Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC
Hands on the Freedom Plow not only explores the history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), its very structure embodies the organization. The beloved community based itself on radical egalitarianism, mutual respect, and unconditional support for every person's unique gifts and contributions. Meetings lasted until everyone had their say, in the belief that every voice counted.
The same can be said about this book, for better and, occasionally, for worse. Every female SNCC participant the editors found is given her say. This breadth provides much of the power of the volume, but also makes it long, somewhat choppy, and occasionally repetitious. Also in keeping with SNCC's commitment to unconditional support the editors' historical commentaries are uncritically affirming, which make them less analytically useful than historians might want. And occasionally both the editors and authors force gender into places that seem unnecessary or irrelevant, such as the observation in the epilogue that by 1967 "many SNCC women, along with their male counterparts, thought the country was entering a revolutionary period" (p. 588).
These, however, are minor problems. Hands on the Freedom Plow offers the most in-depth and multifaceted discussion yet seen not only of gender in SNCC but of SNCC itself. The large number of contributors allows the same stories to be narrated from different perspectives. Sometimes accounts differed as to who did what, how actions were proposed or executed, or the ways in which the organization worked. This reminds us both of the complexity of SNCC's operation, and the slippage of memory. More fascinating were the multiple discussions of the efficacy of nonviolence, the role of whites, the relationship of SNCC to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others, or organizational lessons learned. The authors approach these topics from such varied directions that every assumption we may have had about the movement is somehow challenged. For example, not only did different women explain the reasons for SNCC's nonviolence in very different ways, they also differed in how well they adhered to it ("And I punched back," admitted Joanne Christian Mants, p. 132) and how broadly it should [End Page 139] extend—for example, to supportive nonmarchers? To participants after the march had ended? To self-defense when alone or in the community? To the defense of others? These discussions deepen our understanding of what nonviolence actually meant to SNCC activists. Perspectives differed where (and whether) SNCC failed, the lessons of Mississippi Freedom Summer, Selma, Black Power, or whether their experiences left them more or less hopeful for the future. The richness of this history, the texture and complexity, are revealed in these fascinating essays, as are the unique and often-poetic voices of their authors.
We hear from black and white activists, office workers, and field secretaries, those who participated as teenagers and those who did so as adults, northern and southern members, liberals and leftists, "red diaper babies," and those who rebelled against their parents' politics. Some embraced SNCC's vision of "black and white together" while others preferred SNCC's later, more nationalist stance. Some faced prison eagerly, others fearfully; some struggled with their newfound personal freedom, while others reveled in it. Many describe a widespread gender egalitarianism while others noted SNCC's maintenance of traditional gender roles. Yet several points are struck again and again—fear, disappointment in government and political leaders, the redemptive power of the beloved community, the courage and generosity of local people, the dramatic personal growth, the admiration and awe in which they held other SNCC workers, the conviction that what they did truly mattered.
Several offered lessons learned: start small, persevere, build trust, allow local people to define the issues and to lead, be patient, model bravery, work in relation to others, embrace each person's gifts. When these bonds break, Jean Smith Young warned, they are indications that the movement is failing and darkness coming (p. 249). Not only historians but anyone who cares about building a more just society will discover untold riches in the pages of this remarkable book. [End Page 140]
Cheryl Greenberg, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, has written and edited a number of books in African American history including an edited volume of the reflections of SNCC activists, A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (1998).