A new book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, covers the vital but often overlooked role of women in the civil rights movement. Co-edited by Judy Richardson, former Blackside producer and current senior producer at Northern Lights Productions, this book gives voice to fifty-two women who were part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and on the front lines of the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and voter registration efforts to name just a few campaigns.
The book gives us first-hand accounts of the women who were engaged in many of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement, and also addresses the role of women not only in society but within the movement as well. The book gives the reader a “behind-the-scenes” look at a vibrant organization and revisits the debates that occurred within an organization that was as varied as the individuals doing the front line work of organizing and fighting against an apartheid system in the South. The topics of self-defense and nonviolence, the role of white people in SNCC, and the role of women, are all revisited and discussed through the eyes of women who were active in the movement.
As the editors write in the introduction,
“Though the voices are different, they all tell the same story–of women bursting out of constraints, leaving school, leaving their hometowns, meeting new people, talking into the night, laughing, going to jail, being afraid, teaching in Freedom Schools, working in the field, dancing at the Elks Hall, working the WATS line to relay horror story after horror story, telling the press, telling the story, telling the word. And making a difference in this world.”
Many of the women interviewed for this book were also interviewed by Blackside for Eyes on the Prize. Judy Richardson, a producer on that series, brought a unique perspective to the production, both as a woman and as someone who had been active in the movement. Henry Hampton, and the producers of Eyes on the Prize, set out to document the civil rights movement with the voices of activists who were not nationally known. Women’s voices often got lost in the recounting of events, so this book and Eyes on the Prize, both assure that these accounts are heard, and that women are recognized for their major contribution to the civil rights movement within SNCC.
Casey Hayden and Mary King were two women in SNCC who raised the issue of sexism within the movement, thereby sparking a discussion on the role of women both as activists and in the larger society. The paper, Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo, co-authored by King and Hayden, was an early feminist text that became very influential within the modern feminist movement in America. They both tell their stories in Hands on the Freedom Plow, along with many others, including Diane Nash, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rutha Mae Harris, Prathia Hall, Victoria Gray Adams, and many others.
Some interview transcripts are available online (linked were available). One of the editors of the book, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, was also interviewed by Blackside for the series, This Far By Faith. To access the other interviews, please contact the Film and Media Archive.