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,

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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