No Outside Saviors!

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

ATC interviews Gwen Patton

AGAINST THE CURRENT spoke with Gwendolyn M. Patton as part of our retrospective on the events of 1968 and the surrounding years. (For a selection of women activists’ reflections see our March-April and May-June 2008 issues, ATC 133 and 134.) The interview was conducted by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel of the editorial board; we present here some of Gwen Patton’s thoughts focused on gender, class and self-organization in the Civil Rights Movement.

With roots both in Detroit and Inkster, Michigan where she was born and in Montgomery, Alabama where she had spent childhood summers with grandparents and other relatives, Gwen Patton relocated to Montgomery at age 16 after her parents passed. There she joined the Montgomery Improvement Association, graduated from George Washington Carver High School, and earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in English and History from Tuskegee University. At Tuskegee she was president of the Student Government Association and Direct Action Chair for the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League, struggling for desegregation in Macon County.

Told by Alabama officials that she’d never get a job in that state because of her work in the freedom struggle — which included desegregation, voting rights and anti-draft activism — between 1966 and 1977 she traveled and organized all over the country and the world, while earning a Master’s Degree from Antioch University and receiving other academic honors. In 1977 she returned to Alabama, where she’s lived since. She now serves as Program/Field Director for the Southern Rainbow Education Project, described as “a free-standing, multi-racial/cultural, multi-issue coalition dedicated to the principle that grassroots people can act on their own collective behalf as their own advocates and leaders.” (For additional background visit

We began by asking Gwen Patton about her formative experiences.

Gwen Patton: I was a Movement child and conscious since I was nine years old, in 1952, when I had my first conscious protest in Montgomery, Alabama. My grandmother’s rental property was the Freedom House for SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organizers.

In 1960, when I was 16, I wanted to go to Raleigh, North Carolina for the historic sit-ins, but I couldn’t. When I went to Tuskegee in 1961 as a student, the sit-ins occurred and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) became a natural organization for me to join — unlike the preacher-dominated and male-controlled SCLC. In SNCC it was a natural peer relationship.

I was Student Body President at Tuskegee and helped establish a strong community relationship. We raised the term “relevance” in terms of education and inquiry.

Jennifer Lawson, a leading SNCC activist in Alabama, asked the question: What is the good of my studying biology if I can’t do anything about water quality here? All those things came together for me. I’ve written a piece called “Insurgent Memories” which is on the internet (, originally published in Southern Exposure, Spring 1981 — ed.).

I learned to believe in thorough discussion. We stayed up day and night, we would lay it all on the table until we could arrive at agreement through consensus. That resonated with my own outlook on life and where I wanted to be.

In Montgomery I was involved as a child in the bus boycott, and in voting rights. It was always interconnected with the whole human rights struggle, which we called it at the time before the liberals got hold of it and called it “civil rights.” We believed that if we achieved voting rights it would be decisive. We used to show people how to work through all the barriers…

Freeing Ourselves

What I know up front is that in Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile, nobody liberated us. We liberated ourselves! The Black Power philosophy suited us, because we didn’t want outsiders coming in to run things, especially northern whites.

We supported the Freedom Riders (interstate bus desegregation activists, who were brutally attacked by local racists — ed.) when they came through in 1960, but we had a movement going and we wanted to run it ourselves.

All through 1965 we had the Lowndes County Freedom Democratic Party, which we didn’t think of as part of the Democratic Party. It was the height of insult for people to come and “liberate” us. They came down and told the local people what to do. Our whole style of leadership was that local people were their own leadership — that was SNCC’s leadership philosophy.

A lot of us come from that outlook and experience, especially here in Montgomery. We enlisted our own resources and started the bus boycott, with support from family and friends who had migrated to Detroit. Then when it began to get national support, we started to get funds from all over the country and the world. But sucking out the leadership of the local people — it was almost a caricature and it’s always been an abomination to me and to what our freedom fighting experience was about.

[We asked Gwen Patton whether this philosophy was what Ella Baker, an important SNCC activist who avoided the limelight and whose importance is now being rediscovered, had articulated. — eds.]

GP: It’s part of what my grandmother and grandfather articulated. I don’t go with this whole need for icons — as much as I love Ella. For those of us who have been part of the struggle for voting rights and so on since the 1900s, it’s part of what’s been in our lives for generations.

You have to find the least common denominator of consciousness. When a little all-Black town incorporated and wanted to get a fire truck, we sent our little nickels and dimes over there to get one. That’s always been my style. SNCC followed Ella Baker’s teaching: Since the northerners were coming anyhow, we were very careful that they had the philosophical understanding that it was never about having anyone come to liberate us.

In Alabama we had our own political economy. We had a strong union movement for the CIO.  We worked in the fields, in the coal mines, in the steel mills, we had a cross-section of working-class experience.

I got so tired of trying to educate northerners, whether Black or white. They would oooh and aaahh about how beautiful the cotton fields were. They had no clue that our kids can’t go to school till October and have to finish by March, and have no summer vacation because they have to work in those fields. I’m talking about 1966!

Resisting War and Racism

We organized a National Black Antiwar/Anti-Draft Union (February 1968). There was so much discussion among left forces — SWP, CP, PLP — all about strategy for the peace movement and basically not all that profound.

The argument was all about the single-issue versus multi-issue approaches, but philosophically it’s impossible for Black people to separate any of this from the question of equality and fairness. That argument was a waste of time, and we had our own discussion and formed our own Union.

There was a big action at the Pentagon in 1967. We just didn’t have the time for that discussion about “levitating the Pentagon” (a slogan of “Yippies” in that demonstration — ed.). We did march down to Lafayette Park to the rally, but then we walked to Howard University and held our own rally there.

I was one of the authors of the SNCC position paper on Vietnam (which caused a sensation when it was issued in 1966). That was in Atlanta. It was right after Sammy Younge was murdered. We were already having a free speech struggle at Tuskegee.

[In “Insurgent Memories” (1981), Gwen Patton wrote of this event: “On January 3, 1966, a shot fired by a white gas station attendant pierced the peaceful still of the night. Sammy Younge, Jr., lay dead on the January-cold concrete. A student activist who challenged the ‘white-only’ toilet was killed in the line of duty. Tuskegee came unglued. The campus was in perpetual turmoil for three years thereafter” — eds.]

We were supposed to have a VA hospital here in the 1920s. When World War I veterans came to the hospital, the Ku Klux Klan said they would shoot all the Black doctors. This is what happened when soldiers thought they were free when they came back home to Alabama.

[The text of the 1966 “Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee Position Paper: On Vietnam” is available at — eds.]

Black Women’s Liberation

I had the Black Women’s Committee incorporated — I knew this was important for tax-exempt status. [The Black Women’s Liberation Committee, formed by women in SNCC, was a forerunner of the later Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) — eds.]

Early on, Black women and Black men were on a par. I was the first student Student Body President elected at Tuskegee since it had become a co-ed school….I didn’t see all this division. But Moynihan [Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of an infamous report on the Black family — ed.] called Black women Amazons and said we castrated our men. Some of our men bought into that, and then we saw the beginning of all this heavily male-dominated cultural Nationalism.

I began to talk about the need to have a women’s perspective (this is when I was up in New York). There’s a terrific concept, which was formulated by SNCC’s Fran Beal — women’s “triple jeopardy” in confronting racism, sexism and class. This wasn’t in “reaction” to anything — in fact we discussed that, and reactive politics didn’t accomplish anything.

I went to a women’s meeting at New York University where the whole discussion was around “take the pill.” I was being told I was “reactionary” if I didn’t take the pill.

By this time we had so many Nationalist formations and so many left formations in our community trying to make sense out of everything. Meanwhile in the Black community we were also discussing “the pill,” but those discussions weren’t so much around whether a woman should have birth control, but from the perspective of population control because of racism.

All of these influences were converging into our intellect, and we saw the birth control pill as an instrument of population control on an international scale against the Black diaspora. So we saw two approaches: one that appeared very self-centered and the other from the wider community perspective. The question needed to be framed so that a woman has the right to take, or not to take, the pill if you want to be democratic.

A Wide and Long View

Dianne Feeley: Through all of this it seems to me that you’re looking through the eyes of the Movement, as an organizer, and also in a philosophical way with a larger view. Is that how you saw yourself?

Gwen Patton: Yes; it also means being responsible to a larger community and accountable to it. It means to deal with issues in a broader way. How do you bring people to a place where they collectively make a decision?

That has to be done on an individual basis, yet also collectively, determining how I can take my family and my community to a better place. What is the value of my making this choice? Will it benefit me, my family, my community? People, Black and white, have grappled with these questions from a religious point of view since the dawn of history. But your decisions have to be verified by a community. There are too many self-centered leaders validated by white people….

We also have to lose this iconic mentality. These Black officials are pathetic. Part of why I feel terrible is the teachers who can’t deal with creativity, confusing leadership with being the boss. You wonder why George W. Bush is president? I found here in Montgomery that the model of leadership is George Wallace. I close my eyes and find that people in leadership positions all sound the same.

DF: In the generation that was growing up when you were going to college, you were taking the experiences and working things out with your peers. Was that time a defining moment in your life?

Gwen Patton: It was our very life. Let me go back to 1965, our student body at Tuskegee. We were talking about the Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, with all this violence…you know what I was thinking about? I was thinking about how the marchers were going to eat. Living or dying isn’t what mattered — not to my grandparents or my parents — what I was concerned about in 1965 as a young woman was how those marchers would eat.

That’s why I wasn’t interested in these folks coming from the North. Where are they going to sleep? What about water? These were the questions that came to the fore.

As for today’s generation: Get rid of all these gangs in the community. Get these dope dealers out of your community. We’ve had practice with community patrols. You have to put up signs that say, this is an informed community of informers.

When I came back home to Alabama in 1978, after a decade in New York, I told people I didn’t want to hear about the gangs and drug dealers having guns. It’s not a question of guns: We didn’t have guns when we fought the Klan. We went over and viewed the Land [a reference to the scouts sent by Moses in the Book of Exodus to report on the Promised Land — ed.], we reported back to our leaders, and the walls came tumbling down. This generation will have to figure out its own way.

ATC 136, September-October 2008