Steady Hands for Freedom

Against the Current, No. 170, May/June 2014

Rose M. Brewer

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 and Dorothy M. Zellner, editors
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, paperback edition 2012, 616 pages, $26.95 paper.

IN THIS ERA of reaction, in this atmosphere of repression, the imperative to re-imagine change is vital. Given this reality and the fact that 2014 represents the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the edited volume Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC is supremely timely. It lifts up a still too invisible aspect of 1960s social change embedding radical women, heavily Black and white, at the center of social transformation in the United States.

This rich narrative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is rooted in the experiences and expressed in the voices of the women who lived it. The editors assert that in the book they “explain why we did what we did — why we traveled directly toward danger…how we overcame fear.”

The book is lengthy with dozens of voices who share their time in SNCC and its profound impact on their lives. The collection is organized through a periodization that spans 1961 through 1969, with an editors’ postscript that ends in 1970.  The periodization coincides with the local shifts in SNCC organizing and from the nonviolent movement to Black Power.

 The volume opens with Part 1, 1961-1964, through the poignant narration of Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons aka Gwendolyn Robinson. She is the “Little Memphis Girl” who became a “Mississippi Amazon.” She broke from her family, college and educational demands to join the movement. She became a women and freedom fighter in the furnace of southern racial apartheid, catalyzed by SNCC.

From Simmons’ story, the collection unfolds thusly:

Part 2, “Entering Troubled Waters: Sit-ins, the Founding of SNCC, and the Freedom Rides, 1960-1963”; Part 3, “Movement Landing Posts: The Heart and Soul of the Southwest Georgia Move­ment, 1961-1963; Part 4, “Standing Tall: The Southwest Georgia Move­ment, 1962-1963”; Part 5, Get on Board: The Mississippi Movement through the Atlantic City Challenge, 1961-1964”; Part 6, “Cambridge, Maryland: The Movement under Attack, 1961-1964; Part 7, “A Sense of Family: The National SNCC Office, 1960-1964”; Part 8, “Fighting Another Day; the Mississippi Movement after Atlantic City, 1964-1966”; Part 9, “The Constant Struggle: The Alabama Movement, 1963-1966”; Part 10, “Black Power: Issues of Continuity, Change, and Personal Identity, 1964-1969;” and a postscript.

The reader is taken from the first years of SNCC formation to the organization becoming the radical edge of the nonviolent movement to its transition into the Black Power phase of Black liberation. At the center are the women of SNCC whose stories are at the core of this history. Their testimonies and the postscript are powerful reminders of the price paid for pushing forward fundamental social change — vicious white violence and the state violence meted out by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Feminism and Triple Jeopardy

Of course the issue of gender and SNCC was raised in the collection. Questions were posed to the women regarding how gender dynamics played out in the organization.

The responses varied, but nearly all the women agreed that SNCC was a radically democratic space where the voices of everyday people were highly valued. Or, perhaps, it was the angle of vision deployed with a number of Black SNCC women saying they were always leaders in the organization and SNCC was a place where this leadership was valued and honed.

Nonetheless, some SNCC women saw an uneven male/female gender dynamic. The 1964 Waveland meeting is noteworthy in this regard. It was at Waveland that Casey Hayden, a white woman, authored her first women’s position paper. It would be one of two papers Hayden produced that set the context for her locating second wave feminism in SNCC.

It is also true that the idea of the triple jeopardy Black women face was developed theoretically by Frances Beale, one of the Black woman who formed the Third World Women’s Alliance.

Regarding other women of color, Elizabeth (Betita) Sutherland Martinez was involved in the l964 Freedom Summer project traveling to urge volunteers and community activists to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Atlantic City Democratic National Convention.

Betita narrates her identity transformation from being thought of as white to embracing Mexican American identity. She would write a paper titled, “Black, White and Tan.” The other Latina in the volume, Mary (Maria) Varela, was involved in the Selma literacy project. After 1967 she moved to New Mexico continuing her community organizing work.

The closing essay by Gwen Patton, “Born Freedom Fighter,” bookends the opening narrative. In the opening, a young Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons heroically breaks with family and educational authorities to become a freedom fighter. In the closing essay Gwen Patton carries out a family legacy of Black struggle, a legacy bequeathed to her by several generations of her family.

“Born a freedom fighter,” she was schooled in Black culture and resistance from an early age and carried it through to her early student movement involvement, to Revolutionary Black Nationalism and the Black Power period of SNCC.

Chronicle of Courage

This book provides profound insights into courage, and what it means to confront fear and walk into danger to achieve justice. Powerful was the cause, but the costs were high. Women (and men) gave their lives, and their memory is palpable within the pages of Hands on the Freedom Plow.

Through the women’s testimonies the reader comes to understand how and why young people came to the movement and became ready for the revolution. They leave a lasting legacy through their words and deeds, as another generation takes on the intractable issues of racism, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism.

The volume embodies the rich narratives of 52 extraordinary women. In the order their testimonies appear, Presente!

Gwendolyn Zoarah Simmons aka Gwendolyn Robinson, Angeline Butler, Constance Curry, Casey Hayden, Mildren Foman Page, Debbie Amis Bell, Hellen O’Neal-McCray, Jean Trumpauer Mulholland, Diane Nash, Janie Culbreth Rambeau, Annette Jones White, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Joann Christin Mans, McCree L. Harris, Rutha Mae Harris, Carolyn Daniels, Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, Prathia Hall, Faith S. Halsaert, Cathy Cade, Joyce Ladner, Jeannette King, Victoria Gray Adams, Jean Smith Young, Muriel Tillinghast, Denise Nicholas, Janet Jemmott Moses, Gloria Richardson Dandridge, Joanne Grant, Dorothy M. Zellner, Jane Bond Moore, Mary E. King, E. Jeanne Breaker Johnson, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Casey Hayden, Barbara Jones Omolade, Margaret Herring, Penny Patch, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, Barbara Brandt, Doris A. Derby, Annie Pearl Avery, Bettie Mae Fikes, Prathia Hall, Fay Bellamy Powell, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Gloria House, Jean Wiley, Elizabeth (Betita) Sutherland Martinez, Marilyn Lowen, Maria Varela, Gwen Patton.

May/June 2014, ATC 170