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

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

Pub. Date:
University of Illinois Press
Pub. Date:
University of Illinois Press
Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

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 remarkable strength 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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252078880
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 07/20/2012
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 656
Product dimensions: 9.32(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.38(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Hands on the Freedom Plow

Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC

By Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, Dorothy M. Zellner


Copyright © 2010 Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-07888-0


From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons aka Gwendolyn Robinson

A college student is torn between meeting her high academic goals and her growing commitment to the Movement. Her activism is met with fierce opposition from black college administrators and her family.

The Early Years

My paternal grandmother, Rhoda Bell Temple-Robinson-Hudson-Douglas (she was married three times and outlived them all), who reared me from the age of three (she was "Mama" to me), told me a lot about the ways of the world for a black girl-child in the heart of the Deep South. My grandmother had been raised by her grandmother, who spent her youth and early adulthood in slavery. The product of a white "master" and an enslaved African American mother, Grandma Lucy was blonde and blue-eyed (hard to believe if you saw my grandmother or me). Grandma Lucy hated the color of her skin because of all the suffering it had caused her. When she was eleven or twelve years old, her slave master/father gave her as a wedding gift to her half "all white" sister. This sister hated her immensely, presumably because she knew that her father was Lucy's father, too. The punishments the new "mistress" meted out to her half-sister for any infractions of her draconian codes included lashes with a buggy whip and, most cruel of all, the insertion of long darning needles between Grandma Lucy's fingernails and nail beds while my great-great-grandmother bled profusely and begged for mercy. Grandma Lucy told my grandmother the stories of slavery as she grew up. My grandmother then told them to me. I have told them to my daughter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons (may the circle be unbroken!).

Mama was a great storyteller. I learned about the harsh realities she had faced under the sharecropping system, trying to eke out a meager living from the soil from year to year in the face of harrowing racism and an economic system stacked against the sharecropper. She had spent all of her early life on different farms in Arkansas, and although the conditions in each place were none too good, she said she always gave thanks for not living in Mississippi, which was the worst "hell hole" in the whole wide world for black folks.

I can remember being terrified by the stories she told about Negroes still living at that time under a virtual form of slavery in Mississippi. She knew people who had recently escaped from Mississippi plantations where they had been held for years at gunpoint because of their so-called indebtedness to their white landowners. She said she thanked God every day that she had not had to set foot into the state of Mississippi, and she warned me never to land there if I knew what was good for me. Of course I promised myself that I would never, ever go there! Memphis was bad enough; I certainly didn't want it any worse.

For the most part, growing up was joyful. I lived happily in my all-black world, surrounded by a loving family and wonderful teachers and church members; they showered me with tender care, support, and encouragement to reach the highest goals that I could imagine, in spite of the obstacles of race and gender. Mama was a happy person by nature, kind and loving and full of the joy of life. I guess our temperaments and personalities meshed well, and life with my grandparents was a happy one. Although my mother (Juanita Cranford-Robinson-Watson) and father (Major Lewis Robinson) were separated when I was three and a half, they were loving, affirming, and actively involved in my life. After my parents' breakup, Mama asked if she could keep me, since my mother had to return to work full-time. I did spend many weekends with my sweet mother, who was like a big sister to me, and my father lived in the house off and on with my grandparents and me for most of my growing up. Though he wasn't one to express much affection verbally, he clearly loved me, and as I grew up to be a leader at school and at church, he was visibly proud.

My aunts Jessie (Jessie Neal Hudson) and Ollie Bee (Ollie B. Smith) both took great interest in me and encouraged me to excel. Both were strong women who took their destinies into their own hands and carved out rich and wonderful lives. My aunt Jessie was especially attractive, lived in Chicago, and boasted a wardrobe and colognes that I thought only movie stars owned. With her high school diploma in hand, she migrated to Chicago, as so many Memphians did, and pushed her way into the white preserve of retail window design. On her biyearly treks home to Memphis, she regaled me with stories of her life in the Windy City. She made my whole community come to life when she came to town. She was all of my friends' "Aunt Jessie" too. She brought many of them presents and baked for everyone. There was music and dancing in the house when she came. She taught me how to dance. And the clothes that she brought or sent me twice a year made my eyes bug out. Bold, audacious, daring, and a pioneering spirit are terms that best describe her. It was through her that I learned that while the North did offer more opportunities to black people than did the South, it was still no Promised Land!

I was blessed with many excellent women role models: there was Miss Willa McWilliams-Walker — my second-grade teacher — who was the first black person to run for the Memphis school board. At my church there were Dr. Clara Brawner, the first black woman doctor I ever saw; her sister Alpha Brawner, a world-renowned opera singer; and Ophelia Little, another internationally known opera singer. There were so many good teachers at my school and mentors at my church home who made special efforts to help me develop my leadership potential. By and large it was these womenfolk who made indelible impressions on me during my developing years. They told me constantly that I should reach for the stars. I studied hard, played hard, did well in school, and set my sights upon attaining a full tuition scholarship from either Howard University or Spelman College, two of the most prestigious historically black colleges in the United States.

Yes, I was subjected to the daily indignities that all black people were exposed to. But for the most part, these things were the gray background to the Technicolor life that I was busily leading at the time. For the most part it only minimally intruded upon my happy, busy, event-filled, and purposeful life.

The Realization

At the end of my junior year in high school, it was clear that I had to get a job and save money for college. A number of my peers, particularly the boys, had begun working during the summers long before me. Many of them worked in nearby cotton fields, being paid meagerly for their backbreaking efforts. I had been spared this exhausting work by my grandmother, who said, "I have picked enough cotton for the both of us." Fortunately, our family could afford to live without my adding to the family's income, since both my father and grandfather were working. My granddad, Henry "Lev" Douglas, worked at a whiskey distillery that even unionized. He was proud to be a union man.

For some reason I got it into my head that I wanted a "nice" job (read, white folks–type job) working in an office or in a department store. I answered several want ads, only to be told by the irate and anxious clerks that this was not a job for a "colored girl." I began to feel a bit depressed about securing a good summer job. One day in early June, I was again rebuffed. It was hot, and the air was so thick and humid that you could have cut it with a knife. I was standing outside a commercial establishment wondering if I should answer some of the other ads or just call it quits for the day. Quite suddenly a violent thunderstorm blew up, and before I could collect myself, I was caught in torrential rains with thunder and lightning flashing all around. I was quite disturbed about being caught out in the open in a thunderstorm with no shelter. As I looked around at the glass-and-concrete buildings and at the white people standing in the windows looking out at the storm — and me in it — I was seized by the feeling of being stranded in an alien land. I was in my homeland, yet somehow I did not know the place. I stood there on the street, soaked to my skin, with thunder and lightning playing all around. I began to cry as I looked at all the cold buildings with their white inhabitants surrounding me. There was no shelter for me in this storm. I felt foreign and alone. For the first time, I think I realized what it meant to be black in the American South. Mama and all the loving ones who had shielded me from the harsh realities were not there. This was the real South for a black girl. I was afraid and angry. For the first time, I felt hatred for the white South and all the white southerners in it. Dripping wet and seething with a feeling I had not known before, I made my way to the bus stop where I would catch a bus to take me back to my part of town.

As I boarded the number 31 cross-town bus, I was steaming and mad as hell. I glared at the bus driver, and after dropping my coins into the fare box, I sat down on the front seat across from the driver as rivulets of water dripped from the hem of my skirt onto the floor and water seeped out from my squishy shoes. The driver, obviously shocked, looked at me and said, "Gal, I don't want no trouble; you better git on to the back, where you belong." I responded with a stony silence and a hate-filled gaze. There were no white passengers on the bus, but there were a scattering of black riders seated in the extreme rear, who were quite agitated by my actions. Several of them began hissing at me. They began to gesture in exaggerated movements, urging me to "come on to the back" and "don't start any trouble." There was fear for themselves and concern for my safety in their expressions. I looked away from them, unmoved, and stared straight ahead. I had no plan, no rational thoughts. I did not know what I was going to do. All I knew was that I was not going to give up my seat without a struggle. I didn't know how far I was prepared to go. I thought, I am a human being, not a dog. I am a person just as good as they are. Gone were all the sheltering adults who had done their best to protect me from the bitter realities of being black and female in the Jim Crow South. It was just me and them. For the first time in my life, I was being an "uppity nigger," and it felt good. Who the hell did white people think they were? I didn't give a damn what the next moment would bring. All I felt was that I was a "nigger" to be reckoned with!

I was lucky that day. They say that God looks after fools and angels. Clearly I had committed a dangerous act and, fortunately, did not have to pay for it. The driver didn't call the police or physically throw me off the bus. The few white passengers who boarded the bus didn't insist on their "skin privilege" that day, but cursed and muttered and stood over me in anger. A few sat down on the opposite side of the bus, glaring menacingly at me all the while. I returned their glares. The black passengers in the back looked on in fear and astonishment and seemed to breathe with a sigh of relief when their stops approached. I reached my destination and got off with tired and heavy steps as the bus sped away.

I stopped trying to find a job in white Memphis after that. A dear neighbor got me a summer job at the Harlem House, a chain of hamburger joints scattered across black Memphis, where I washed dishes until my hands became raw and, when I was lucky, flipped burgers.

I didn't pull off any other daring acts of courage in Memphis, but I did join the NAACP youth organization and their choir; things were pretty tame in Memphis in the early '60s, compared to what was going on in other parts of the state and across the South, with the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. There was no doubt about it: change was in the air. No black person with breath in his or her body was unaware of the rising tide of resistance that was gripping black America.

Spelman College: A Dream Come True

I did get that scholarship to Spelman College. I also received offers from Bennett College (the other black women's college), Morgan State University, and a small white college in the Midwest that was integrating its campus. I chose Spelman. In my mind it was the most prestigious, and several of my role models — Clara and Alpha Brawner and Mrs. Epps, my pastor's wife, were alumnae. I graduated third in my high school class of more than two hundred and beamed with pride when my name was called and they read my lists of scholarships and honors. I was really on my way. I had reached for the stars and they were coming closer.

My grandmother was so proud of me. Of course everyone in my family, my school, and my church were, too. But this was so special for Mama, as she had wanted to go off to boarding school when she was a girl so long ago in Arkansas. I was living out her dream of going to college. Mama, my mother, and my stepfather (Rev. Granville Watson) drove me to the campus in Atlanta. I was thrilled as we pulled onto the beautiful tree-lined campus with all of its old, stately buildings. I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. I was assigned to a room in Packard Hall, one of the older buildings on campus. It was like heaven to me and a long, long way from the four-room shotgun house in which I had grown up. Everything was spotless, and the beautiful wooden floors and magnificent wood trim shone like burnished brass. My dream had come true; I was a freshman at Spelman College.

My folks stayed a couple of days for the parents' orientation. I could see in Mama's eyes how thrilled she was for me and herself. I promised her that I would do well for her — that I would be good, study hard, and not let anything or anyone come between me and my studies. Her parting words to me were to not get into any trouble with boys or to let anything pull me away from my school work. I promised!

I was so thoroughly caught up in my new life on campus that it was some time before I really noticed that there was a movement going on right outside the tall brick walls that separated Spelman from the housing project. Outside of my Spelman utopia was the same ugly reality I had experienced all my life. In this city with the motto "too busy to hate" was the same Jim Crow. Downtown Atlanta was all white except for the menial laborers. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) had headquarters in Atlanta and were actively working to destroy legal racism in the city. The Spelman administrators warned us Spelman women to stay clear of any involvement with the Movement. We were there, we were told often, to get an education, not to get involved in demonstrations and protests. They made it clear that any young ladies who got involved would be summarily dismissed, especially those of us who were on scholarships. I heard that! I certainly had no intention of getting involved. I had my priorities straight. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me; I certainly wasn't going to blow it.

The Conflict

As fate would have it, I was assigned to an experimental class combining history and American literature. The two faculty members, Dr. Staughton Lynd and Ms. Esta Seaton, were northern white liberals who were well acquainted with the African American struggle for freedom. They set out to awaken us to that incredible history. Throughout my first semester, I became acquainted for the first time with the history and protest writings of my people, and pride in them and their long struggle for justice was awakened. In addition, I met others who fanned the flame of black pride and identity. Vincent and Rosemary Freeny Harding were codirectors of the Mennonite House in Atlanta. Howard Zinn was head of Spelman's history department. I heard many of his illuminating lectures on the African American contribution to the expansion of democracy in the United States. Another very important factor in my burgeoning transformation was my membership in the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. I joined, following my grandmother's orders and without knowing of its significance to the Movement: Rev. Ralph Abernathy was its pastor. The church's first lady, Juanita Abernathy, had a sister who was in my class and invited me to attend church with her. It was somewhat like my own church back in Memphis, the Gospel Temple Baptist Church. Plus it was just a few blocks from the campus. Staying true to my upbringing, I went every Sunday and joined the choir, something that I knew Mama would approve of — and I loved to sing.

While I was totally unaware of it, the stage was being set. What I was learning in my classes, hearing in church about the Movement — mass meetings and even the opportunity to see and hear eloquent sermons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself in my newfound church — began to erode the defense I had constructed against anything that would come between me and my precious college education. At the same time there were regular visits to the campus by SNCC recruiters, who would alternate between cajoling and lambasting us for not joining demonstrations or sit-ins. They loved to say that we were the next generation of "handkerchief-head-Negroes" who, with all our college degrees, would still be bowing and scraping to "Mr. Charlie," saying, "yassir boss," "nawsu boss," following the white man's orders 'til the day we died. They would ask, "What is a black man with a PhD?" and answer, "A nigger!" They had some really effective recruiters. One of the best was Willie Ricks, sometimes called "Reverend" Ricks. He'd stand on the campus in his blue-jean overalls (the SNCC uniform) and talk about how the SNCC folks were making history while we studied it.


Excerpted from Hands on the Freedom Plow by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, Dorothy M. Zellner. Copyright © 2010 Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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