Every month I write about a book on racial justice that has inspired me. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve chosen to write about Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. The book was recommended to me by Ruby Sales, a Civil Rights icon and former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. You can read more about Ruby in her interview with NPR’s Krista Tippett, “Where Does it Hurt?”
THEY DIDN’T KNOW THE POWER OF WOMEN
“Freedom and justice are the reasons for being and doing and the reasons for dying.”
SNCC, the most radical and confrontational arm of the Civil Rights Movement, was organized two months after the first sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960.
Ella Baker, who at the time was Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, called for a conference at Shaw University, and in April 1960, SNCC was born.
Members organized sit-ins and participated in “Freedom Rides” that challenged unlawful segregation in public transportation. They started Freedom Schools for black children (many of whom were expelled from their schools for asking why they couldn’t vote) and worked for voting rights in the black belt of the South. SNCC’s theory was that if black people voted in those counties where they lived, they could control political power in those counties.
They could keep black people from being killed.
The stories in this book underscore that segregation was more than a set of laws designed to keep black people and white people apart. It was an unjust system that maintained white supremacy by demeaning and terrorizing black people.
As white activist Faith S. Holsaert writes in the book, “A white woman and a black man publicly walking together in Southwest Georgia could be accused of ‘fraternization,’ for which a black man could be lynched.”
The deaths of so many black men by lynching and other means explain, in part, the large numbers of black women in the movement. “White thinking has always been, if you controlled the men, you got the rest of them covered,” writes black activist Victoria Gray Adams. “They didn’t know the power of women, especially black women,” she said.
The women who went on the “Freedom Rides” were jailed and violated. The men and women who helped with voter registration were chased by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Churches that hosted SNCC organizing meetings were burned to the ground. People who housed the organizers who came to their counties to register black voters were shot at. Black and white members of SNCC were brutally murdered by white supremacists. One activist said that people in Mississippi were proud of their cruelty.
Martin Luther King and Ella Baker
Members of SNCC had to be prepared to die for the cause of freedom and equality. Mississippi-born activist Joyce Ladner remembers telling a jailer who threatened to kill her if she didn’t eat, “I’m going to die one way or the other, so you might as well kill me.”
I learned from this book that, in the beginning, SNCC was integrated. Members were black, white, and Latino, young and old, and Northerners and Southerners. “We worked together in a culture of cooperation where loyalty and trust took precedence,” said white activist Dorothy M. Zellner. SNCC members lived and worked together in a radically egalitarian community, making real the vision of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”
When problems arose in the Civil Rights Movement due to white money and white control, it was necessary to emphasize black power. SNCC had to be black-led. However, many of the women in this book wrote about the energy that came from the organization’s diversity. Black activist Peggy Trotter Dammond Preachily wrote that, in the beginning, “the camaraderie between white and black people was very, very strong.”
It was fascinating to read about the role that faith played in the lives of these women. Black activist Diane Nash said that when she was in jail, she was able to “tap into the power of an extraordinary force” through meditation.
“When oppressive jailers withheld basic necessities from me to frighten and control me,” she wrote, “it backfired. They were the ones who got scared. In the end, I was freer, more determined, and stronger than ever.”
Praying and singing strengthened the activists. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who went on to form the singing group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” led the music that prepared the activists for the brutalities they had to endure.
The stories of the courage and determination of these women have stayed with me, but also their humor.
Black activist Mildred Forman Page told a story in the book about going to a demonstration dressed in a crisp, jean skirt and a new pair of thong sandals. She didn’t want the police to ruin her clothes, so she held out her wrists so that the policeman arresting her could handcuff her without first knocking her to the ground. When the policeman, a rookie who was determined to hurt her, tried to push her down, she gave up SNCC’s nonviolent approach, balled up her fists, and punched him in the face all the way to the jailhouse door.
Martin Luther King saw the whole thing. After she was released, she went to a breakfast the following day at the home of one of the community members. Martin Luther King was there. He said to her husband, “I think you are going to have to keep your wife in the office. Did you see the Atlanta news last night? She is going to ruin our nonviolent concept!” They laughed. “I totally agreed,” she said.
DeJuana Thompson, the organizer of the voter campaign in Alabama that, thanks to black voters, led to the defeat of white supremacist Roy Moore, said in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly that the successful campaign in Alabama drew on the political entities put in place in the days of Jim Crow. She stressed that the activists in those days did what they did to keep themselves, and other black people, from being killed.
As I think about the stories in this book, I wonder about the white women who continue to vote for white supremacists. These women often emphasize their faith, but I haven’t seen one of them putting their faith into action like these women did.
“Ella’s song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, sung by “Sweet Honey in the Rock.”