Women’s participation in civil rights movement discussed at Salem College panel

by Eric Ginsburg

Editor Betty Robinson and a panel of contributors discussed the role women played in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights movement at Salem College March 30. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

In front of the backdrop of an enormous wood-framed organ, four of the civil rights movement’s lesser-known heroes took the stage in the Shirley Recital Hall at Salem College to share their stories. Coming from different backgrounds in various parts of the country, the four women all contributed to Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, which was published in September.

As part of women’s history month, Salem College, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem State University and an extensive planning committee organized a panel discussion on March 30 including Bernice Johnson Reagon, Margaret Herring, Jeanne Breaker Johnson and Betty Garman Robinson.

Three of the women are featured in the book and Robinson was one of the six editors. In 1996, she joined the other editors and they sent letters to every woman who was involved in SNCC that they could find addresses for, asking them to submit to the book.

Hands on the Freedom Plow includes submissions from 52 women who were involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Part of the goal of the book was to encourage the next generation to follow the example of the stories that are documented in it.

“We wanted young people to see themselves in these stories,” said Robinson, who added that they wanted women to tell their stories in their own words. “We didn’t want a historian’s filter.”

The majority of the audience appeared old enough to have lived through the movement, and when asked if anyone else in the audience had been part of SNCC two white crowd members raised their hands. Most of the seats in the hall were taken, some of them by students.

“This was something I could not miss,” Luellen Curry, who teaches at Wake Forest law school, said after the event. “It’s such an important part of my history.”

Robinson started off the panel discussion by explaining how her movement participation began. A student at Skidmore College when the Greensboro sit-ins began, Robinson organized a solidarity demonstration. Though she had studied numerous social justice issues in college, the sit-ins proved to be the turning point in her involvement and consciousness.

She provided a quick overview of the history of SNCC, highlighting the fact that they were involved in a large cross-section of civil

rights work from freedom schools to forming political parties. Riding the wave of the student-led sit-ins that followed the Feb. 1, 1960 Greensboro Woolworth sit-in, SNCC was founded in April of that year at Shaw University in Raleigh with the help of organizer Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Robinson wasn’t the only speaker who drew connections to North Carolina. Herring grew up in Winston-Salem and her father was the pastor at First Baptist Church. She graduated form RJ Reynolds High School and pointed out that some of her high school classmates were in the audience. Later she attended Wake Forest University, but did not become involved in SNCC until after leaving the state.

Herring, who is white, remembers visiting the home of her family’s black housekeeper and being shocked that she didn’t have electricity and lived on a gravel road. That inequality remained in her consciousness, as did a labor march against Reynolds Tobacco she drove by once. Later she would hear Fannie Lou Hamer speak and leave a career in journalism to immerse herself in movement work.

Herring said her religious beliefs and upbringing played a role in her analysis and support of SNCC’s work.

“[Christianity] had a big impact because of the things that Jesus taught,” Herring said as she paused from signing books after the discussion. “If you really pay attention to what Jesus said, you’ll get in trouble.”

Johnson also spoke about her politicization and what brought her to SNCC and movement work.

“We lived very close to poor whites. A ditch separated us,” she said. “We played together until we went to school.”

She can still remember her first encounter with racism. She was playing with a white girl and a group of men drove by and yelled racial epithets at her. Later, her aunt’s insistence that they not give up their bus seats to whites taught her about her power to challenge that racial hierarchy. Johnson attended a summer camp at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which she said had the biggest impact in causing her to later join SNCC.

“[SNCC] was the most important influence on my life,” Johnson said.

Reagon played an important role in incorporating music with SNCC’s organizing and later founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. When the microphone was passed to her she began by singing a freedom song, and a low hum filled the room as some audience members joined in. Reagon stopped short midsong and encouraged everyone who knew it to sing along. When she picked back up again, she was joined by an increased energy from the crowd.

Reagon said she raised her children as participants in the civil rights movement. Once someone asked her if she ever left her kids at home and she responded, “Why should I?” During the question-and-answer session, Reagon said at one point she lost her job because her boss was afraid the business would be targeted because of Reagon’s civil rights work. Johnson said she gave up a scholarship to participate in SNCC, but later received another one.

The panelists also spoke about how their involvement affected their personal relationships.

“I learned to put expectations that other people have of you on the shelf,” Robinson said.

A few of the panelists said their families had not always been supportive or agreed with their work, but eventually grew to understand. Herring recounted her response to her father who questioned her work at one point.

“You taught me to stand up for what I believe in, and that’s what I’m doing,” she told him.

Chevarra Orrin, interim director of business services at WSSU, chaired the planning committee and moderated the discussion. She explained that she grew up in civil rights and social justice movements and still considers herself an activist.

“The oppressed and the oppressor can and should seek freedom together,” Orrin said to the audience.

Winston-Salem council members Dan Besse and Denise Adams were on the planning committee, and council member Molly Leight helped close the event.

“I was in college about the same time much of this was going on, but I grew up very sheltered,” Leight said after the program. “I to this day regret I couldn’t be the activist back then. It took 40 years to get my activist juices flowing. I’m ready to get out there and fight.”

“It reinforces my belief in the importance of struggle and the importance of taking a stand,” Curry said of the event. “It gives one the sense of what can be accomplished if you take that risk.”

Johnson said she doesn’t normally enjoy public speaking but enjoyed participating in the event.

“It’s been a very good experience,” she said.

“I went on to have a more quote-unquote normal life…[but SNCC] affected my worldview.

It’s been how I view things, which affects the kind of groups I’ve been involved in.”

Gail R. O’Day, dean of the school of divinity at Wake Forest, explained the significance of the panel.

“We all learn one story told one way,” O’Day said. “[Women’s stories] are told as an afterthought, if they are told at all.”

The panel and Hands on the Freedom Plow are part of a larger, decentralized effort to include the stories of women in civil rights history. After all, Robinson said, women were the majority of SNCC and the movement.