Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

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In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women--northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white, and Latina--share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.


The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and freedom rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings and arrests and witnessing unspeakable violence. These intense stories depict women, many very young, dealing with extreme fear and finding the remarkablestrength to survive.


The women in SNCC acquired new skills, experienced personal growth, sustained one another, and even had fun in the midst of serious struggle. Readers are privy to their analyses of the Movement, its tactics, strategies, and underlying philosophies. The contributors revisit central debates of the struggle including the role of nonviolence and self-defense, the role of white people in a black-led movement, and the role of women within the Movement and the society at large.  


Each story reveals how the struggle for social change was formed, supported, and maintained by the women who kept their "hands on the freedom plow." As the editors write in the introduction, "Though the voices are different, they all tell the same story--of women bursting out of constraints, leaving school, leaving their hometowns, meeting new people, talking into the night, laughing, going to jail, being afraid, teaching in freedom schools, working in the field, dancing at the Elks Hall, working the WATS line to relay horror story after horror story, telling the press, telling the story, telling the word. And making a difference in this world."

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Powerful, inspiring, and tremendously moving, the oral histories collected here highlight the essential role women played as organizers and activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South of the early 1960s. These stories demonstrate the strength and bravery required to stand against repression and brutality in the fight against segregation. Included are the newly gathered personal recollections of more than 50 women, black and white, northern and southern, who describe their participation in events that transformed their lives and also helped change the world. The activists, including high school students, were jailed, beaten, threatened, and treated inhumanely at sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, on Freedom Rides to challenge segregation on public transportation, and in doing field work to register voters while enduring the oppression and discrimination of Jim Crow laws. Together, the overlapping stories create an indelible portrait of the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Maryland where women such as Diane Nash, SNCC's first female field secretary; Joann Christian Mants, an activist who was jailed 17 times by the time she was 16; and many others, worked for social justice. VERDICT Essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement and crucial for all collections documenting the era.—Donna L. Davey, New York Univ. Lib.
From the Publisher

"The stories of the 'beloved community' of unknown women in Hands on the Freedom Plow convey a transcendent message of how history can be changed by committed individuals who stand up to what is wrong and live by that old freedom song 'Ain't gonna let nobody turn me roun.'"--Essence, Charlayne Hunter-Gault

"Hands on the Freedom Plow underscores the neglected role women played in the civil rights crusade. Women answered the call, assumed weighty responsibilities, experienced persecution and worked together in the cause of freedom and social justice. Their spirit remains alive in this remarkable book."--Charlotte Observer


"Completely upend[s] both traditional and radical histories of the modern civil rights movement by placing women at the center of their narrative and interpretive process.  This is a breathtaking achievement. . . . Because of the power of the storytelling, as a reader I felt as though I were living through events as they were unfolding.  I felt the terror of the violence and the euphoria of triumph."--Women's Review of Books
"Powerful, inspiring, and tremendously moving, the oral histories collected here highlight the essential role women played as organizers and activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South of the early 1960s. . . . Essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement."--Library Journal

"Page after page reveals remarkable stories of courage and defiance. . . .
The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement."--The Root

"These primary source documents read like a modern novel. . . . Of immense interest and value to scholars and students of the Civil Rights Movement."--The Journal of African American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252035579
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 443,803
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Faith S. Holsaert, Durham, North Carolina, teacher and fiction writer, has remained active in lesbian and women's, antiwar, and justice struggles. Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, community organizer, activist, homemaker, and teacher of history including the civil rights movement, lives near Baltimore. Filmmaker and Movement lecturer Judy Richardson's projects include the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize and other historical documentaries. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Betty Garman Robinson, a community organizer, lives in Baltimore and is active in the reemerging grassroots social justice movement. Jean Smith Young is a child psychiatrist who works with community mental health programs in the Washington, DC area. New York City consultant Dorothy M. Zellner wrote and edited for the Center for Constitutional Rights and CUNY Law School. All of the editors worked for SNCC.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Fighting for My Rights: One SNCC Woman's Experience, 1961-1964 7

From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons aka Gwendolyn Robinson 9

Part 2 Entering Troubled Waters: Sit-ins, the Founding of SNCC, and the Freedom Rides, 1960-1963 33

What We Were Talking about Was Our Future Angeline Butler 39

An Official Observer Constance Curry 45

Onto Open Ground Casey Hayden 49

Two Variations on Nonviolence Mildred Forman Page 53

A Young Communist Joins SNCC Debbie Amis Bell 55

Watching, Waiting, and Resisting Hellen O'Neal-McCray 61

Diary of a Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland 67

They Are the Ones Who Got Scared Diane Nash 76

Part 3 Movement Leaning Posts: The Heart and Soul of the Southwest Georgia Movement, 1961-1963 85

Ripe for the Picking Janie Culbreth Rambeau 91

Finding Form for the Expression of My Discontent Annette Jones White 100

Uncovered and Without Shelter, I Joined This Movement for Freedom Bernice Johnson Reagon 119

We Turned This Upside-Down Country Right Side Up Joann Christian Mants 128

Everybody Called Me "Teach" McCree L. Harris 140

I Love to Sing Rutha Mae Harris 144

Since I Laid My Burden Down Bernice Johnson Reagon 146

We Just Kept Going Carolyn Daniels 152

Part 4 Standing Tall: The Southwest Georgia Movement, 1962-1963 157

It Was Simply in My Blood Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely 163

Freedom-Faith Prathia Hall 172

Resistance U Faith S. Holsaert 181

Caught in the Middle Cathy Cade 195

Part 5 Get on Board: The Mississippi Movement through the Atlantic City Challenge, 1961-1964 211

Standing Up for Our Beliefs Joyce Ladner 217

Inside and Outside of Two Worlds Jeannette King 223

They Didn't Know the Power of Women Victoria Gray Adams 230

Do Whatever You Are Big Enough to Do Jean Smith Young 240

Depending on Ourselves Muriel Tillinghast 250

A Grand Romantic Notion Denise Nicholas 257

If We Must Die Janet Jemmott Moses 266

Part 6 Cambridge, Maryland: The Movement under Attack, 1961-1964 271

The Energy of the People Passing through Me Gloria Richardson Dandridge 273

Part 7 A Sense of Family: The National SNCC Office, 1960-1964 299

Peek around the Mountain Joanne Grant 303

My Real Vocation Dorothy M. Zellner 311

A SNCC Blue Book Jane Bond Moore 326

Getting Out the News Mary E. King 332

It's Okay to Fight the Status Quo E. Jeanne Breaker Johnson 344

SNCC: My Enduring "Circle of Trust" Judy Richardson 348

Working in the Eye of the Social Movement Storm Betty Carman Robinson 366

In the Attics of My Mind Casey Hayden 381

Building a New World Barbara Jones Omolade 388

Part 8 Fighting Another Day: The Mississippi Movement after Atlantic City, 1964-1966 395

A Simple Question Margaret Herring 399

The Mississippi Cotton Vote Penny Patch 403

The Freedom Struggle Was the Flame Elaine DeLott Baker 409

An Interracial Alliance of the Poor: An Elusive Populist Fantasy? Emmie Schrader Adams 417

We Weren't the Bad Guys Barbara Brandt 427

Sometimes in the Ground Troops, Sometimes in the Leadership Doris A. Derby 436

Part 9 The Constant Struggle: The Alabama Movement, 1963-1966 447

There Are No Cowards in My Family Annie Pearl Avery 453

Singing for Freedom Bettie Mae Fikes 460

Bloody Selma Prathia Hall 470

Playtime Is Over Fay Bellamy Powell 473

Captured by the Movement Martha Prescod Norman Noonan 483

We'll Never Turn Back Gloria House 503

Letter to My Adolescent Son Jean Wiley 514

Part 10 Black Power. Issues of Continuity, Change, and Personal Identity, 1964-1969 525

Neither Black nor White in a Black-White World Elizabeth (Betita) Sutherland Martinez 531

I Knew I Wasn't White, but in America What Was I? Marilyn Lowen 540

Time to Get Ready Maria Varela 552

Born Freedom Fighter Gwen Patton 572

Postscript: We Who Believe in Freedom 587

Index 593

Illustrations follow pages 84, 156, and 270.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 13, 2011

    Meet some of the folk who ran the Movement

    This is an outstanding book which, unlike most books on the Civil Rights Movement, gives definitive personal insight into persons involved and the planning it took to make a Movement. Of the 52 contributors to the book, 5 are deceased. This affords schools, universities, clubs, churches and others the opportunity to have actual participants share their experiences and to autograph the book. It will also make an excellent gift for young women and also for men and women in prisons to. Also, everyone can help carry the messages involved forward by contacting their local libraries, high schools and elementary schools and requesting them to obtain copies of "Hands On The Freedom Plow". As one of the contributors I have to say I am so pleased to be a part of this effort. Participating in the Civil Rights Movement was a life-enhancing experience; being able to share that experience via "Hands" is a absolute joy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2011

    Brava for these Brave Women!

    The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the cutting edge of the Civil Rights Movement. Born out of the student sit-ins that erupted on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro North Carolina, within months thousands of students across the south were engaged in similar non-violent protests against racial segregation, risking their lives in the process. But it was far from a spontaneous uprising; the organizers (though mostly college age) were well trained and deeply committed to building a grassroots movement within the communities of the Deep South, working with local people to bring about change. This well-organized book shares the personal narratives of 52 women - northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white and Latina - who served on the front lines of freedom. The narratives are grouped by regional movements, and also by themes such as issues of personal identity. There are similarities found in some of the narratives - for example, many relate terrifying encounters with the Klan and the public authorities who were supposed to protect them, beatings and deprivations in jail, but also love and overwhelming support from local people who lifted them up, fed them, and sheltered them to the best of their ability in the Jim Crow south. One recurring theme that touched me deeply was how many of these women were just girls, often the first in their family to attend college, terrified not only of being murdered in the Deep South but equally terrified about disappointing their parents by postponing (or sometimes being expelled from) college. Some recount having broken bonds with family which were never mended. But beyond these similarities each woman's story is related through a very personal lens. In fact, they are so intensely personal and compelling that at times I couldn't stop reading, and at other times I had to look away because I was overwhelmed. I especially appreciated the biographical notes, and was heartened by how many of these women continued to work for freedom and peace in some capacity throughout their lives, many as teachers, organizers and activists. As I write this review, Memorial Day is just around the corner. I hope I live to see the day that veterans of the Civil Rights Movement are honored for their valiant service to this country in the cause of true freedom and democracy. They are heroes and deserve to be honored as such, but it's now over 50 years later, and time is running out. This book should be on every public library shelf, and I think it would make an inspiring gift for a daughter heading off to college. Related: American Experience: Freedom Riders 120 minutes PBS, 2011 The powerful harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever. From May until November 1961 more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South.

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