The Way We Were: The SNCC Teenagers Who Changed America

Written by SNCC Legacy Project and One Person, One Vote board member Judy Richardson, this article was first published in Women’s Voices for Change on February 26, 2015.

The Way We Were: The SNCC Teenagers Who Changed America

How did they find the courage to do it—challenge the racist order in the South in the 1960s? Who formed the strategy, who dared to take it to some of the most racist Southern communities? In honor of Black History Month we bring you this forthright memoir by Judy Richardson, who, as a teenager, entered the thick of the fray as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “the only national civil rights movement led by young people.” Now a documentary filmmaker, social-justice advocate, and lecturer, Richardson takes us inside the movement that transformed her . . . and the country. —Ed

SNCC sit-in, 1964, at Atlanta’s Toddle House restaurant. That’s Judy Richardson in the middle, facing the camera. The photo was taken just before the group got arrested, photo: Danny Lyon, www.crmvet.org

Last September I found the box. I was in my building’s basement, preparing for my big move to the D.C. area after 23 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had divided what I’d found into stacks—clothing to be donated and archival materials that I was planning to donate. (To Washington University, Eyes on the Prize and other Blackside film materials; to Duke University, personal Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) archives and other work product; to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, copies of the companion book to Blackside’s PBS documentary, Malcolm X: Make It Plain; and, to the Roxbury public library, much of my Black children’s-book collection.)

Then I opened this one box that I thought contained just old clothing. And there it was: my SNCC staff folder from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Worn and green, it even had my contact information. At the top I’d noted: “N.B.: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, ALWAYS CONTACT ONLY MY SISTER: CARITA BERNSOHN.” I’d also written on the folder “History vindicates those who are right! —James Forman (our man on the scene).” Jim Forman was our larger-than-life executive secretary.

That N.B. was important: I’d been with SNCC at that point for only six months, yet still I knew that something might just happen to me that summer, and I wanted to make sure my mother would hear the news first from my older sister, Carita. Chita, as she was known in the family, was then coordinating Harry Belafonte’s SNCC fund-raisers out of our New York City SNCC office, and I assumed she would know how to break the news to my mother.
These days, SNCC is not exactly a household name. The organization was founded in April 1960 by leaders of the sit-ins that began on Black colleges in the South. SNCC was the only national civil rights organization led by young people. Mentored by the legendary Black organizer Ella Baker, SNCC activists became full-time organizers, working with adult leaders to build local grassroots organizations in the Deep South. SNCC focused on voter registration and on mounting a systemic challenge to the white supremacy that governed the country’s entrenched political, economic, and social structures.

That’s the mini-version, but it helps set the context for my story of how SNCC transformed me . . . how it changed my world-view . . . how it changed the entire direction of my life. Along with my mother’s strong and loving guidance, SNCC has been one of the strongest influences on my life.

Transformation: it’s something our 14-hour Eyes on the Prize PBS series on the modern civil rights movement couldn’t adequately convey. [Richardson was the series’ associate producer and, later, education director.] It wasn’t only that our movement changed the country; it also transformed the people who participated in it. Personally, I became stronger, braver, and more skilled than I ever thought possible: I became a new me.

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Welcome

Welcome to the website,One Person, One Vote: The Legacy of SNCC and the Fight for Voting Rights. This is the pilot initiative of an ongoing collaboration between the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University. As we celebrate the launch of One Person, One Vote, let’s take a look back to where this project started in November 2013.

Sixteen months later – after hard work, amazing efforts, and inspiring collaboration by all involved – we’re proud to present to you the new documentary website, One Person, One Vote.

Before the beatings on the bridge in Selma… Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965…Young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) united with local communities in the Deep South to build a grassroots movement for change. SNCC’s organizing and voting rights work, which began in 1961 in Mississippi and Georgia, continued beyond Selma and the Voting Rights Act. One Person, One Vote: the Legacy of SNCC and the Fight for Voting Rights tells the story of how SNCC’s commitment to community organizing forged a movement for voting rights made up of thousands of local people. In the crucible of extreme violence, SNCC organized alongside local Black residents to take control of their lives and communities. The grassroots movement they built together sought to make real the promise of America:  equal opportunity for all… one person, one vote. Sharecroppers and maids, World War II veterans and high school students, young activists and seasoned mentors are the heroes of the struggle for voting rights. One Person, One Vote is here to honor them – and continue their battle.

One Person, One Vote Goes Live

The official press release announcing the launch of the One Person, One Vote site:

Website Tells Story of Voting Rights Struggle Before and After Selma

A new web resource dedicated to telling the story of the grassroots fight for voting rights will launch March 2.

The website, One Person, One Vote: The Legacy of SNCC and the Fight for Voting Rights (www.onevotesncc.org) goes live one week before the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when state troopers attacked the peaceful voting rights march of 600 local demonstrators on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. It tells the side of the story largely invisible to the general public: the key role of local leaders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in shifting the national political agenda toward voting rights.

Students and faculty at Duke University working with SNCC veterans and civil rights scholars from around the country, are collaborating on the website, which documents how the bottom-up strategies of young people and black community leaders across the Deep South created an expansion of political, social, and economic opportunity for all citizens in the 1960s.

“This site not only begins to tell a story largely ignored by civil rights canon, but also pilots a way to meaningfully bring Movement participants and scholars together for that purpose,” said Courtland Cox, Chair of the SNCC Legacy Project.

The website focuses on SNCC’s organizing campaign in three states: Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It draws on oral histories, as well as primary documents, photographs, and audiovisual materials at Duke and other repositories across the country. It includes profiles of 75 unheralded activists, movement elders and community leaders–along with primary documents and video.

A timeline walks visitors through significant events in SNCC’s history. An interactive map brings to life the landscape of the many places where the young people of SNCC organized.

SNCC was founded at Shaw University in Raleigh in 1960 by student sit-in leaders, primarily from southern black campuses. Its organizing and voting rights work began in 1961 in Mississippi and Georgia, focusing on political empowerment and equal economic opportunity. Full-time student workers, known as “field secretaries,” worked with communities to train and organize new local leaders – even as they were nurtured and guided by the older activists. SNCC developed philosophical and organizational models still in use today across the world.

The One Person, One Vote website is part of a longer-term collaboration among the SNCC Legacy Project, Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Duke University Libraries. This will be the first time SNCC veterans have engaged with the academic community in such a sustained effort, with the goal of getting their crucial insights into the nation’s formal histories and archives and, beyond that, to young activist communities.

“This is an enormous achievement, to find ways to bring these experts who were so central to the voting rights struggle, into the formal historical record through their own words and on their own terms,” said Wesley Hogan, director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. “The project comes at a moment when our nation is both commemorating key victories of the civil rights movement and seeing those victories challenged by new restrictive voting laws in many states.”

A website launch event entitled “The Activists’ Playbook: From SNCC to Selma to the New Civil Rights Movement,” will take place Wednesday, March 4, at 7:00 p.m. at the Main Branch of the Durham County Library at 300 N. Roxboro Street. The event will include a panel discussion with SNCC veterans Judy Richardson and Charlie Cobb, local activist Cynthia Brown, and two young Durham activists. Like the One Person, One Vote site, the panel will focus on grassroots organizing and bottom-up history. A reception will follow.