Sociologist Charles Payne talks about the slow respectful, behind the scenes, work that makes the dramatic moments possible. Making the phone calls. Running off flyers. Sending out reminders. Booking the flights. Training new volunteers. Smoothing out differences and navigating turf wars. Passing reminders to speakers about important announcements. Raising bail money. Striking up the right song while sitting in jail to keep everyone’s hopes alive.
These were just a few of the duties of Ruby Doris Smith as a formidable force in the student sit-in movement and eventual leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
As part of my ongoing fixation with women’s biographies, especially those of little known women, I finally managed to track down a copy of Cynthia Griggs Fleming’s, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. I’ve been trying for months to find a copy. It was worth the wait. Once again there’s much to learn about women’s ongoing struggle to juggle love and work, the private and the public, conventional notions of power with conventional thinking about femininity. Unlike many other black women from that period whose stories we probably know better, Ruby Doris Smith was young, and, until her illness and death from cancer in 1967, she struggled to combined her passion for the movement, with her marriage and eventually motherhood.
Was it the writer of Ecclesiastes who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9)?
Atlanta born Ruby Doris Smith was only 18 years old when she, along with seventy-seven students from throughout the Atlanta University Center, fourteen of them from Spelman College, was arrested for attempting to integrate white cafeteria counters throughout Atlanta. Ruby Doris had arrived on Spelman’s campus two years earlier at 16 as something of a child prodigy. But from the time of her arrest on March 15, 1960 on she stood out for her courage and commitment to the cause.
In the months and years following March 1960 Ruby Doris Smith took part in dozens of pickets of supermarkets, restaurants, bus terminals, white churches, and state and capital buildings. From time to time, some girls would pull out of marches at the last minute, complaining that their periods had started and that they didn’t want to be in jail on their period. Others like Ruby Doris Smith stuffed sanitary napkins in their socks and went on to the marches. Her remarkable organizational skills, her attention to details, along with her courage and energy would eventually make her an indispensable presence in both the local and the larger national student sit-in movement.
One thing that strikes me as I read Ruby Doris’ biography is the role women sometimes play in their own erasure. While she was powerful and had no problem using that power, Smith seems never to have wanted to call attention to her power or to herself. Sexism within the male dominated SNCC was a given, and she often bristled at men like Stokely Carmichael who seemed to relish the spotlight. But Ruby Doris shied away from any personal spotlight for herself. The personal must give way to the political, she argued. I can’t help wondering how much women like Ruby Doris Smith and Ms. Ella Baker (who argued similarly) contributed to their anonymity by repeatedly shunning personal attention and by refusing to see how intertwined the personal and the political often are.
Even though her involvement in early sit-ins, marches and pickets, her willingness to go to jail for her convictions, and her growing administrative responsibilities within SNCC would force her to drop out of college several times, Ruby Doris Smith did eventually graduate from Spelman in 1965. The struggle to juggle commitments would continue when two months after graduation Ruby Doris Smith (now Robinson) gave birth to a son. For the next year she would divide herself between a husband, a child, and her new full time job with SNCC as Executive Secretary. That struggle ended sadly, on October 7, 1967, when at 25 years old, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson died from cancer — and sheer exhaustion, says some.
It would be easy, though not quite true, to say that with the death of Ruby Doris came the death of SNCC. Other forces were ripping at the organization’s seams in 1968 and contributed to its eventual demise within that year: turf wars, an ideological shift away from nonviolence toward more militaristic methods, the death of comarades, the increasing number of whites in the movement, sexual tensions, King’s assasination in ’68, harsh government reprisals, economic hardships. It does seem true, however, that with the loss of Ruby Doris’ daily presence there in the SNCC office for those nine months she lay dying in the hospital, the organization’s demise was hastened. That’s how important Ruby Doris Smith was to SNCC and how much we miss out by not having her around today to pose questions to. Especially since her decison to marry and have a child so early, say Flemings, was in large part the result of her belief that a woman’s identity ultimately grows out of motherood. Some of us may disagree with such a notion today, but it’s not one we haven’t bumped up against forty years later.
Reading the biography of Ruby Doris Smith is to be reminded that we are not the first generation of women who’ve struggled to find a balance between the personal and the political, love and work, ministry and motherhood. Her biography is also a reminder how important it is to know your worth and not be shy about tooting your own horn when necessary, if only for history’s sake.
I wake up the next morning with Ruby Doris on my mind. “She was only a girl, a teenager, a young woman in her twenties, when she was doing what she was doing” a voice inside whispers. I sign back on this morning to salute young, brave lionesses like Ruby Doris who find their passion at an early age and spend themselves exploring where it leads.