding to my worry, I was on full scholarship and one of only eight African American students in the freshman class. Swarthmore’s magnanimous commitment to diversity (10 out of more than 300 in the entire student body) was a big deal for the college, and they handled it with caution. We eight freshmen were evenly divided between males and females (presumably so we wouldn’t have to date outside our group) and the administration roomed all eight of us with children from Quaker families, who I think they believed would accept us more readily.

As it turned out, at least on one issue neither the Quaker children nor the rest of the campus quite lived up to their liberal reputation. The demonstrations in Cambridge absolutely split the school. My white "Big Sister," who had warmly oriented me to the campus those first weeks after my arrival, now passed me in the dorm hall in stony silence. Two friends from my dorm stopped speaking to me.

Other white students, referring to segregated facilities, said that a proprietor had the right to refuse service to anyone. One student, who had earlier amazed me in my poli-sci class with references to people, places and philosophies I hadn’t even known existed, now pronounced that the Cambridge demonstrations were forcing integration on Southerners before they were ready. And besides, he added with great certainty, Swarthmore’s Negro students would do better to stop meddling in things that were not their concern and concentrate on getting an education–this was the best way to help "their people."

From "Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in the SNCC." Copyright 2010 by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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Judy Richardson was on SNCC staff from 1963 to 1966. She produces African American historical documentaries, worked on the 14-hour "Eyes on the Prize" documentary series, has been on the staff of numerous social justice organizations and writes, lectures and conducts teacher workshops on the civil rights movement.

For more information:

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in Sncc:
http://www.powells.com/partner/34289/biblio/9780252035579?p_ti

 

 

  • user22923

    I couldn’t help laughing when I read the account about the equal number of males to females during the influx of the few African-American students. Was there a handbook put out at that time for colleges who upped their people of color numbers by miniscule amounts? I went to Waynesburg College in Waynesburg, PA during that time and noted the same thing, equal numbers of males to females. The black students would often joke about what appeared so obvious to us. Not only were the numbers even, but heights appeared to be matched as well. We joked about someone sitting in the admissions office with our photos and physical characteristics, which were required on our applicaions, trying to help us out and at the same time keeping us in check. We had a match.com working for us way before the Internet.