The Art of Activism: Women Civil Rights Leaders Tell Their Stories


Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 24.02.2011

Transcript:
I am Elizabeth Sackler, and it is a pleasure for me to welcome you today to the Brooklyn
Museum, in this our first extension out of the Center for Feminist Art, the Elizabeth
A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, into this beautiful glass pavilion for today's programming.
For those of you who have just arrived and haven't had a chance to go to the Center on
the fourth floor to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago and Seductive Subversions, Women
Pop Artists, I invite you to do so after this afternoon's programming. In addition to being
an exhibition space dedicated to feminist art, the Center's mission is to raise awareness
of women's contributions in all fields, in all ways, in our culture, and political and
social landscape. Over the past four years, we have hosted hundreds of wonderful guest
speakers and organized very important programming. This afternoon, we will hear a panel historic
in magnitude. Our panelists are editors who have come to talk about the women who were
on the frontlines of the most important movement in the last 50 years, the Civil Rights movement.
Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee. Do you have a book? Hold it up. Yes. Sorry. Good. It's 2010. It's just come
out. So, it contains stories written by 52 women who participated in that movement, who
they were, and why they did what they did. One author, Constance Curry, in her chapter
An Official Observer, wrote the following, Early SNCC demonstrations were highly structured
and strategically tuned. People had designated roles including captains, monitors, and observers.
Captains kept the demonstrators organized. Monitors, usually physically larger students
or members of the community, provided a measure of security. In addition to watching and following
each protest, observers alerted the SNCC office, the U.S. Justice Department, and the press
when the demonstrators were arrested. The effectiveness and need for extraordinary organizational
discipline and training, is echoed in Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the October 4
New Yorker in the Annals of Innovation entitled Small Change, Why the Revolution will not
be Tweeted. Gladwell's opening paragraph describes the well remembered, the revered moment, on
February 1, 1960, when four black college students sat down at a lunch counter in Woolworth's
in Greensboro, North Carolina, and who, when they were told they would not be served because,
we don't serve negroes here, did not leave. By Wednesday, by Gladwell's account, the protestors
swelled to 80. By Thursday, to 300. By Saturday, 600. By the following Monday, February 3,
there were sit ins in Winston Salem, Durham. After that, Charlotte and then Raleigh. By
the end of that week, ten days later, there were protests in Virginia, South Carolina,
Tennessee, and as far as Texas. Gladwell continues, some 70,000 students eventually took part.
Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. Michael Walzer wrote in
Dissent Magazine that he was told over and over, It was like a fever. Everyone wanted
to go. But Gladwell reminds us, the Civil Rights movement was more like a military campaign
than a contagion. Locations for activisms were scouted, plans were drawn up. Movement
activists held training sessions and retreats for would be protestors. The Greensboro Four
were a product of this groundwork. When the sit in movement spread from Greensboro throughout
the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preexisting
movement centers, a core of dedicated and trained activists turned the fever into action.
It was this world that contextualized my upbringing and my life. It was this world that radicalized
me. Picketing the FBI for voting rights in Selma, Alabama and sleeping in front of the
White House. And it is this world, that time, that the editors, the women behind me, of
Hands on the Freedom Plow, remind us, and I quote, The issue of the day is always how
to make social political change, how to press forward, how to keep going, in short, how
to make a movement. It was this that informed all I did and all I continue to do. I was
in my mid teens then, and I remember it all very well. But what I don't remember is hearing
about the women and girls. The mothers and grandmothers who were on the frontlines of
organization, protesting, and infrastructure. So, this is a joy, finally, after all these
years, to move toward that world where the editors cry, Freedom and justice are real,
solid, and tangible. Freedom and justice are the reasons for being and doing and reasons
for dying. Those words are not unlike the Center for Feminist Art's mantra. And today,
we get to join the Center and the women of SNCC, whom without, we might not be here at
all. This is a major piece of justice, hearing the other half of the story. The women nearly
erased from history. I prefer, of course, to say Herstory. It is a personally thrilling
thing for me to welcome our guests, five of the six editors of Hands on the Freedom Plow,
Faith Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Robinson, and Dorothy
Zellner. I would like very much now to introduce our moderator, my good friend, writer, and
scholar, Deborah Schultz. Dr. Deborah Schultz is a historian and the author of Going South,
Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement, which was published by NYU Press. She is a
founder of the Soros Foundation's International Women's Program and served for ten years as
its director of programs. She has taught history and women's studies at the New School, Rutgers
University, and LaGuardia Community College, and was a CUNY Graduate Center Writing Fellow
this past academic year. She is working on a book about European Roma, or Gypsy, women
activists, part of her longstanding interest in anti racist activism, and intersections
of race, ethnicity, gender, and memory. Going South, Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement
was published in 2001, and is organized around a rich blend of oral histories following a
group of Jewish women who came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust, and were deeply committed
to social justice, who put their bodies and lives on the line to fight racism. Representing
a bridge between the sensibilities of the early Civil Rights era and contemporary efforts
to move beyond the limits of identity politics, the book provides a resource for all who are
interested in anti racism, the Civil Rights movement, social justice, Jewish activism,
and radical women's traditions. That's quite a lot that has been accomplished. Marian Wright
Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote, Only recently are scholars beginning
to pay full attention to the key role women played during the Civil Rights movement. Going
South is an important portrait of an often overlooked group whose work, both behind the
scenes and on the front, helped transform our nation. Now we have two books about women
and the Civil Rights movement. Please join me in welcoming today's panel and Deborah
Schultz, The Art of Activism, Women Civil Rights Veterans Tell Their Story. Thank you
very much. Thank you. It's great to see all of you here. It's an enormous honor and joy
for me to moderate this panel, sponsored by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist
Art at the Brooklyn Museum, which feels like my home museum. I'd like to thank Elizabeth
Sackler for having the audacity to create the Center, and the Brooklyn Museum for hosting
it as a space of public feminist inquiry. I also want to give special thanks to Rebekah
Tafel and the museum staff who helped make this happen in such a beautiful part of the
museum. If you have the opportunity after the panel, there will be a book signing, but
I also hope that you'll go up to the fourth floor and see The Dinner Party and the Women
and Pop exhibit, which is really fantastic, at the Sackler Center. The panel's title,
The Art of Activism, celebrates the creativity and tenacity of women civil rights activists,
who never stop tilling the soil of a just society. We are very lucky, as Elizabeth said,
to have five of the six editors of Hands on the Freedom Plow here today. Hands on the
Freedom Plow, which has been available for five weeks, has already sold out its first
printing, and may have already sold out at our book sale here, but we're working on getting
some more copies. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge the diversity of the audience.
I know that there are some SNCC people here, so would you raise your hand so we can recognize
you? Any other contributors to Hands on the Freedom Plow who are with us today? Thank
you. Our plan for this afternoon is to have readings, interspersed with a couple of my
questions for the panelists, and then, time permitting, we'll have some audience questions
and we'll also have, if not a book signing, which collectively I hope that we will all
be praying for, the opportunity to speak with the panelists. The museum has given us this
space until five-thirty, which was really very generous, so the program will continue
on even after four. I'm really glad that the museum and some of us reached out to students.
I'm happy to see some students here. Many of us, of subsequent generations, did learn
about the four young men who ignited the sit in movement in Greensboro, as Elizabeth mentioned,
but even in my own education, I never learned about the pivotal role of organizers like
Ella Baker, a labor activist and longtime leader in the NAACP and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference. When those sit ins started to gain momentum among southern college
students, Baker insisted that the students have their own space to discuss strategy.
She was skeptical of charismatic leaders in the big civil rights organization and encouraged
the students to form their own organization. Her vision and mentorship helped SNCC build
a grassroots movement based on participatory democracy. By the way, Malcolm Gladwell's
article did not really do justice to the women of the movement, so I'm really glad that we
have the panel here today. SNCC changed this country, and when you hear and read these
women's stories, you will understand why. Let me introduce the panelists. Faith Holsaert
is a Durham, North Carolina, fiction writer who shares four children and seven grandchildren
with her partner Vicky Smith. Since her SNCC work in southwest Georgia she has been active
in the women's and lesbian communities, and has worked against war and racism with organizations
including Durham's Harm Free Zone, and Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, my personal
favorite. Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, a student and teacher of history, was a fundraiser
and field secretary for SNCC in Albany, Georgia, Greenwood, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama,
from 1962 to 1966. She remained a community organizer and developed programs including
an anti hunger project, a large inner city food buying coop, and many other works, as
well as teaching. Judy Richardson was on SNCC's staff from 1963 to 1966 in Cambridge, Maryland,
in the national office in Atlanta and Greenwood, Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer,
in southwest Georgia and in Lowndes County, Alabama. Her experiences continue to influence
her work as a documentary filmmaker and she's been involved in the extremely important Eyes
on the Prize series and with teacher workshops, social justice organizations, and as a movement
writer and lecturer. After her two years on the SNCC staff, Betty Garman Robinson remained
actively involved in social justice work. She's currently a member of the Charm City
Labor Chorus, a volunteer with the Baltimore Algebra Project and active with local social
justice organizing campaigns. The mother of two daughters, she also has two grandchildren.
After her five year stint on the SNCC staff, Dottie Zellner spent 17 years in New Orleans,
and returning to New York with her two daughters in 1983, worked at the Center for Constitutional
Rights and then at the City University of New York Law School. She lectures frequently
about SNCC, about blacks and Jews in the Civil Rights movement, and is a board member on
the Friends of The Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine. The book's sixth editor, who's
not here with us today, is with us in spirit, and you will hear more of her story later.
Jean Smith Young was a SNCC field secretary from 1964 to 1967 and went on to medical school
to become a board certified child psychiatrist. She's taught at several universities, published
articles and stories, and is the proud grandmother of seven. That is our gang. Before we begin,
I just want to make a couple contextualizing remarks for some of the people who are less
familiar with this history than many of you. When Barack Obama was elected the country's
first African American president, he noted specifically to John Lewis, but often, on
many occasions, that he was standing on the shoulders of the Civil Rights movement. But,
to be more specific, he, and we, in my opinion, are standing on the shoulders of the local
southern black women, who are the backbone of their communities of SNCC and of the Civil
Rights movement. In a 2005 interview, former SNCC activist and NAACP chair Julian Bond
said, There's a Chinese saying, women hold up half the sky. In the case of the Civil
Rights movement, it's probably three quarters. This is the story that needs to change, and
thanks to our contributors, it is changing. The women that Bond referred to were the mentors
and heroes who inspired the women who sit before you today. However, these women on
the panel are among my heroes, even though we've had arguments about the use of that
term. At a time of real danger, they left the relative comfort of the North to put their
bodies on the line to fight racism. And more recently, and perhaps more heroically, they've
spent 15 years creating Hands on the Freedom Plow, so that the real role of women in the
Civil Rights movement can never be forgotten. They worked as a collective of three African
American women and three white women to locate, nurture, contextualize, and publish the stories
of 52 women who worked with SNCC. Finally, the women of SNCC get to speak to history
on their own terms and in their own voices. This book is miraculous, a very, very important
historical document, and a gift to future generations. In the interest of time, I am
going to move on to the panel, so that we can have time for audience questions. So,
we're going to start with two readings from Martha and Betty about their decision to join
the movement and family reactions. Thank you, enjoy the panel. I've been asked to talk about
the parts of my contribution that relate to my parents' responses to my decision to go
south and work on the Mississippi project. To better understand their reactions, I shared
a bit about their lives before I went south. And in the book, it's mostly about my mother,
but today, I'm going to say a little bit about my dad and you'll see why. I grew up in Providence,
Rhode Island. Although we lived in all white neighborhoods, and I attended all white schools
for all but two years, my parents' community of identification was black, family members
in Newport, Cambridge and Detroit, church associates, members of the Winter Street AME
Zion church, friends in the tiny black community of Providence and thereabouts, and a host
of my father's friends, family, and associates in the Saint Vincent community in Brooklyn.
When I was growing up, I understood there were as many Saint Vincent's in Brooklyn,
as lived on the tiny 11 by 22 mile island. We came to Brooklyn where my father had lived
for almost two decades, four to ten times a year, staying with my parents' friends and
family. When in Brooklyn, we attended Ebenezer Wesleyan Church, which I understood my father
helped to found, served as a trustee, and lay minister among other roles, and where
my parents were married in 1937, by Reverend Arnaud, who still pastored the church in the
50s. On a number of occasions, we celebrated New Year's at a cabaret sponsored by the Saint
Vincent Benevolent Association after attending Watch Night services at the church. I remember
my father, the last of 19 children, several times meeting first cousins he had not known
or previously met while riding on the Brooklyn subway. Until my mother took me to see some
of the sights in Manhattan when I was 12, I thought New York was populated only by West
Indians, and only West Indians from Saint Vincent. My mother experienced a lot of discrimination
growing up, particularly in her pursuit of education. She graduated from high school
with a stellar record, she was 14 years old, and when she applied to University of Michigan,
they told her she was too young and she needed to work first. She did get in through a back
door arrangement and went on to go to law school, along with five other black students,
which the university figured out they didn't intend to admit. And so, within a year and
a half, they managed to find a way to flunk them all out. In spite of her experience,
my mother wanted me to follow in her footsteps and attend Michigan. And, ideally, I guess,
by way of indication, graduate from U of M's law school. With this plan in mind, at the
start of my junior year in high school, she found a job in Michigan and moved there by
herself. Her father had been a barber in Ann Arbor and died when she was 9. She had put
herself through college while helping to support her family. Determined to make my educational
road easier than hers, she figured she might be able to pay all my college expenses if
she could meet the two year qualification period for lower in state tuition. By this
time, my father, ironically an optometrist, had completely lost his sight. My mother was
the family's main breadwinner. I might add that my family had already made great financial
sacrifices to augment the partial scholarship I won to an all girls Quaker prep school in
Providence. So, you can imagine, with all these plans, that they were none to happy
when I came home talking about how school wasn't relevant. How I would become an organizer
for life, and that I was going to Mississippi. Usually when I got on this tack with them,
they would roll their eyes, put their heads down in their hands, and they would tell me
that, you know, I could probably go to professional school and racism would still be alive and
well when I graduated. They also developed a routine which they used to dismiss this
Mississippi idea. Every so often, when they knew I was listening, my mother would turn
to my father and say, Taffy, did you hear that Martha Susan wants to go to Mississippi?
Yes, Alice, my father would say, I heard that, but who in their right mind wants to go there?
But that isn't all, my mother would continue. She thinks she can help get negroes registered
to vote. What! my father would exclaim, his slight West Indian accent becoming more pronounced
as his emotions deepened. Negroes can't vote in Mississippi. They can barely walk down
the street and live to tell about it. Delivering the crowning blow, my mother would state,
What's more, she thinks she can do this civil rights work nonviolently. Oh, they would both
moan, shaking their heads at the total absurdity of such a plan. She just doesn't know those
white folks down there. Hoping that someone else could convince me I could be of greater
service to the movement with a professional degree, my mother even made arrangements for
me to meet Constance Baker Motley. None of this worked. And, when I went south, in the
spring of 1963, my parents made it clear that I would no longer be welcomed home. My experiences
in the Civil Rights movement, as well as my studies of what we are now calling the Long
Civil Rights movement, and other social change movements in American history, and my work
on this book, has convinced me that we never know when such a historical moment will come
along when it's possible to make great social change. I've been impressed that in these
movements, and in our movement in particular, there were so many people who had years of
preparation and study behind them when the movement came. People like Rosa Parks, who
had been in the Montgomery NAACP decades before giving up her seat. Or, like James Farmer,
who had been a war resistor and a student of Ghandism before becoming head of CORE.
So, my advice to young people today comes from the title of Maria Varela's piece in
our book, to always think of these years as time to get ready. Thank you. Thanks, Martha.
Betty? So, it's interesting that we get to places by very different paths. About the
only thing that's similar between my story and Martha's story, is that at one point my
parents said I wasn't welcomed to come home, either. But, you'll see there's like this
incredible, huge difference. One summer night in 1958, when I was 19 years old, I couldn't
find my mother anywhere in the house. Where was she? I finally found her sobbing uncontrollably
in the basement. What could be wrong? My brother and I had just finished cleaning up from a
party we held for the counselors at a local YMCA day camp where we were both working that
summer. You brought a dirty nigger into the house! she screamed through her tears. Well,
she was crying, right? I'm not crying, but. I'll never live this down. How could you be
so evil? What will the neighbors think? My feelings went from concern for my mother,
and it's hard for me to even say that word I have to say, I mean I wrote it in the book
because that's what she said, but it's hard to. My feelings went from concern for my mother
to anger and disgust. She often made disparaging remarks about other people, but with the most
derogatory reserved for people of other races and ethnicities. Both my parents were from
working class backgrounds and the first in their families to go to college. They were
anxious to meet what they saw as the expectations of their new middle class status. My mother
received an undergraduate degree and my father earned a PhD in physics from New York University.
They were conservative republicans and both quite prejudiced. I loved going to the country
to visit my dad's parents on their small farm, but my mother hated going there. She viewed
my father's family as backward, foreign, and beneath her. She hated that her Pennsylvania
German in laws did not speak English and bluntly criticized my dad's country habits. My mother's
prejudices included just about anyone different, especially people of another color. Still,
she selected Lucy, the wife of my father's Mexican coworker, as my godmother. During
my early childhood I enjoyed wonderful times with Lucy, who had no children of her own.
She cooked good smelling, spicy food, gave me huge hugs and hellos, paid me lots of attention
and brought me little gifts from her native Mexico. My mother sometimes referred to Lucy
as a dirty wetback and complained about her broken English. Puzzled, I would ask, Well,
if you don't like Lucy, why did you make her my godmother? My mother responded that when
I was born, Lucy was the only Catholic she knew. Contradictions, right? These battles
were confusing to me as a child and an adolescent. Because my experiences ran counter to what
my parents told me, I was frequently in turmoil. If the movement hadn't come along, I don't
know where I would have ended up. But anyway, in college, my rebellion took a significant
turn and became political. I went to Skidmore College, upstate New York. At school, in February
1960, we watched and read the news with great interest. We were shocked to see black college
students demonstrating and being beaten for sitting in at lunch counters. Students across
the country began to demonstrate in support, and we said, OK, well, here's our chance.
So with leaflets titled The Right to Eat, I still have the original leaflet, and Let
Your Voice Be Heard, we invited all Skidmore students to participate in the decision about
whether to support the southern sit in students. Between 60 and 200 students attended a half
dozen, long, heated, collective discussions. That was my first experience with grassroots
democracy in action. We discussed, debated, shouted, cried, and finally evolved a plan.
The plan was we picketed the downtown Woolworth's. Then the local police challenged our right
to do so. That's another story, because it doesn't have to do with my parents. Somehow,
word of these sit in support activities reached my family. I remember a scene in the kitchen
of my parents' house during spring break. I'm standing against the wall by the table.
The light is kind of eerie. My mother is screaming at the top of her lungs, If you love them
so much, go back to Africa. My father is pacing and silent, but definitely not supporting
me. I am scrunching myself closer and closer to the wall, trying to be as small as possible,
terrified that one or both of them will begin hitting me. What were they so afraid of? So
then four years passed. I went to Berkeley to graduate school. I continued my northern
support activities for SNCC. I worked for National Student Association in the interim
as well. Then I was convinced to come south by all of the wonderful SNCC people that I
met through this process. I came to Atlanta in March of 1964, and I went to Greenwood
in the summer of 1964. Here's another section from my story. My parents voiced their objections
to my working with SNCC by calling me every few days to say I had been duped by communists
and insisting that I leave the South. They were definitely influenced by Fulton Lewis
Jr., Fulton Lewis, III, and Evans and Novak, right wing columnists who repeatedly accused
the Civil Rights movement of being under communist control. My parents threatened to bring me
home with a deprogramming organization. My father insinuated that if I did not come home,
I would make my mother have a heart attack. You'll be the cause of her death, he would
bellow through the phone. Though I knew this was a scare tactic, sometimes I believed it
could really happen. Paradoxically, my mother sent care packages throughout this period
and even included an air conditioner for the Greenwood office. On the one hand, I was sure
that my parents knew we were sweltering and sent the air conditioner out of genuine concern,
but I couldn't help wondering if they thought that such gifts would bring me home or undue
the imagined brainwashing. Basically, just in conclusion, the struggle with my parents
continued. Although, in the 80s, I have to say, my mother voted for Jesse Jackson, wonder
of wonders, so there was some movement there. I definitely believe that all young people,
people in general, need a movement. A movement is a place where you're forced to really question
your values. You deepen your values. You learn about how our democracy works and the importance
of that as a way to live. In large measure, a movement like this sets the course of your
life. Now, we're going to take a couple of panel questions. OK. I will beg the panelists
to limit your answers to two minutes. The first question is, What is your understanding
of the Beloved Community and when did you feel you first experienced it? We're actually
going to start on this end. Well, to tell you the truth, I don't really remember those
words. I think I was in one, but I don't think we called it that. The community that I was
in when I joined SNCC, which was from the fall of 1961 till 65, was probably one of
the first recent examples of interracial cooperation that we had had in this country. The experience
of being in this community marked me for life so that I've always looked for this again.
It was a community that was not free of strife and not free of tension, but as I've said
several times, this was a community where the context was different. The context was
everyone in this community is going to have to, if necessary, give up his or her life
for others in this community. While people could fight and argue about who was doing
more work than other people and who was bossy and who was, someone's personal characteristic,
the atmosphere was, we are going to protect each other, and we are going to stand firm
against racism. So that context made, everything made all our relationships different. I often
say to people, to white people especially, that white people have no idea of the burden
that they carry of racism. And they don't think about it, and it's there. But, when
you're in an environment when it's gone, you feel this tremendous weight lifting off your
shoulders. And, you're almost ready to fly because we are carrying a different burden
from African Americans, of course. They carry the burden of slavery, and we carry the burden
that our people participated in this. So, when that can be lifted, that is what I would
call the Beloved Community. Thank you, Dottie. See, I thought that I would actually think
of something, but then I got so immersed in. That was gorgeous. I would agree with Dottie.
By the time I come in in 63, the Beloved Community, per se, as a title, was not really talked
about. That was really something that came out of the national movement, and most of
them had kind of, except for John Lewis, had left. But, what was interesting for me is
that I always felt nurtured. And, that was nurtured as much by the men as by the women.
That I never felt that if I said something really stupid, and I said some really stupid
things in SNCC, that somebody would say, Oh, Richardson, that's really stupid. Nobody ever
said that. Now, it didn't mean, it's what Dottie said, it didn't mean that you wouldn't
be mad because, maybe somebody was going out with your boyfriend. You know, we were 16,
17, 18 years old at that point, we're not like we are now. So, there were all the petty
stuff, but if the bottom line is, how do you get black folks registered to vote without
getting them killed? And, how do you protect each other, not just physically, but in a
nurturing way? And, I'm not sure when that first occurred to me. I know that I felt like
I was in the most amazing thing in my life. I never wanted to leave. There were these
people who were passionately fighting for this greater thing that I hadn't even thought
about growing up in Tarrytown, New York. And so, I don't know. It was like amazing. It
was just all amazing to me. I never said anything at staff meetings, but not because anybody
said to me, You shouldn't say anything, because you don't know anything. It was because I
was so in awe of everybody around me, women, men, local folk who would come in who knew
how to organize, I knew nothing. And so, for me, it was like you were suddenly in this
absolutely incredible community that is nurturing you and moving you to be something that you
never thought you could do, to be. So, I guess, for me, that was that Beloved Community. Yeah.
Thank you, Judy. My first direct involvement with SNCC was when I went to jail at the end
of 1961, at Christmas time. And I, within a year, had gone south to register voters
in southwest Georgia. I was 19. We never used the term, as I remember it, Beloved Community.
The term that I use in my piece once, and it's actually part of what I will read, redemptive
community which I think has a slightly different feel. And actually, given the young activists
I know now, I would use the expression transformative community. And, what I mean by that, and what
I experienced as a field worker with SNCC, is that when you are part of a transformative
community, you understand, in the context of the people you are with, that another way
of doing things is possible. And, I think that right now, some of the problems that
we face, as well as the juggernaut of segregation, it took a transformative imagination and an
act of community imagination to say that we weren't going to do things in the old way
anymore. Thanks. Well, I, too, really never thought of the word as something that applied
to me, not because there wasn't a community of people that I joined as I entered. I think
the most significant event that I can think of is I went to the November, 1963 SNCC conference
at Howard University. I came east, went to the conference and went back to school. But,
it was there at that November, 1963, conference that I made my decision to go south. So, the
singing, the camaraderie, the incredible belief in the mission of the work of SNCC and the
work of the Civil Rights movement, kind of became part of my blood. And, I went back
to California and I packed my bags and went south. I think the other aspect of it is that
you're in a community of people who are caring, loving, not that there aren't rough edges,
of course there are, but where you feel that you're accepted for who you are, that you're
an equal. You're not ridiculed, as Judy said. You're not put down. You share values with
people. But, also we had a community of incredible ideas, conversation, debate, discussion. I
met people who had studied history, who knew about social movements through history, which
is something that I had no knowledge of because of the way I was raised and where I went to
school. And, I think it was transformative personally, as it was transformative for the
country. But, at the same time, the country was able to slip back. And, this is something
that we talk about a lot today, in my hometown, Baltimore, anyway. The country was able to
slip back into the old ways of doing things, with a few changes. And so, we need to reclaim
that transformative moment, whether it's a transformative social movement, and hopefully
it will be permanently transformative, as opposed to temporarily transformative. I guess
I was around early enough to hear the term Beloved Community. And, for me, it was in
an individual sense, and it was more political. It was a community, and it really had very
little to do with race, as I understood it. It was a community of like minded activists,
activists who loved justice and believed in freedom for all people and that the idea was
that there was this core beloved community that could expand and grow. And so it meant
something in terms of the way that you organize. That you organized really with love in your
heart and with the understanding that there was a potential to expand this love of justice
and freedom. That even your oppressors could become part of this beloved community. And
so it had a lot to do with the way that you organized and the strategies that you used
in organizing. Thank you. The second question I'd like to ask is, If you had the opportunity
to choose just one story, and you only get to choose one story from Hands on the Freedom
Plough, that would be a permanent part of the K to 12 history curriculum in this country
which would you choose and why? And you have two minutes to answer. Judy! OK. I think Joann
Christian. Joann Christian was part of a really strong movement family. At one point she comes
in at 14 or 15 years old and at one point there were three generations of Christians
in jail at the same time, her little sister, herself, and her mother. As a matter of fact
Faith did what started as an oral history with her, that's how it got into the book.
She has a story in there, very short, where she is in the Camilla jail. She is in the
county jail, and she is by herself. She's been put into solitary. She's been split from
her other family members and they put a German shepherd dog in there and they unleashed him.
So she turns her face to the wall. She just prays. The dog comes over. He sniffs her.
She's very, very quiet. Then the dog goes over, he growls a little bit, and then he
goes over and he sits down by the door that has been closed on him and her. She just lays
there very quietly for some time but she never, it's like they were trying to break her. You
see all the way through here, you know, and then she gets out and she comes to the, finally
gets out after two weeks in jail. She's so excited because she thinks she's going to
a mass meeting. She goes past where the mass meeting is being held in the church and she
sees her father and her uncle seated under a spotlight of the church. She's ready to
get out of the car. Her father says, No baby, you can't come in here because the Klan has
said that they were going to attack the church. Her father and uncle are seated under the
spotlight with guns across their legs to defend the church, as often happened with the movement.
So she says, Land of the free and home of the brave. These were the free. These were
the brave. My uncle and my father. So she's the story I would probably think about. Thank
you. Dear Deborah I love you so much but I am so much deep into this book that I cannot
pick one. Really that is how the project began. The one story wasn't enough. One view wasn't
enough. I think maybe people outside me can do that but I can't. No problem. Well I also
like Joann Christian's story, and that would be one because it's on the short side and
it's a young person so high school students can relate to her. There's another story that
I like especially and that's Zoharah Simmons' story because her grandmother raised her for
the most part. Her grandmother's grandmother had raised the grandmother and she had been
a slave. So there's this incredible passing down of knowledge and story and passion and
feeling about what it was like to be an African American person in this country. Zoharah is
very nurtured by the black community that she lives in, in Memphis, Tennessee. There's
an incident where she says she wasn't very aware of racism and its impact. There were
a lot of questions about, what summer job would you get, and her grandmother says, You're
not picking cotton because enough of us have picked cotton. I've picked enough cotton for
the whole family. So Zoharah goes downtown to get a white person's job and a storm comes
up. She's in the middle of this storm, the wind is racing, and there are all these white
folks looking out of the windows of whatever building she was passing. She feels alone
and in turmoil in dealing with the world. Then, just to make, again I don't want to
go over my two minutes. She goes to college. She goes to Spellman. That's again her parents'
hopes and dreams and vision for her future. She goes to Spellman and the movement is at
Spellman and she gets involved. So you have this incredible family history and her story.
What she feels as a young person, and then what she does as a college student. Then she
ends up, of course, as one of the women leaders of the movement. Thanks Betty. Well, I of
course have been very firm throughout this project that every one of these stories had
merit and value. My answer would be, if I had to pick, I would pick four. Thirty seconds
to describe each of them. Right. I think, very quickly, I would pick Diane Nash. The
title is, They Are the Ones Who Got Scared, describing the early days in Mississippi and
her decision to go to jail when she was pregnant with her first child. I would pick Bernice
Reagon, whose title is, Unsheltered and Uncovered I Entered This Movement for Freedom. She talks
about an attempt to snare a sexual predator in the South and what the relationships were
between white men and black women in the South. And how that inspired her to understand that
as a woman and as a black person, if the social conditions of her life were going to change,
she would have to change them. I would pick Gloria Richardson, who lives here in New York,
who was head of the Cambridge movement, and her description of how she went from being
really a shy person to one of the most militant people in the country. And of course there's
a picture, which I actually don't think is in here. There's this wonderful picture where
she's facing off a tank and pushing away the rifle of a man in the National Guard. And
finally, and I was thinking of three more. Finally, I would pick Prathia Hall. So I would
agitate for greater inclusion. And first of all, and Prathia Hall's description of the
significance of the freedom struggle in the South. And how southern black people learned
to struggle for years, way before the Civil Rights movement, and brought those skills
of struggle and belief in a freedom faith. And that fueled and kept the Civil Rights
movement going. So I think I might be able to settle with those four for at least ten
minutes. Thanks Martha. Well, other than my own. Thanks. That's a joke. There's nothing
dull in this book and everybody has talked about their own experience in such a moving
way. So I would say the book is the thing. But if you had to ask me for a special moment,
I did the first oral interview with Annie Pearl Avery, which was then later edited.
And Annie Pearl was legendary, is legendary in our community because while everybody was
talking about being nonviolent, Annie Pearl was decidedly not nonviolent. And she writes
very movingly about how she'd go to a demonstration and the minister would ask her to stand on
the side. No, Annie Pearl, you're not ready. You've got a gun. So she would get rid of
the gun and she'd say, Well, is a knife OK?. And that didn't go over too well. Anyway,
she really wanted to be in the movement. She controlled herself. She used discipline. That's
what we all had to do, use discipline. I forget even where she was going. She was going to
a meeting and she took the wrong bus and she ended up in the bus station of Anniston, Alabama.
Now Anniston was the spot where the bus carrying the freedom riders had been burned. OK. And
so here was Annie Pearl, African American young woman. She had two children at the time
but she couldn't have been more than maybe 22 years old. Sitting in this waiting room,
in the white waiting room, all alone, all night. When she told me that I had to turn
off the tape and I broke down and cried. This was something that no New York Times reporter
would ever report. But it was this moment of incredible courage from a working class
woman. There were many, many, many, many people like this. And we don't even know to this
day, probably, who all of them are. So that, for me, as one of the editors on this book,
would have to be one of those moments that was really phenomenal. Thank you. I want to
thank you for bearing with my question which I fully understood was completely against
the ethos of SNCC and Hands on the Freedom Plow. But I think we are all in agreement
that what gets into the curriculum is a very political question. So having been involved
in gender mainstreaming projects myself, I know it was a very difficult choice. But I
appreciate that you homed in on it and I was not planning to answer the question myself
but I appreciate that Martha mentioned Gloria Richardson and Diane Nash, who I was going
to mention. And also just the vision of Anniston, Alabama. So I just want to share a little
more detail about Diane Nash. After those buses were burned in 1961 and the freedom
riders were attacked, it was Diane Nash who was a very young, very petite, very beautiful
woman leader among all the older male civil rights leaders who insisted on continuing
the Freedom Rides. And that helped end segregation and intrastate travel, and I think we would
all agree was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement. And I feel like, even to
this day, she doesn't get the credit for that that she deeply deserves. And I would also
like to read the quote about her choosing to go to jail when she was four months pregnant.
She said, This will be a black baby born in Mississippi and thus, wherever he is born,
he will be in prison. If I go to jail now, it may hasten the day when my child, and all
children will be free. And that's the kind of leadership that we need to know more about.
So Hands On the Freedom Plow gives us an incredible resource for redefining leadership. Group
centered leadership, women's leadership. This is really a celebration. I'm just really excited
to be here and to have you share your thoughts and read. And we'll continue with the reading
now. The second set of readings are about experiences of encountering activism in the
South. And we're going to have Faith first. OK. And it would be a good segue, with Deborah's
remarks about leadership. I did want to say that, in this audience, there's a woman I
met when I was four years old. We went to elementary school together. Kathy Sarah Child.
And also Anita Rockmond, who's mentioned in my piece in the book. We were active before
I went south, in Harlem. And I wanted to use that to say that, although this is a book
of, in some ways, extraordinary accounts, we are women like those of you in the audience,
and our lives have continuity going back to, sometimes, when we were four years old. You
know, we're not exotic. We are real people. Do you want to mention Marilyn Lowen? Well,
Marilyn Lowen is here. I was talking about people from childhood. But yes, there are
other SNCC people who are in the audience as well. So I wanted to say, SNCC, as this
book makes clear, went from the sit ins and the freedom rides, one of the ways that it
developed its program in the South was to establish grassroots projects. I worked in
southwest Georgia in one of them. I don't have time to discuss all of it, but I thought
it would be interesting to read a little bit about the leadership of Charles Sherrod, who
was probably 23 or 24 years old at the time. I was 19. Sherrod believed women must participate
fully in the struggle. He said, All movement soldiers must drive. A New Yorker, I did not
know how to drive. I thought there were better ways to spend my time as a freedom fighter
than in learning. Sherrod, however, sent me for my learner's permit. Inside the squat,
cinder block Bureau of Motor Vehicles twine was strung down the middle of the room. Paper
signs clipped to the sign said, Colored and White. I meant to walk down the White side,
but it made me sick. So, I walked down the other side and got a Colored learner's permit.
Sherrod thought it was not safe for me to use this ill gotten Colored permit, so I never
did drive in Albany. He was not amused. I had withheld a potential movement resource.
I didn't appreciate it then, but Sherrod was as exceptional, in his way, as the family
in which I had grown up. A man raised in a sexist society, trained in the even more sexist
Baptist ministry, and holding some chauvinist ideas about social relationships, he nevertheless
believed that in the fight for freedom, women were his equals. He was successful when he
insisted I pull my weight in the movement pulpit, and I grew to like public speaking.
I still enjoy it. He selected a female staff member, Prathia Hall, the daughter of a minister,
to preach at the Albany movement's first anniversary program, a night when Dr. King spoke from
the same pulpit. By the way, that meant that Sherrod, himself, chose not to hold that place,
he gave it to her. I was bowled over by Prathia. I had not imagined a young woman, my age,
could possess such oratorical power or ambition. OK. Now I'm just going to talk a little bit
about the emotional reality of the work down there. In some ways, the system of separation
of races, which was so unnatural, in essence, was maintained not only by brutality and force,
but also by the force of myths. Mr. Marion Page, an Albany movement officer, told me
the story of James Fraser. Years before, in bad Baker County, which is the county Shirley
Sherrod is from, by the way, Fraser had been beaten to death in jail. Mr. Page went to
pick up the body for the funeral home. When Mr. Page lifted the body, Fraser's broken
bones clicked like dice, and that's Mr. Page's words. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
listed Fraser's death as the last recorded lynching in the U.S. Sadly, that was true
in 1962, but no more. 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. 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 the bed, groping through the litter of shattered glass. We called the police,
but that man, like many who attacked the movement, was never arrested. Everywhere, the rural
crossroads of southwest Georgia were points of power. White men owned the land adjacent
to major crossroads, and at night they 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 next generation is drowning me out a little here. 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, and
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 63 March on Washington, demanding racial
justice in the United States in 1962, and today, as well, sadly, was inherently revolutionary.
Thank you. My father helped organize the United Autoworker Local at the plant where everybody's
father worked. My father was part of that. He was treasurer of the Local when he died,
on the assembly line, when I was seven. So, my mother became a single parent for me and
for my sister, Coretta. I get a four year scholarship, full paid for, to Swarthmore
College. It had to be four years, because otherwise I couldn't have gone. My mother
had no money. So, I come into the movement through Swarthmore and the SDS, Students for
Democratic Society chapter that is on that campus. At some point I come to the Atlanta
office. I saw the national office of SNCC for the first time in November, 1963. It was
a teeny, rundown office at eight and a half Raymond Street, a one block side street off
Hunter, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near the Atlanta University center. The office
was located on the second floor, above a beauty shop. It definitely did not fit my image of
a national office because I'm thinking, National Urban League, maybe, at least a rug on the
floor. I was 19 and had gone to Atlanta with Reggie Robinson, SNCC's field secretary in
Cambridge, Maryland, where I had been working full time since leaving Swarthmore College
in Pennsylvania. Cambridge was on the eastern shore of Maryland. From the downstairs glass
door of the national office, I saw this large man at the top of the stairs dressed in overalls
and sweeping the stairs. Now, Reggie saw him too, then ran up the stairs. And, with broad
smiles, and much hollering, they hugged each other like long lost brothers. And I thought,
Whoa, this is truly an egalitarian office, since I assumed the man to be the janitor.
It was only after Reggie called the man's name that I realized this was Jim Forman,
SNCC's larger than life executive secretary. There was such joy, warmth and affection in
this moment that I thought, Judy, you haven't just joined an organization, you've joined
a family. SNCC really is a band of brothers, and later we would add sisters, and a circle
of trust. I assumed I'd be in it the rest of my life. Now, I later found out that Forman
often swept up, and not so much to clean the perpetually dirty office, which was good since
he wasn't all that good at it. Rather, he was showing us that, as he often said, No
job was too lowly for anyone in SNCC to do, and every job was important to sustaining
the organization. Now, Reggie introduced us, and through questioning, Forman found out
that I had taken a semester off from Swarthmore, that would have been the first semester of
my sophomore year, and that I could take shorthand, which was kind of like texting, except with
symbols. OK? I know you all don't know that. And that I could type 90 words a minute. So,
I never made it back to Swarthmore. I then become Forman's secretary. I had no problem
with that then, have no problem with it now. It gave me a bird's eye view of the organization.
So, as soon as I come in, I found out about the nationwide network of friends of SNCC,
of campus friends of SNCC, of the research department, of the pro bono lawyers. I mean,
this was a grand organization, and we were doing it as teenagers. OK, second part is
very short, drop kick. OK, is entitled Drop Kick. The Atlanta office was involved in demonstrations
to integrate Grady Memorial Hospital. It was the municipal hospital in Atlanta. As I was
being carried off to the police van on one such protest, I saw John Lewis, then SNCC's
chair, being roughly handled as they arrested him, too. So, I angrily started kicking to
get out of the officer's grip so I could go help John. In the process, I evidently kicked
the policeman that was carrying me in a very vulnerable spot. And, in some ways, looking
back, it's amazing that the other arresting officers did not retaliate. So, after I was
bailed out of jail, Forman summoned me to his office. He showed me a New York Times
article, which I actually have a copy of here, in which they said that Judy Richardson from
Barrytown, that was the first thing, they didn't have the T, Barrytown, New York, had
kicked a cop in the stomach. Actually, it was a little lower. So, Forman asked me whether
this report was accurate. I said I didn't remember, which was true. He scolded me, reminding
me that we were supposed to be nonviolent, and that this kind of negative publicity could
hurt the fundraising efforts. I left his office feeling very hurt by his anger, and very guilty
that I had in some way jeopardized this incredible organization. Because, understand now, I had
just come in. I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven, coming into SNCC. Very quick, fast
forward, I was working on the second series, the 14 hours of Eyes on the Prize. As many
of you know, Julian Bond was the narrator. So, at some point I said, You know, Julian,
you remember that time when, you know, the cop, you know, and I kind of, the foot landed,
you know? And, he said, Yeah. Because, you see, Julian actually does know everybody in
Atlanta, I mean, black, white, Latino, he knows all these people. So he said, Yes, as
a matter of fact I saw him at this old, local restaurant. And he said, in a squeaky voice,
And he talks like this now. So, I go, being still gullible, I said, Oh, no! Julian, no!
He said, No. He's fine, he's fine. He is now retired, he has six kids, you know, it's all
of that. But, he actually remembered it, because he remembers all this stuff. Thank you. And
now we will have another story featuring Jim Forman from Dottie. Forman was always very
keen on history, and told us at the slightest opportunity, in fact, in tedious detail, over
and over, You must keep everything. You must file everything. You must write it down. You
must keep copies, because this is History. Capital H. He decided we needed to write and
produce pamphlets about SNCC's work, pamphlets that could be distributed in the North, and
elsewhere, for educational and fundraising purposes for the sake of History. In June,
1963, Forman assigned me to write a pamphlet on the big movement battle that SNCC had recently
joined in Danville, Virginia. This pamphlet was later edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez,
and illustrated with brilliant photographs by Danny Lyon, a witty Chicagoan, who Forman
had put to work as a SNCC photographer. In Danville, I participated in a nighttime demonstration
of black community people, led by ministers, at the back of the police station, where several
movement people were being held. After we began to kneel and pray for the release of
the prisoners, we were hit from the side by high pressure water hoses. The water from
the hoses could knock you over in a second. At the time, I weighed 106 pounds because
I had been mistakenly diagnosed as being diabetic and was afraid to eat anything. Almost immediately,
I found myself lying flat on the ground minus my shoes, which had been washed away by the
water. When I tried to get up on my hands and knees, I felt a sharp crack on the side
of my head and I saw star bursts of different colors, like a brilliant fireworks display
inside my skull. Until then, I had thought that, Seeing Stars, was just a literary expression.
The cop who hit me loomed over me like a white mountain, wielding his nightstick and staring
at me blankly, not registering either satisfaction or hatred as I staggered to my feet. Many
of the other demonstrators were beaten much more savagely. The next day Danny took photographs
of the walking wounded with their bandaged heads and bodies. These photos went into the
pamphlet. After this, Forman and other SNCC personnel arrived. About 40 local people decided
to hold a protest demonstration in front of city hall, an imposing granite building with
broad stairs sweeping from the street to the main entrance. Vowing to stay all night, if
necessary, we sat all day on the city hall stairs. Forman captured the attention of this
involuntary audience by conducting an impromptu Black History lesson at the top of his voice,
telling us about Harriet Tubman and other great black figures of the past. When darkness
came, the police drove the water cannons to city hall and parked them directly across
the street, unraveling huge hoses. Several white men grabbed the hoses, the city had
deputized practically every white male in sight, and pointed them at us. Those of us
on the stairs, now down to about 20, prepared for the worst. I held the railing with both
hands as tightly as I could, my heart pounding, dreading the moment when they turned the hoses
on us. We had heard that some people had been blinded by the blast of water in their faces.
Just then Forman, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, lumbered to his feet and
approached the police chief saying, Do you want all these people to get hurt? In the
momentary confusion, Forman motioned us to leave and we slowly got up from our positions
and left city hall, heads held high. I felt that Forman had saved our lives. The state
of Virginia was preparing to use against the Danville Civil Rights movement the John Brown
law, passed after the insurrection at Harper's Ferry. This law made it a felony to, Incite
colored people to acts of war and violence against the White population. Forman told
Danny and me that defending us against felony charges, if we were indicted, would be a needless
expense. In other words, we had to leave. As directed, Danny and I took our luggage
to a black church on a hillside. When it was time to go, we climbed out of the back window
and into a pink Cadillac where we lay on the floor of the backseat covered with newspapers.
Out of fear and tension, I began to laugh uncontrollably. At the airport, I switched
from laughter to tears, thinking of all the people I had left behind. Danny went up to
the airline ticket counter and, in a burst of invention, registered me under a Nom de
Guerre, Joanne Woodward. It could not have been possible for me to look more different
from actress Joanne Woodward, standing there in bedraggled clothes and I began to laugh
maniacally again. Along with several other SNCC people, including Bob Zellner, Danny
and I were, in fact, indicted under the John Brown law. Later, Bob and I, then married
and with our two children in tow, drove through Virginia many times. Until the statute of
limitations was up in the 1970s, we never stopped for anything. Not even gas. I'm gonna
ask one more question and then we'll have the final reading of Jean's story, and then
we're gonna open it up to you guys. As I think, certainly the panelists know and many of you
know, civil rights historiography and feminist historiography has portrayed the experience
of black and white women in very dualistic ways. White women complained of sexism. Black
women didn't understand the complaint because they had the opportunity to be leaders. And
also, racism seemed the primary issue because people were risking their lives on this issue.
So now that you've had the experience, not your own experience, but had the experience
of putting together Hands, has it changed or given you a more nuanced view of this controversy?
Anyone wanna volunteer on that hard question? Martha do you wanna? In two minutes or less?
Exactly. I think it made me again rethink what I understood from my own experience to
be true. And to have to look at it through the eyes of a number of different women. So,
yes, it did involve a rethinking and a nuancing. Particularly since I was mainly responsible
for writing the bridges, I had to think of something to go in there and I think that,
in the end, the controversy remains. There are women who expressed or felt themselves
to be in a situation where there was sexual repression, and there were women who felt
they were in a situation where gender didn't matter. My own conclusion was that, of course,
there was none of the kind of brutal sexism that can characterize gender relations in
this country, physical violence, rape, denigration. But, that there were assumptions about traditional
women's roles, that women would take notes, that kind of thing. That's where I ended up
with it. My own personal experience, of course, was that I felt highly valued, not because
there was a potential for leadership or playing any kind of significant role, but just as
a movement soldier, I was welcomed, valued, and treasured for being things that were not
stereotypically feminine. It didn't matter how I looked. It mattered what I did. It mattered that I was smart. It mattered that
I could be brave. It mattered that I could do things that, I think, were traditionally
thought of as more masculine within the context of the overall society. Thank you. Judy. For
me, it wasn't only how it went against the usual kind of master narrative about women
in the movement. It was what I learned about the women, I think. That's what most surprised
me, I mean, I think what we knew about each other, we kept each other in time. You knew
who they were when they came into this community. For me, that's all I really knew. I didn't
know about Betty's parents. I didn't know about anything because we were in time. We
were working together. We were in this amazing environment and so, I didn't know before,
I didn't know after, in some ways. So, to find out all the family history and going
back, way, way, way back, that was amazing to me. The other thing that was amazing, it
was kind of like what I found when we were doing the first version of what became Eyes
on the Prize, and that was like 1978. I remember interviewing Myrlie Evers, the widow of the
assassinated Medger Evers, NAACP leader. I was asking her, Can you recreate a mass meeting
for me? Because, at that point it was 1978. I had been 10 years away, and I was trying
to figure out, had I fantasized about how amazing this movement was? And, so I said,
If you don't have any photos, if we don't have anything in this film, how can you give
me a picture of this, the sites, the sounds, so we'll recreate for people what a mass meeting
was like. And, she did it. And, I started to cry, thinking, Now you shouldn't be doing
that. You're supposed to be journalistic and. But what was amazing is that I thought, I
have not made this up. She finds it as amazing as I did. And that's what I found in these
women's stories, that I had not romanticized it. They felt the same way I did, that this
was absolutely an incredible experience. So, that was part of it. Thank you. Faith and
then Betty. For one thing, in this book, the default setting is not white male. The default
setting is really black women. There are white women in the book, as well, and there are
men in the book. But, this is a very different perspective at where we stand as editors,
whether we're white or black. We stand as editors of a book that is primarily the voices
of not only black women, but southern black women. That said, I think what I learned very
early in this project was that, I sort of figured there was a unitary or unified SNCC
experience, and that for everyone else, as for me, it was being in a grassroots project,
registering voters, staying for an entire year. And, I was very quickly disabused of
that. But, there are some things that remain true. In February of 1995, I wrote a letter
to people in the women's civil rights community about the context in which I would like my
memories to appear. And, I copied it to Martha, I barely knew Betty at the time, Jean, and
Judy and Dottie. And, a couple of the things that I said include, I would want the group
in which my story appeared to represent my sisters in SNCC, those who are still alive.
In terms of longterm ties and connections to my life, those women have been African
American women. And then, one other short quote. Our experiences only make sense in
the context of a racially mixed struggle that received its deepest impetus and all of its
leadership from the African American experience and community. And, I do want to say one other
thing. As a literary writer, I'm often told, Well, you know, talking about civil rights
from a black point of view, that's just so, you know, predictable. That's so old, you
know. The interesting literary thing is like if, oh, what is his name? Saul Bellow would
tell the story of the Civil Rights movement from the point of view of a blonde woman.
And, I think, as a literary person I have fought against that ethic ever since Styron's
Nat Turner was issued. And, I very much am proud of this book because I think it goes
very much against that literary tradition. Thank you, Faith. I don't have a whole lot
to add. I mean, by the time I left the South, and was being tugged at by the women's liberation
activists in Washington, where I was living at the time, to join a women's consciousness
raising group and, Yes you are oppressed as a woman. And I'd say, No, no, no, I'm not
oppressed as a woman. But, I finally did join a consciousness raising group and the most
important aspect of that was understanding my own negative attitudes toward myself. So
internalized oppression if you will, undoing that internalized oppression that I was focusing
on myself. But, I think as an editor of this book, and reading all the stories, the most
significant thing is similar to what Judy said. That you learn, one, in other words,
we knew that people were active in different parts of the South. We didn't really know
people's histories that much. We didn't know about their communities that they grew up
in unless we were in that community. But, learning all of the accomplishments of women
within just the SNCC context, the phenomenal roles that they played, the incredible dangers
that they faced, the great risks that they took, as well as the later accomplishments
of each of those women. What they did with their lives post SNCC, and how they raised
their children. All those kinds of things which we learned which were phenomenal to
understand the totality of the strength of the women who had come through SNCC and dedicated
a part of their lives to the movement. Well we spent fifteen years working on this book.
When we were in this last phase, and I was doing some of the copyediting, which was like
last June, and reading the book from cover to cover, I myself, who had been working with
this material and with my five sister editors, I was surprised myself at how thrilling some
of it actually is. And these are probably stories that women would have told to their
families and their friends. It would never have gotten out of a tiny little circle. So
now, it belongs to everybody. Now, there is one theme that wasn't surprising to me in
the sense that I knew about it, but I didn't realize the extent to which self defense is
a theme in this book. And there is virtually, I can't even think, well, most of the black
women writing in this book talk about not the question of self defense on a demonstration,
which everybody was pretty rigorous about. I mean, you did not come to a demonstration
with arms and you were not going to use arms, use weapons. But, inside the black community,
I don't think I realized the extent of how many people were armed and were going to use
those arms to protect us. And it had bothered me for a long time thinking of some of the
people who were very famously nonviolent and knowing that they were in situations where
other people were protecting them. That is one of the contradictions that you will see
in this book. And it was, the self defense theme is a throwaway line in this sense. I
mean, it is not the main point in these stories. It is just a thread that is everywhere. When
Janet Jemmott Moses talks about a voter registration demonstration in Natchez, and an elderly black
man is sitting there with a paper bag in his lap. There are several of them and they say
and he says, I'm paraphrasing, he says little sister, we've been watching you and she looks
in the bag and there's a pistol in the bag. You know, and people's parents standing there,
sitting under the lights, and I began to realize that might have been the cause of preventing
really what would have been ten times worse violence when the white communities knew that
there were people who were prepared. This throws a little. Not the traditional violence,
nonviolence paradigm. And it isn't, because I think what this book does is restore the
concept of self defense. Not being aggressively violent, but being prepared to defend yourself.
And that was a surprise to me and I think that is one of the contributions of this book,
in addition to everything else that has been mentioned. Thank you, Dottie. There is incredible
diversity in the book and I read it in one rapt evening. I mean it's just. The whole
thing, I had a review copy and I just could not put it down, so I just want to share that
with you in the hopes that if you are not able to buy the book here, that you will go
out and immediately buy it from your local community bookstore and I want to just ask
Judy to read Jean's story and then we will open it up for your questions and comments.
Jean, as you know, Jean Smith is now a psychiatrist and works in the Maryland State Department
of Psychiatry and is doing amazing work with young at risk youth. She talks about, in 1964,
the Hattiesburg Freedom Day and it is again building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic
Party and the Freedom Vote and it is also the day of the precinct meeting. And she says
this very hot day started under the watchful eye of Miss Woods, a black lady somewhere
between forty-five and seventy-five years old, who allowed us to use her rooming house
on Mobile Street, the colored business street of Hattiesburg, as a meeting place. Sometimes
we held special meetings upstairs in the parlor, decorated with thick, red curtains and velvet
settees, but mostly we used her large kitchen as a regular meeting place. She lived upstairs
in quarters that I imagined to be very elegant and to which we were never invited. Ms. Woods
was a business lady. Ms. Woods was also a very proper lady. She was a thin, handsome,
coffee colored woman who always wore a delicate white starched blouse adorned with an old
ivory brooch with intricate metal work, or a lace collar. She always had on stockings,
no matter what time of the day or night you met her. She had been political since the
1940s when she and her husband had joined the Black and Tan, the black Republican party
in the southeastern part of the state. They joined because of the blatant exclusion of
blacks from the Democratic party at that time. After the Black and Tan, Ms. Woods had continued
to work for black voting rights. She was willing to support any organization that was for voting,
whether it was the NAACP or our younger, brasher organizations, SNCC, as long as we followed
her house rules. She didn't want any foolishness, any sexual liaisons in her boarding house.
Ms. Woods wanted you to know that she meant business, but after she thought that you had
gotten the message, she was a kind and nurturing woman. On the morning of the precinct elections,
Ms. Woods came downstairs into the kitchen to wish us good luck. Lately when I had caught
her unawares, I noticed that she was looking at me with a special concern. I think she
felt sorry for me because I was going with a man from the movement, who as far as she
was concerned, didn't mean me a bit of good, and I didn't have sense enough to figure this
out. I'll call him Paul. That morning Ms. Woods looked at me with a sadness as I explained
that I was waiting for Paul, who was one of the early and legendary Mississippi field
organizers and whose reputation stood ten feet tall. The two of us were supposed to
lead the precinct meeting. I'd gotten it into my head that I couldn't start the precinct
meeting without Paul. Eight o'clock a.m. and he still wasn't here. Where could he be? Finally,
at nine o'clock Ms. Woods got disgusted and said, It's time for you to go Jean. You've
got work to do. Don't wait on no man. With a pat on the back, Ms. Woods basically pushed
me out of her dark and supportive world and into the bright sunlight and Mobile Street.
She pointed me toward the Masonic Hall across the street and to the right upstairs, above
Mr. Fairley's TV repair shop. It was time for me to go. I had a precinct meeting to
run. At nine thirty a.m. I walked upstairs to Masonic Hall and pushed open the door to
the second story, which had been the meeting hall for the NAACP and center of black resistance
for 20 years. The door was not locked and I had a feeling that the room had been placed
there just waiting for me. Our meeting was scheduled for ten o'clock a.m. It was modeled
on the white Democratic precinct meetings being held that month which excluded black
people. This was an historic moment and I was very excited. By this time, I was a pretty
good organizer but I had never led a mass meeting and neither I, nor anybody I knew
had ever led a precinct meeting to form a parallel political party. The task of the
day was to explain, in language that people would understand, that the rationale for these
meetings was such and such and then to conduct the vote. This was important and I didn't
want to be the one to botch it. Worried, I looked around for Paul. Where was Paul? I
wondered, Could he be lying in a ditch somewhere beaten senseless? And being all wrapped up
and worrying about Paul, I didn't take definitive steps to take charge of the meeting. Instead
I waited, hoping either the meeting would take care of itself, or Paul would miraculously
appear. It wasn't long before Mr. Fairley came up from his TV repair shop on the first
floor. He was a quiet unassuming man in his fifties who'd been the NAACP representative
in Hattiesburg for many years. He said, Beautiful day to be voting, isn't it Miss? as he came
smiling into the room. How many chairs must I set out? This was his way of reminding me
that it was time to start. For more than 30 minutes, while the twenty or so black people
who had come to form an independent party sat singing and waving fans with vivid pictures
of a white, suffering Jesus carrying his cross up a hill, I waited for Paul to come and run
the meeting. I knew that Paul talked in such an intense, powerful way he could move people
by brute force. I felt that my orating skills were nothing in comparison to his. My intellectual
self sneered at this indecision. I thought, What are you standing around for girl? It
doesn't matter how good he is. He can't get votes if he's not here. You are going to have
to do this yourself. But my heart stood still, staring at the door waiting. And while the
farmers and city people started passing their fans down the aisle, it didn't look like any
meeting was going to happen that day. I could feel the disappointment in the air, and I
felt ashamed. Then I felt the presence of Ms. Woods in the room. I can't remember whether
Ms. Woods actually followed me from her boarding house and down the street or whether her spirit,
her persona, went with me. The thought of Ms. Woods standing there in one of her best
starched white blouses and an elegant grey suit from the 40s and carrying her copy of
the Mississippi Constitution summoned up memories of all the strong women who'd helped me to
get to this point in my life. I remembered my quiet, thin anatomy teacher at Cass Technical
High School, a science and arts school in Detroit. She was a white woman, bent over
with age but with a bright piercing glint in her eyes, she pulled me aside at the end
of class one day and whispered, Come to the lab before school opens tomorrow Jean, for
I've got something to show you. She never told me why she had chosen me for this tutorial
and I never asked. The effect of it was to let me know that my dream of going to med
school could become a reality. When I did go to med school, I think this teacher went
with me. Right alongside my teacher came an image of Patricia Roberts Harris, the dean
of women when I attended Howard University, who later became the first black head of the
Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1963, Dean Harris gave me a gold chain
for my Phi Beta Kappa key from Howard University, and told me that she expected I would do great
things for the race. Finally, standing there in the Masonic Hall was my mother, who had
found herself a widow at the age of 21 with two children under the age of two. My father,
one of the Tuskegee Airmen, was killed while strafing a train in Germany. My mother had
taken care of us and went on to become a nurse and then a teacher of the deaf. She did whatever
she had to do. In a remarkably short time, the images of my mother with her laughing
eyes, my Dean of Women, and my ancient anatomy teacher came to stand with me in the Masonic
Hall, along with the ageless and no nonsense Ms. Woods. In the presence of all these women
who loved me and expected me to do well, my job became quite easy. I walked forward to
the front with the Freedom Democratic Party ballots. I took a deep breath and started
talking. I forgot about my limited skills in comparison to Paul, and my words took wings.
I was excited, with all these grand ideas that I had to stop and make sure that people
were listening. Not only were they listening, but they were also rocking and nodding their
heads and shouting, Amen, sister! The sweetest sound I had ever heard. Amen! To me! With
me. I felt wonderful. Thirty minutes before, I had been tongue tied and helpless. Now,
here I was connected to all these people. I was them and they were me. We were sharing
a grand vision. I felt a thrill of excitement each time a man or woman who had never voted
in their lives before stuffed a carefully folded freedom ballot into the homemade ballot
box. I was so excited that I didn't even think about Paul anymore. By one o'clock I had certified
about fifty ballots and by three o'clock I was on my way to carry them to the state capitol
in Jackson, Mississippi for the statewide MFTP vote. And she ends, This was the day
I became an organizer in my bones. That's Jean Smith. I think that's the perfect story
to end this portion of our afternoon. We do have a few minutes for your questions or comments.
I feel like my question should come much later and because it is sort of a detail, and what
I really should be doing now is thanking all of you, and Mrs. Sackler, for this wonderful
opportunity. It has been fascinating and fabulous. My question, specifically, is about the intersection
between the feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement. If you would comment on that.
There is a story going round that there was a meeting of SNCC, and some woman or women
asked to put the feminist agenda, items on the agenda, and they were laughed out of the
meeting, and that is sort of the story about how the women's movement got born. Is there
anything to that story? It's the memo. Who's going to talk about the memo? Martha and then
I can talk about it. You want to go first? Well, I'll just simply say, Yes, that's true,
and there was a memo written on the position of women in SNCC by a number of women in SNCC.
It was followed up, I think a year later, by another position paper written by Mary
King and Casey Hayden. And those documents are taken to be the founding documents of
the Second Wave of feminism. I think the other thing that is kind of a piece of that that
people keep talking about is Stokely Carmichael's supposed quote. And I got that, I was at the
meeting, by the way, and I remember. Two things I remember, Ivanhoe, who was the guy I was
going with at the time, Ivanhoe Donaldson, very seriously giving me this, what has now
become known as this feminist paper, and very seriously asking me what I thought of it,
he really wanted me to read it. And for me, when I read it, I didn't quite understand
it, and because, for me, still, the issue of race was so much more important than the
issue of feminism and, also, because I felt the most powerful as a black woman in this
organization than I had ever felt in my life. So, it did not resonate for me and I couldn't
quite figure out why they were raising this question. OK. Now I go, so, fast forward,
I am at Rutgers and a black male professor at Rutgers mentions the Stokely quote. Now,
the Stokely quote, which I keep getting, and I am sure all of us get back, you know, as
if this were a real thing. Stokely Carmichael becomes the chairman of SNCC in 1966, I guess.
But, he, during this Waveland meeting which was 1964, when this paper comes out, it was
the first time that I remember that anybody was being asked to write position papers.
I mean, as Dottie said, Forman was always about education but he was also about a lot
of internal education. And, so, one of the things he asked of this meeting was that people
put forward position papers on things they cared about. So, that was one of the position
papers. So, it's Waveland, it's gorgeous out, they're drinking by the dock of the bay and
Mary King says a wonderful in her book Freedom Song does a wonderful rendition, not rendition,
she does, what this story really was, because she was there with Casey Hayden, and they
are drinking, you know. Stokely was funny as hell. I mean people do not realise how
really funny he was. And, so, a lot of times, people would preach, they would play preach.
And so somebody asked, talked about the position papers, and they said, Yeah, what do you think
the best position for a woman is? And Stokely starts preaching and in the middle of this,
says, Yeah, I think the best position for a woman is prone. Now, everybody there laughed
because, of course, Stokely, also, in the second CD, second congressional district in
Mississippi, which he was the kind of district leader of, he put Muriel Tillinghast in, in
Greenville, as the head of that project. He put Cynthia Washington up as the head of that
one. Stokely was used to working with strong women. So, for me, that part of the feminist
thing is, in the context of what we also experienced within SNCC as women. I just want to add something
else. I mean, I think it is very true that social movements stir up consciousness on
the part of groups that are not part of that movement, and, or, I don't mean not part of
it, but which are not the focal point of that movement. So, if you look at the abolitionists,
you find many women find their voice within the abolitionist movement and begin to champion
women's rights. Within SNCC, and within the Civil Rights movement, women again found their
voice and began to champion women's liberation. And at the same time, women who were Latina,
whose identities had been minimized, because maybe one parent was Latin and the other one
was not. There are two women that write in the book about finding their Hispanic identity.
There were two Japanese, young Japanese people, within SNCC who discovered their Japanese
heritage and identity. So, as much as this country tries to wipe out the unique ethnic
cultures that were brought to this country through immigration and everything else, as
well as homogenize us, I think people find their voice within a social movement to think
about the broader implications of peoples' roles. I think for many women, the Civil Rights
movement did this. Now later, I participated in the women's movement but was very uncomfortable
because it was a white middle class women's movement and it didn't often address the issues
of women of color. So I think that's a very critical lens to look at this whole question.
What is the intersection of race and gender? What does liberation mean in those contexts?
We could spend another three weeks here on that question. What's another one? Hi. First
I want to say, thank you so much for putting together this extraordinary book that collects
so many amazing stories. I can't wait to get the book. So the first question is, are there
any more books here for people to purchase? And then the second question. No. No? How
sad. You'll take orders? You'll take orders. That's great. Go to your independent book
store. Terrific. My second question, and I should preface it by saying that you all lived
and did amazing work at a time that was so serious in our history and I could only imagine
the struggle that you all faced. I admire you and commend you for the incredible work,
and so my question is really about you all thinking about what lessons can we learn from
your experience in today's society, considering that we have the first African American president
of the United States who is under attack by right wing groups, who are not interested
in having an African American at the helm of our country? And second, we also live in
a time where there is a great deal of anti Muslim and anti Arab sentiment prominently
known as Islamophobia. What lessons can we, as individuals sitting here, learn from your
experience to combat these issues that exist in our society? Thank you. Dottie? First,
I should say that I don't know if people in the audience realize that the questioner is
Debbie Almontaser, who was the subject herself of an incredible anti Muslim episode here
in New York under our wonderful mayor and our equally wonderful ex chancellor of schools.
You might mention you're kidding. Yes, I'm kidding. She herself is a heroine and a standing
survivor of this kind. Now, as far as books are concerned, I'm deeply sorry that we don't
have enough books. We will have a book signing at the Schomburg on December 11th. We will
have a full scale book reading at Tenement Library at NYU on December 14th. For those
people that are upstate, we will be having an event in Ossining, New York. If you would
like to be informed about those events, please leave your name or you can go on the University
of Illinois Press calendar, so this is not your only opportunity. Now, the question that
you asked Debbie, this is the question. I think there are parallels. We are in a state
of anti Muslim hysteria and Islamaphobia. It's dangerous to anyone who is a Muslim.
It is dangerous to all of us who want to live in some sort of decent civil society. The
lesson that I would take, is that it takes what all these women did, which was stand
up. Stand up, speak out, and make your face in there. And remember whatever happens to
her, happens to us. My perspective is we're in another period of time. Let me relate to
the Obama question first. One of the important lessons for those of us, who didn't learn
it or know it when he was running for office, is that no one person can really transform
this country. There has to be a social movement to do it. That's number one. Now that doesn't
mean that we don't defend the president's right to be there, to make decisions, etc.,
but I also think that we're in another period of turmoil in this country where the question
is, Who belongs? Who is part of America? It seems we've maybe settled the problem of African
Americans belonging, although probably not, because we have an African American president
who's under attack, and there's a lot of subtle race coded language that's coming. In terms
of Muslims, in terms of immigrants coming to this country, a critical cutting edge struggle
is around those issues, the SB 1070 law in Arizona for example, which really criminalizes
Latinos regardless of whether they have documents or not, the turmoil and controversy around
the building of the mosque in New York. All of these point out that this racism, Islamophobia,
immigrant phobia, or whatever you want to call it. The flip side of that is that there
are phenomenal people, incredibly strong, wonderful people of every race and every color,
who will, if given an opportunity and if pointed the way, who will take a stand and be counted
and take risks to defend freedom and democracy, and to end racism and oppression. I'm deeply
sorry for what happened to you. And I think that's one of the things we can begin to do
as a community which Dottie helped us to do this afternoon, which is be compassionate
with one another, and those of us who are in this room for this afternoon, are part
of a community of compassion and caring. It doesn't necessarily make things better but
in 1964, 65, 66, 67, rather than Islam or Muslim being the devil word, the devil word
was militant and that was us. We were the militants. And I guess again what Dorothy
said is the important thing, to stand up and to stand up in community. One of the reasons
I love this book, it's very deep in it's levels. And so we actually have women, Annette Jones
White in 1959, I think in high school registered to vote as a black woman in Albany, Georgia.
Zoharah Simmons before the movement, sits in the wrong place on a bus and actually lives
to tell the tale. And there are some other stories that the movement that we think of
as the 6os Civil Rights movement, was part of a process that began when the first slave
ship left Africa, and we all have to be part of that. And again, part of that is caring
for one another and recognizing that what happens to her happens to us. Thanks. I want
to quickly respond. Because you opened the door there with Obama, and go back to my parents
in a way. You know racism is alive and well. As the response to Obama has shown. But, it
seems to me that within the black community racism is alive and well in a very murderous
and dangerous form. And it's kind of fallen out of view, out of concern. Oh sorry. That
we are in a situation where of course, we are bearing the results of the economic downturn
much harder than any other community. We are bearing the results of an unjust justice system
much harder than any other community. We are bearing the results of poor public education
in a much harder way than other communities in this country. Our communities aren't safe.
Our communities aren't safe. It strikes me over and over again. I came from a small group
of mothers in Detroit. And in that small circle, five of us have lost sons to guns, violence.
And racism is the root cause of these things. And I actually think at this point the only
political way to move to assuage some of these situations is not to address race directly,
because racism is so rampant right now that we have to go through another way. To talk
about a good public education system for everyone. To talk about jobs for everyone. To talk about
justice for everyone. And that we need to campaign on that basis, and on that basis
alone I think we will be able to assuage some of the things that are going on now as a result
of racism. I'm going to do something real quick because I know we need to go. I think
it's real difficult for people who are involved in social activism. Because for me, I'm just
going to talk personally. I cried when I voted for now President Obama. And he has disappointed
me, OK. Closeness to the feds, to the federal reserve board and Geitner and Summer. And
you know propping up the banks while not worrying as much about the foreclosures. There are
a lot of things. So the question is how do you support him in the way that you do it
but still keep up the social challenge. It's like what Howard Zinn said. He said, he's
a good man, Obama's a good man, but it would be a mistake to consider him to be a social
activist. He is a politician, and let's remember that. And politicians respond to pressure.
And what we've done is thought, Oh great we've got this great guy up there and we don't have
to keep up the pressure. Well yeah we do. Because you have to do that with any good
person. So there are some things and how we negotiate that. Keep up the pressure, still
march, still write those letters, keep the marching going. And at the same time somehow
protect him from this horrible right wing onslaught. And it's a very difficult negotiation,
but I think we got to do it. Last question. Thank you all so much for your contribution
today. I really, really appreciate having this experience here. I just have one question
for you all. I wanted to know what Ella Baker's impact was on women throughout the movement.
We often hear about how Ella Baker impacted men in the movement and usually get the response
from men. So I wanted to hear what each of you have to think about Ella Baker and her
impact in the movement. That's a long one. I won't say anything. I'll just say something
very quickly. It was Ella Baker who taught me about voice and honoring voices of people
from the bottom. Or people who normally are not counted. You should mention who Ella Baker
is. OK. Mrs. Baker was, I think Dr. Sackler mentioned her, but, anyway Mrs. Baker was
a long time activist. Organizer, she was an organizer for the NAACP branches in the South.
She made a lot of connections across the South. And then she supported the students, the sit
in students in forming SNCC in 1960 as opposed to aligning ourselves with SCLC or with NAACP
or with CORE. But, she believed in grassroots democracy and participatory democracy very
firmly. The lesson that she taught me was that it's critical for the people affected,
people impacted by a situation to be the ones who speak their truth to the power and who
help craft the solutions. That means that students organizing in the public schools
for quality education are the people who are taking the lead and pointing the direction
for the organizing, just as African Americans in Mississippi who were disenfranchised were
the ones who took the lead and whose voices were the most powerful within the movement.
That's kind of the impact that she had on me and all of the organizing work I do now,
is in support of communities that are impacted and or places where I or my family might be
personally impacted. I think that's the critical thing. It's a difference between being an
advocate, where you advocate on behalf of, such as a lawyer, or a social worker, or whatever,
and an organizer, who actually organizes the people impacted. Their voices are the voices
that are lifted up. I'll just add one little thing. Until maybe the past five or ten years
ago, Miss Baker had disappeared. Miss Baker was one of the vanished women that Charlie
Codd talks about in a recent review on a blog. Actually, it doesn't matter if you get a stamp,
if nobody talks about you and nobody shows what lessons have been learned. Paul Robeson
had a stamp and now people are forgetting who Paul Robeson is. The great success of
this book will be how many young people read it. How many people read it even if they're
not young who learn something about this distant age. You say it happened 50 years ago and
everybody's ready to fall down dead. We're still alive, and don't we look fabulous? We
can't allow our history to disappear. She is coming back, but there are lots of other
people who disappeared like Charlie says. If anything this book will bring them back
to life. That is so desperately needed now. Thank you. That is the perfect note on which
to end, or actually, consider this. I just wanted to say something about Miss Baker and
I think it ties into a couple of things that were said earlier. To me Miss Baker represented,
as Betty just said, a group of women that were long time civil rights activists. She
was a role model of how to live a life of struggle. Those women also tended to be left
out of the history. When people first asked me, What was it like to be a woman in the
movement? Didn't you feel oppressed? or whatever, there were these women before us and we knew
them. Mrs. Parks is an example and Septima Clark is an example. Daisy Bates is an example.
To me, Ella Baker fell within that category of being a role model already in existence
when I came into the movement. I would say in addition to what everyone else has said,
which I agree with, Miss Baker was quiet. That's very important for an organizer because
it did allow the voices to well up. What amazed me, and I was looking at my notes, all taken
in shorthand, so no one else can understand them, is what she would do in meetings. I
don't think Miss Baker would know me from Eve, but with all her incredible experience,
doing milk co-ops in Harlem in the 30s, as a lone woman organizing NAACP field chapters
in the South, all the way through to Florida at a point when the NAACP card could get you
killed, and being the first temporary executive secretary of Dr. King's Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, she never in these meetings said to us, You young people don't
know what you're talking about. You need to listen to me. You never got that from Miss
Baker. She would sit in meetings that would go until four or five o'clock in the morning.
She had a mask over her face because she had a bronchial condition, and a lot of the young
people smoked at that point. She would be sitting there until all hours of the day and
night, but unless she really thought you were going off the deep end, really off into a
wrong alley, then she would inject a question. It was always about, If you do this now, what's
going to happen three months from now? What's going to happen a year from now? Those made
us think, since young people or teenagers were not even thinking until next week. What's
going to happen and what is your responsibility? If you can survive it, is the community in
which you're organizing going to be able to withstand whatever violence is meted against
it because of whatever action you or the community might be thinking about. She never made us
take low. She never said, Y'all don't know what you're talking about. I've been in this
since the 1940s. She never did that. There's always an inclination as older activists to
say, Oh, you need to listen to me. She never did that to us. I'm really happy that we're
ending with Ella Baker, with whom I started, and that the last story we read was about
Jean's relationship with Miss Woods. What this is about is a multi generational passing
on of women's wisdom. That is a key theme of the Sackler Center. Frankly, that was my
motivation for writing my book. It's so wonderful that the Center and Museum has given us this
opportunity to begin what is a dialogue. It is an incredibly complex moment and I think
this is a wonderful resource, Dottie, hold up the book, for finding our own answers to
this incredibly complex moment. I just want to express my gratitude to these women for
passing it on. Please help me. You are welcome to ask your own follow up questions in person.
Thanks for coming.