With the exception of Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer, the outsize role that women played in the Southern freedom movement of the 1960s often seems absent from the Civil Rights canon. Here to set that record straight is a new essay collection, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. The book is an extraordinary corrective — a long-overdue roundup of reminiscences by 52 women who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from roughly 1960 to 1966. Their accounts make it clear that women did much more than support male leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: Women led local grassroots campaigns, organized voter-registration drives in dangerous Southern backwaters and in many ways led SNCC as well.
Most of the essayists featured in Hands on the Freedom Plow were of high school or college age in the 1960s. Their voices ring out young and strong almost 50 years later, and their diverse political views deepen and amplify this portrayal of SNCC.
Take volume co-editor Jean Smith Young, for example. Upon traveling from Howard University in Washington, D.C., to Mississippi in 1964, she was unexpectedly faced with leading a discussion at a local political gathering. Racked with self-doubt about whether she could pull it off, Young finally persuaded herself that "You gonna have to do this yourself." Then she stood up and did it — and kept on doing it thereafter with growing confidence.
Young's refrain is reprised throughout the book. Every essayist emphasizes that SNCC enabled her to discover her capabilities. Judy Richardson, another co-editor, was a young black woman from Tarrytown, N.Y., who went south to work with SNCC in 1963. "Whatever sexism I found in SNCC … was always, for me, balanced by an unbelievable sense of power," she recalls. "And that was nurtured in me as much by the men as by the women of SNCC."
Given the times, "an unbelievable sense of power" could come in handy. As a 12th grader, for example, Joann Christian Mants was one of a group of black students who desegregated the formerly all-white high school in Albany, Ga. "Once," she remembers in these pages, "one of the biggest [white] football players took pennies and threw them at me, a gesture meaning 'Dance, nigger, dance.' I turned on him and knocked him straight through the window that was in the hallway near the cafeteria."
Stories of similar courage and defiance pepper the book. Annie Pearl Avery was a native of Birmingham, Ala. — and the possessor of a legendary fearlessness. She describes waiting alone all night on the "white side" of a bus station in Anniston, Ala. — the same town where, just a few months earlier, a white mob had firebombed a bus carrying black and white Freedom Riders. As Avery maintained her vigil, she could look through the windows of the station at the burned-out shell of that bus, still ominously abandoned in the parking lot. "I really think the only reason I survived was because I was female," she writes. "If I had been a black male, I probably would be dead by now."
Although the Civil Rights struggle is often characterized as consisting primarily of mass protests led by charismatic leaders in public places, Hands on the Freedom Plow reminds us that good old-fashioned grassroots organizing was the force behind many a civil rights victory. The movement's organizing tradition, in turn, was rooted in the bravery of ordinary people — people such as Carolyn Daniels of Dawson, Ga., who dared allow SNCC workers to stay overnight in her house; local whites retaliated by firebombing her home. Near the end of her vivid depiction of this and other terrorist acts aimed at blacks, Daniels writes matter-of-factly: "We just kept going, we just kept going."
Organizing involved the kind of commitment and willingness to face risk that Penny Patch conveys in describing the covert nighttime meetings she attended in plantation sharecropper shacks. Patch is white. But that did not lessen the fear or reduce the danger she felt while poll-watching in a country store; most of the white voters who filed in and out made a point of staring menacingly at Patch and her black co-worker.
In addition to its personal accounts of resolve and redemption, Hands on the Freedom Plow provides a useful introduction to the history of SNCC. Founded in April 1960 on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, SNCC was conceived to coordinate and publicize desegregation sit-ins. By 1966 it had grown into a powerful regional coalition of organizers — as well as a radical player on the national scene. SNCC found itself increasingly isolated from the Civil Rights establishment after Stokely Carmichael (elected to replace John Lewis as SNCC chairman in 1966) began advocating Black Power.
To learn more about the pivotal roles female activists played in SNCC’s evolution, simply turn to the collection’s table of contents and pick an essay title that engages you. I guarantee you’ll want to go on to all the other stories.
Journalist and former SNCC field secretary Charles E. Cobb Jr. is the author of On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.