Archive for the ‘SNCC’ Category

A Story about a Story

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Spent last night at a wonderful 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Student Sit-In Movement here in Nashville. The night’s focus was upon the role the students of American Baptist College (where I’m now Academic VP) played in the Movement: John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and others. Bernice Johnson Reagon sang us through the history of that Movement, providing historical commentary and clarity to the genesis of certain freedom songs and the healing power of others. Rev. James Lawson, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Dr. Bernard Lafayette brought remarks. Many others who were in high school and college here in Nashville during the movement and took part by cutting classes and showing up for marches were there on the front row last night. Old men and old women now. But their spirits didn’t know it. They beamed. They lived to tell the story.

I’ve been around lots of preachers this week, preachers who spice their sermons with wonderful stories, stories that serve as allegories, parables, anecdotes, life illustrations to the scripture they are expounding.

I’m not much a storyteller. In fact, I probably only know two stories worth telling. One of them I share with you today.

Today I tell you a story…about a story.

An old story handed down in many different versions over many an evening fire. The story is about the great wise woman, the Ancestress. The Ancestress was dying and sent for her children. “I have acted as intercessor for you, and now when I am gone you must do this yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in that place and do the same. You know how to light the fire, and how to say the prayer. Do all these things and God will come to see about you.”

After the Ancestress died, the first generation faced trouble and did exactly as she had instructed them, and, sure enough, God came to their rescue. But by the second generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire exactly the way the Ancestress had taught. Nevertheless, when times got difficult they remembered the special place in the forest and said the prayer, and, sure enough, God came.

By the third generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire, and they had forgotten exactly where the place in the forest was. But they spoke the prayer, and, sure enough God came.

By the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one knew any longer just where in the forest one was supposed to stand, and finally the exact words to the prayer itself could not be remembered. But one person in their midst still remembered the story about it all, and stood one day in the midst of battle and recounted the story of it all to the rest (the story of the the Ancestress, the forest, the fire, the prayer). And, sure enough, God came.

Fifty Years Ago, Today

Monday, February 1st, 2010

On February 1, 1960,  four black freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University sat in at the Whites-only lunch counter in the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store: Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond. The act of simply sitting down to order food in a restaurant that refused service to anyone but whites is now widely regarded as one of the pivotal moments in the American Civil Rights Movement.

greensboro sit-ins

The waitress ignored them, as did the store manager and a pacing policeman. Some white customers taunted the students, while two others patted them on the back, whispering “Ah, you should have done it ten years ago.”

The next day, the four young men returned with 19 supporters. By the third day, the number had risen to 85, including white and black students from neighboring colleges. Before the week was out, there were 400. They demonstrated in shifts so they wouldn’t miss classes.

On July 25, nearly six months later, Woolworth’s agreed to desegregate the lunch counter.

student sit-ins2

Meanwhile, energized students staged smaller sit-ins in seven other North Carolina cities as well as in Hampton, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee. By summer, 33 southern cities, including Greensboro, had integrated their restaurants and lunch counters. One year later, 126 cities had taken the same step.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund and first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi state bar, writes in today’s HuffingtonPost about being a student at Spelman College during the time of the Greenboro student sit-ins and how that incident led by students in another state became the spark that changed her life and American history forever.

Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Prathia In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall.  She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray.  As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.

So who was Prathia Hall?

Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia.  Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.

Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies.  I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.

In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.

I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.

Remembering Ruby Doris

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

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.