On Wednesday, February 23, three women, all now healthy sexagenarians, shared their experiences from years of working as Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers in the Deep South to an audience in Filene Auditorium. The event, called “Hands on the Freedom Plow,” was one of a series of events celebrating Black History Month, and was co-sponsored by the History, Women & Gender Studies and African American Studies departments. One of the women, Judy Richardson, recalled a story of a former cohort’s altercation with the police. “Don’t touch the fur, don’t touch the fur,” the woman told police as they placed her under arrest for participating in a sit-in at the local diner in Mississippi. Sit-ins were one of many tactics that Judy Richardson, Penny Patch and Janet Moses learned to use to fight discrimination and racism during their time organizing with SNCC.
Their stories evoked humorous and sometimes somber responses from those in attendance. Audience members struggled to fight back tears as Patch, one of SNCC’s first white female organizers, told of the time an elderly black woman offered to get up from her seat and allow Patch to sit down simply because she was white.
Beyond the discussions of fighting racism and discrimination in the context of the women’s’ experiences, a conversation about generational expectations of political advocacy was embedded within their stories
The women, like most SNCC organizers, were in their late teens to early twenties when they worked as organizers. Patch and Richardson both left Swarthmore, the college they were currently attending, to go south. They believed that their presence in southern states could help change the racial hierarchy that had long existed in American society. Not unlike civil rights advocacy today, the movement they took part in was energized by college students, both black and white.
The women were initially unaware of what they would face because, as Richardson told a History class earlier in the day, “If we had known the kind of people and thinking we were up against, we might not have went.” Even if a ghostly figure had appeared to warn her about traveling to Mississippi and organizing demonstrations against inequality, I doubt Richardson would have passed up the chance. Listening to her statement, I could not help but wonder if Richardson’s present thoughts about her younger years demonstrated a certain amount of pessimism that comes along with growing older.
So, what happened to her “anything is possible” attitude? Has she suddenly become content with the status quo in her old age? Of course not. Richardson’s will to see change is still alive, but society’s view of her as someone who might have the desire or capacity to bring about that change is dead. When we think of people like Patch, Moses, and Richardson we have the tendency to imagine sweet ole’ ladies who spend their days visiting grandchildren and cooking holiday feasts for their families. We rarely look to them to spawn the next great American social movement.
College students fall victim to this polar assumption. It has become widely accepted that young, enthusiastic college students are overly eager to organize for any cause. Along with devaluing the causes college students organize by dismissing them as products of a youthful phase, we create a society in which aging men and women are encouraged to withdraw from public political discourse.
Even at Dartmouth, the large elderly community of Hanover is expected to support events at The Hop, but is not consulted when the administration proposes budget cuts and employee layoffs. Why have we created a community in which there is no space for aging, concerned women like these?
Through their very presence on our campus, the women of SNCC reminded me that as people grow old, nothing changes within them to make them less concerned about society. What changes are our expectations of them. We expect them to quiet down and give us a peek into an earlier time and place.
Along with valuing the history lessons that people like Patch, Moses and Richardson offer us, we might start making space in society and at Dartmouth for their voices, too. Their personal accounts can be read in a new anthology of narratives by women that organized for SNCC: Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois Press, 2010).