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Reviewed by:
  • Hands on the Freedom Plow ed. by Faith S. Holseart et al.
  • Tarik A. Smith (bio)
Hands on the Freedom Plow. Edited by Faith S. Holseart, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy Zellner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 616 pages.

I had the good fortune of being born to one of the six remarkable women who edited the book Hands on the Freedom Plow, personal accounts of fifty-two women, black and white, Southern and Northern, who were full-time organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. My mother's name is Jean Smith Young. Born into a frontline family, I was an official SNCC baby, with full pedigree. Surrounded by Race Men and nurtured by these activist women, I was immersed in the history of the struggle for civil rights. However, my mother, an accomplished doctor, teacher, and writer, was raised in the "old school" and chose not to broadcast her accomplishments. I did not fully understand all that she and other women actually did during that momentous period . . . Not until I read this book.

Hands offers a disarmingly honest account of what it was like to be a woman civil rights organizer in SNCC, while simultaneously providing a historical [End Page 156] and factual picture of the student movement in the South. The book is broken up into ten chronological sections, each with a brief introduction that gives pertinent historical background for the pieces to follow. The ten sections are distinct and self-contained. The book can be read as a whole or sections can be studied alone.

Hands on the Freedom Plow begins in the early 1960s with the Freedom Rides and Sit-Ins. In keeping with the personal yet analytical character of the book, this section features an essay by Diane Nash, with the heading "My Baby Will Be Born In Jail." Nash recounts her experiences in 1962 when she decided to support her principles of nonviolent protest by going to jail even though she was six months pregnant.

The book goes on to illuminate the roles of women organizers in the Southwest Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama projects. In the Southwest Georgia section, Bernice Reagon, founder of the a cappella musical ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, talks about formative experiences at Albany State College, where she developed a sense of herself as a woman in the fight for justice. The Mississippi section features a critical analysis of the historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic convention. This section contains an essay by Victoria Gray, who along with Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine, led the MFDP Challenge. Her piece is entitled "They Didn't Know the Power of Women."

The Alabama section offers up details about SNCC in the last half of this important decade and leads into a discussion of the rise of Black Power. In this section Marilyn Lowen, a white organizer, Maria Varela, a Latina, and Gwen Patton, a black organizer, discuss personal identity issues in the context of the emergence of Black Power as a central organizing theme of SNCC.

The volume also engages the emergence of the women's rights movement and the roles of women in SNCC. Mary King, a well-known writer about civil rights and women's issues, states in her piece, "Women did what men did in SNCC." These dynamic women, who were integral to my development and essential to the struggle for social justice, found SNCC to be a liberating forum in which, as the title to my mother's essay states, a woman was encouraged and supported to "Do Whatever You Are Big Enough to Do." My own conclusion, based on being nurtured and supported by these women, and based on a critical analysis of the book, is that women were a powerful force on every level of this revolutionary organization and that sexism, while an inevitable issue, was constantly challenged in SNCC.

Hands on the Freedom Plow opens an invaluable window into the world of women in the civil rights movement. As stated in the Introduction, the book shows women "bursting out...


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pp. 156-157
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