The Women of SNCC

Challenging brutal oppression in the South, the student organization gave women a rare opportunity to lead.

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Martha Prescod Norman Noonan (c) Jason Miccolo Johnson

When you listen to the women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) recount their experiences as organizers in the Deep South a half-century ago,  a crystal clear truth emerges: the civil rights movement could never have succeeded without the extraordinary creativity and courage of female organizers. As Charles M. Payne, a scholar at the University of Chicago, puts it, SNCC, "created a space in which women could emerge into leadership roles in ways that were very unusual in American history."

 It is tragic-and, in a sense, shameful-that women's contribution to the struggle remains so little-known.

That omission will be corrected to some extent this fall with the publication of "Hands on the Freedom Plow: The Personal Testimonies of Women in SNCC."   The work, which will be published by the University of Illinois Press, includes the stories of over fifty female SNCC workers.  Its theme is the emergence of what Maria Varela, A Mississippi veteran who  received  a MacArthur "genius" grant for  her subsequent work organizing co-operatives among the poor in rural New Mexico, calls "a very female approach to organizing."

This approach was natural, given that SNCC was inspired by the late Ella Baker, who believed that movements had to be built from the bottom up.   That  meant SNCC organizers,  male and female,  saw themselves not as leaders, but as equal partners with local people in shaping the movement. 

"We students had information about voting, political empowerment and literacy training to share," recalls Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, who took part in SNCC campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama.  "The local people had lived under that system of domination and brutality for generations.  Everyone know someone whose loved one had been beaten or killed by its violence.  They knew how to live without surrendering their humanity or dignity to those who sought to crush them."

What emerged from these remarkable interactions between SNCC organizers, and the local people they worked with, defined social activism for a generation.  Female SNCC organizers emerged as among the movement's bravest and most dynamic thinkers.

In 1961, for example, some organizers considered suspending the Freedom Rides out of fear that someone would be killed.  But Diane Nash, one of the prime movers behind the Nashville sit-ins, insisted that they go on, lest racists believe they could stop the movement with violence.

In Atlanta, Spelman students devised tactics for maximizing the impact of sit-ins by moving rapidly from one segregated place of business to another before police could arrive to arrest them.  Female SNCC workers like Doris Derby played key roles in creating the Free Southern Theater, the Poor People's Corporation, and a host of other projects.   Says another veteran, Mary King, "In SNCC, you didn't stand on ceremony, you just went ahead and did it," if it needed to be done.

The courage it took for Southern black women to join hands with SNCC workers is almost unbelievable.  Norman Noonon recounts the story of Carolyn Daniels, who housed SNCC workers in her home in Terrell County, Georgia after the sheriff beat her 16-year-old son for bringing people to the courthouse to register to vote. 

On one of the repeated occasions when her home was shot up by night riders, a bomb was also thrown into the house.  It came to rest under the bed where she was hiding.  "I knew this was the end," Mrs. Daniels remembers thinking, but the bomb did not go off.