Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders

A book about women in the civil rights movement reminds us they were not just supporters; they were also powerful and courageous leaders in the fight for equality.

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Women are almost invisible in civil rights storytelling, and hardly present in the civil rights canon. What they did and who they were in the Southern freedom movement of the 1960s remains barely understood.

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, a new book by 52 women who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), is long overdue and should help put an end to the belief that supporting male leaders was the principal role of women in the civil rights movement. In fact, women led local grass-roots movements. Women organized and put their lives at risk in dangerous rural Southern communities. Indeed, women led SNCC in many ways.

Although almost all of these essayists were of high school or college age in the 1960s, one striking aspect of this book is how young and strong their voices remain almost 50 years later. Gloria Richardson was the leader of the Cambridge, Md., movement and older than most of the other women. She is in her 80s now, but listen: "Young people today shouldn't be sitting around waiting for old folks to lead them into some new kind of millennium."

Leading during an era when women were not expected to lead defines the experience of all these women. "When I first came to Howard University, my classmates considered me a timid, retiring person," recalls Richardson. "When I was in the movement, I changed. In struggle I became stronger -- I became more of a fighter."

In various ways, Richardson's refrain is repeated throughout the book. All of the women are emphatic that the movement, and SNCC in particular, enabled them to discover their capabilities. Not that SNCC men were completely free of their gender baggage. However, writes Judy Richardson (no relation to Gloria Richardson), a young black Tarrytown, N.Y., native 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. And that was nurtured in me as much by the men as by the women of SNCC."

The inner strength of these women seems to pre-date SNCC. Growing up in families of many strong, independent women partly explains why, writes Fay Bellamy Powell. "My sense of self was intense … the people around me seldom talked about racial matters, injustice, or white people, but they did talk about being strong, being in charge of oneself."

Fay Bellamy grew up in a Pennsylvania steel-mill town segregated by custom instead of law. Albany, Ga., though, was segregated by law and would gain some infamy for its stubborn resistance to civil rights. And there, Joann Christian Mants was one of a group of black students who desegregated the city's all-white high school. "Once, one of the biggest 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."

Page after page reveals remarkable stories of courage and defiance. Birmingham, Ala., native Annie Pearl Avery, whose fearlessness is legendary, describes waiting alone all night on the "white side" of a bus station in Anniston, Ala., where, a few months earlier, a white mob had firebombed a bus carrying black and white "freedom riders." The burned-out shell of that bus was still visible in the parking lot. "I really think the only reason I survived was because I was female. If I had been a black male, I probably would be dead by now."

The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement. That tradition, rooted in the courage and persistence of ordinary people, has been obscured by the characterization of the civil rights struggle as consisting primarily of protest marches. In rural Dawson, Ga., Carolyn Daniels housed SNCC workers organizing for voter registration, and whites retaliated by bombing her home. But at the end of a vivid depiction of this and other anti-black terrorist acts, she writes, in an apt summary of the grass-roots organizing that is the real explanation for civil rights victories, "We just kept going and going."

Organizing involved the kind of commitment and willingness to face risk that Penny Patch conveys in only a few short sentences describing covert nighttime meetings in plantation sharecropper shacks. Patch is white. But that did not lessen the fear or reduce the danger of remaining seated while poll watching in a country store as whites came in and out, giving her and her black co-worker menacing stares.

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