Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC


Edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner

In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women–northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white, and Latina–share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings and arrests and witnessing unspeakable violence. These intense stories depict women, many very young, dealing with extreme fear and finding the remarkablestrength to survive.

The women in SNCC acquired new skills, experienced personal growth, sustained one another, and even had fun in the midst of serious struggle. Readers are privy to their analyses of the Movement, its tactics, strategies, and underlying philosophies. The contributors revisit central debates of the struggle including the role of nonviolence and self-defense, the role of white people in a black-led movement, and the role of women within the Movement and the society at large.

Each story reveals how the struggle for social change was formed, supported, and maintained by the women who kept their “hands on the freedom plow.” 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.”

“This amazing book rethreads the needle of memory with a stronger cord woven of the testimonies of sisters who never gave up or in. Its gifts are immeasurable as a historical document and a blueprint for ongoing national and international struggles for human rights. We must take our cue from the lessons they teach and tighten our grip on freedom’s plow, pushing on, regardless.”–Darlene Clark Hine, coauthor of The African American Odyssey

“The testimonies of these remarkable women are an indispensable part of the history of the southern movement against racial segregation. They enable us to see the Movement up close through essays that are intensely personal, and at the same time they thoughtfully illuminate the larger struggle for justice.”–Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present

“Hats off to the Hands On sisters! Each story is a treasure, each woman a measure of the Civil Rights Movement’s strength. An overdue and indispensable contribution to the Movement’s historiography.”–Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP Board of Directors

“This is a splendid, spectacular, stirring book. At last the long-marginalized women of SNCC tell their galvanizing, enspiriting stories in their own words. Everyone concerned about women’s rights, human rights, and the future will want to get, give, or assign this fabulous collection.”–Blanche Wiesen Cook, University Distinguished Professor, John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes 1-3

“An extraordinary contribution to historical understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, this work illuminates the ground swell that was SNCC. It’s a complex story, well told by the participants, whose real voices bestow this collection with remarkable authority. These gripping narratives by tough, resilient women, these tales of courage, perseverance, hope, and dedication to a cause, portray an amazing time in America.”–Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln

“This marvelously broad and deep collection of SNCC women’s voices gives the reader a rare insight into the trials and triumphs of the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. These stories related by women at the center of the struggle are simultaneously simple and complex, diverse and united. At the same time, as they relate their own personal struggles for freedom, their voices are punctuated by passion and pain, and frustration and determination.”–Cynthia Griggs Fleming, author of Yes We Did? From King’s Dream to Obama’s Promise

Hands on the Freedom Plow is, quite simply, a stunning collection. These stories of courage, hope, and, yes, conflict, will inspire all Americans who believe in the possibilities of democracy. This volume belongs on that short shelf of books on the Movement that must be read.”–John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

“This collection provides the texture and tone of that eclectic group of women who joined together in common cause, still debating and disagreeing along the way, but united by overlapping values, newfound courage, and the ambitious dream of changing the political face of the nation, which, in large part, they did. A treasure trove of stories and reflections by an amazing group of women activists.”–Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Radical Tradition: A Radical Democratic Vision

“These women’s lives, spent in the freedom struggle, call to us. Their political insight and creativity make them American heroines; their strategic vision allows them to point a better way forward for all, worldwide, who aspire to equality and democracy.”–Wesley C. Hogan, author of Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America

“A remarkable achievement, sweeping in scope, rich with detail, and infinitely readable. Without question, this is the new starting point for learning about the central role that SNCC, and women, played in the African American freedom struggle.”–Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt

Faith S. Holsaert, Durham, North Carolina, teacher and fiction writer, has remained active in lesbian and women’s, antiwar, and justice struggles. Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, community organizer, activist, homemaker, and teacher of history including the Civil Rights Movement, lives near Baltimore. Filmmaker and Movement lecturer Judy Richardson‘s projects include the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize and other historical documentaries. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Betty Garman Robinson, a community organizer, lives in Baltimore and is active in the reemerging grassroots social justice movement. Jean Smith Young is a child psychiatrist who works with community mental health programs in the Washington, D.C., area. New York City consultant Dorothy M. Zellner wrote and edited for the Center for Constitutional Rights and CUNY Law School. All of the editors worked for SNCC.

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4 Responses to “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC”

  1. I currently have been ousted on my job at a prestigious university in Durham NC ( Blue Devils) hence. I was the only black African american on the support team never had any problems with any clients. I’ve been written up twice on a three week period and was completely confused and was label as being paranoid. I did not sign any paperwork and requested arbitration meeting with Duke Personal assistance service. I never received a date for the meeting for me and my manager to contest the issue. I was order to visit the Occupational wellness service on Duke campus in return was order to seek a psychiatrist. I got professional help with Carolina Partners and after three visits I was told not to return to work and file for disability. the point I am getting to is the I believe is a network system that collaborate and deteriorate black men in general. I am a married man with three children unemployed as of today. No lawer would assist me in this matter. Help!

  2. Just been reading through this masterpiece of historical narrative and indomitable courage a must read for every young person in America, particularly African American youth to understand the context to the continuum of violence that continues to plague the American landscape right up to the very moment that we take our next breath in these times of peril and new hope.

  3. I was so impressed today with your installation of images, thank you for being a visual voice in history. I am posting your story on to The Writer’s Well Retreat Blog, http://www.thewriterswellretreat.blogspot.com, to share with women writers, and others nationally.

  4. I am just wondering what CMS your website uses? It seems to be fantastic and I like every one of the visitor options which are available. I’m sorry if this is the wrong place to ask this however I wasn’t sure the right way to make contact with you – thank you.

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