By Judy Richardson
November 14, 2010
"Hands on the Freedom Plow" recounts stories of 52 women who were
part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the
1960s. In this excerpt, Judy Richardson recalls the start of her
three-year stint with what was called SNCC.
My first contact with SNCC began when I joined a busload of
Swarthmore students traveling to Cambridge to support locally-led
demonstrations against segregated facilities. The trips were
organized by the Swarthmore Political Action Committee, the campus
Students for a Democratic Society chapter. I initially went on a
lark, not out of any great commitment. I was, after all, away from
home--and my mother--for the first time in my life, so I figured why not?
One of my first demonstrations took place at the segregated Choptank
Inn, a dark, smelly bar and grill. I don't remember much about the
place, just the big white man standing in the doorway telling me I
couldn't come in. For me, all the little slights, all the small acts
of racism I'd experienced growing up became bound up in this one man.
And I became absolutely enraged. But I had now found a constructive
vehicle through which I could struggle against the racism--and that was SNCC.
At that point, for me, the Cambridge movement was SNCC. More
specifically, it was Gloria Richardson, the firebrand local leader of
the movement, and Reggie Robinson from Baltimore, the veteran
organizer who had been assigned there after the local movement
requested SNCC assistance.
I watched Gloria--tall, thin, fearless, ramrod straight and dressed
in a shirt and jeans--leading the mass meetings and demonstrations
and never backing down, even in the face of National Guard rifles and
suffocating tear gas. I watched Reggie Robinson, not much older than
me, working in tandem with Gloria, moving the crowd, strategizing
with her and others around Gloria's kitchen table late at night (a
number of us lived in her house). I decided this was a world I had to
join--if only for a while.
A Different World
It was a world very different from where I'd grown up, in Tarrytown,
N.Y., about 25 miles north of New York City. Tarrytown, home of the
author Washington Irving, was steeped in tradition. I went to
Washington Irving Jr. High and Sleepy Hollow High School, and our
high school mascot was "The Headless Horseman." Yup.
I grew up in the "under the hill" section near the railroad tracks.
The main employer in town was "the plant," the Chevrolet plant where
the fathers of everyone I knew worked: black folks, Italians,
Poles--everyone. My father had helped unionize the plant, where he
worked on the assembly line and was treasurer of the United Auto
Workers local. When I was 7 he had a heart attack and died "on the
line," leaving my mother to support my older sister, Carita ("Chita"), and me.
My mother immediately got a job as a clerk at Macy's in nearby White
Plains and managed to keep food on the table and still send Chita a
little spending money after she was accepted to Bennington College on
Leading Two Lives
By January of my freshman year I was going to Cambridge just about
every weekend, and generally landing in jail. Coming back to campus
was like coming back to another life--reality had now become my
SNCC/Cambridge world, with all its camaraderie, passion, immediacy
and overwhelming sense of purpose.
I would return to campus on Monday or Tuesday and miss some of my
classes, so my studies began to suffer. Adding to my worry, I was on
full scholarship and one of only eight African American students in
the freshman class. Swarthmore's magnanimous commitment to diversity
(10 out of more than 300 in the entire student body) was a big deal
for the college, and they handled it with caution. We eight freshmen
were evenly divided between males and females (presumably so we
wouldn't have to date outside our group) and the administration
roomed all eight of us with children from Quaker families, who I
think they believed would accept us more readily.
As it turned out, at least on one issue neither the Quaker children
nor the rest of the campus quite lived up to their liberal
reputation. The demonstrations in Cambridge absolutely split the
school. My white "Big Sister," who had warmly oriented me to the
campus those first weeks after my arrival, now passed me in the dorm
hall in stony silence. Two friends from my dorm stopped speaking to me.
Other white students, referring to segregated facilities, said that a
proprietor had the right to refuse service to anyone. One student,
who had earlier amazed me in my poli-sci class with references to
people, places and philosophies I hadn't even known existed, now
pronounced that the Cambridge demonstrations were forcing integration
on Southerners before they were ready. And besides, he added with
great certainty, Swarthmore's Negro students would do better to stop
meddling in things that were not their concern and concentrate on
getting an education--this was the best way to help "their people."
From "Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in the
SNCC." Copyright 2010 by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman
Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and
Dorothy M. Zellner. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Judy Richardson was on SNCC staff from 1963 to 1966. She produces
African American historical documentaries, worked on the 14-hour
"Eyes on the Prize" documentary series, has been on the staff of
numerous social justice organizations and writes, lectures and
conducts teacher workshops on the civil rights movement.
For more information:
Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in Sncc: