How did they find the courage to do it—challenge the racist order in the South in the 1960s? Who formed the strategy, who dared to take it to some of the most racist Southern communities?  In honor of Black History Month we bring you this forthright memoir by Judy Richardson, who, as a teenager, entered the thick of the fray as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “the only national civil rights movement led by young people.” Now a documentary filmmaker, social-justice advocate, and lecturer, Richardson takes us inside the movement that transformed her . . . and the country. —Ed

 

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SNCC sit-in, 1964, at Atlanta’s Toddle House restaurant. That’s Judy Richardson in the middle, facing the camera. The photo was taken just before the group got arrested. (Photo: Danny Lyon.)

Last September I found the box. I was in my building’s basement, preparing for my big move to the D.C. area after 23 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had divided what I’d found into stacks—clothing to be donated and archival materials that I was planning to donate. (To Washington University, Eyes on the Prize and other Blackside film materials; to Duke University, personal Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) archives and other work product; to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, copies of  the companion book to Blackside’s PBS documentary, Malcolm X: Make It Plain; and, to the Roxbury public library, much of my Black children’s-book collection.)

Then I opened this one box that I thought contained just old clothing. And there it was: my SNCC staff folder from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Worn and green, it even had my contact information. At the top I’d noted: “N.B.: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, ALWAYS CONTACT ONLY MY SISTER: CARITA BERNSOHN.” I’d also written on the folder “History vindicates those who are right! —James Forman (our man on the scene).” Jim Forman was our larger-than-life executive secretary.

That N.B. was important: I’d been with SNCC at that point for only six months, yet still I knew that something might just happen to me that summer, and I wanted to make sure my mother would hear the news first from my older sister, Carita. Chita, as she was known in the family, was then coordinating Harry Belafonte’s SNCC fund-raisers out of our New York City SNCC office, and I assumed she would know how to break the news to my mother.

These days, SNCC is not exactly a household name. The organization was founded in April 1960 by leaders of the sit-ins that began on Black colleges in the South. SNCC was the only national civil rights organization led by young people. Mentored by the legendary Black organizer Ella Baker, SNCC activists became full-time organizers, working with adult leaders to build local grassroots organizations in the Deep South. SNCC focused on voter registration and on mounting a systemic challenge to the white supremacy that governed the country’s entrenched political, economic, and social structures.

That’s the mini-version, but it helps set the context for my story of how SNCC transformed me . . . how it changed my world-view . . . how it changed the entire direction of my life. Along with my mother’s strong and loving guidance, SNCC has been one of the strongest influences on my life.

Transformation: it’s something our 14-hour Eyes on the Prize PBS series on the modern civil rights movement couldn’t adequately convey. [Richardson was the series’ associate producer and, later, education director.] It wasn’t only that our movement changed the country; it also transformed the people who participated in it. Personally, I became stronger, braver, and more skilled than I ever thought possible: I became a new me.

Join the conversation

  • Kyla Yeoman January 17, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Judy! I took Julian Bond’s course in college where he showed “Eyes on the Prize” and we discussed and produced our own mini oral history. It is truly an incredible film and to this day, my absolute favorite. I found your blog and was excited to learn you had such a huge role to play in creating the film. Thank you for your work at the time, and your work to document and share it with generations to come.

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  • Howard Moore Jr January 3, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Most inspiring.I can feel the fire, commitment and sweetness.

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  • Tess Koning-Martinez December 31, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I found this article on Facebook and wanted to say hello to Judy Richardson; don’t think we’ve ever met, but assume you know my mother,Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez; she must have worked with Judy’s sister in the NY SNCC office on that Harry Belafonte fund raiser. Judy, please feel free to contact me if you like.
    Tessa Koning-Martinez, San Francisco

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  • Debbie Louis December 31, 2015 at 8:32 am

    My book–And We Are Not Saved: A History of the Movement as People–answers your question re “how did they find the courage?” It got on a Nixon list and was taken out of print by Doubleday, but there’s a 25th Anniversary Edition available through Amazon. It became an underground document in between, that some researchers of the era were aware of but not others. It remains the only comprehensive history of the 1959-1965 period of the U.S. civil rights movement ever published–that is, focused on the whole, not just one organization, region, personality, or event.

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  • Maria Varela September 20, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    The sista that always gets it right

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  • Bill Light April 9, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you, dear Judy, for your clarity and honesty. I have lately been struggling to put down on paper my own experiences in Mississippi back then, but you make it look so easy! (Not that I don’t get the hard work and talent you have applied.) Please keep it up; I know you will.

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  • Gretchen Hillard March 1, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks for this story. Tell Judy Richardson, “Way to go”, and if she writes anything else, to include the Cambridge, MD movement, and the Staffords, Sarah and her family who still lead there for human rights.

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  • Kimeko S. Farrar February 27, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Very empowering read! I enjoyed learning about Ms. Richardson’s story, both past and present. I wish there were more in-depth articles and films on some of the other “organizers” of the civil rights movement.

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  • Howard M. Romaine February 27, 2015 at 7:47 am

    wonderful succinct story of one person’s SNCC history, and subsequent personal history, and Process of documenting for archives, etc. Very vivid writing, GREAT PHOTOS of author Richardson, and subjects, Forman, Ms. Baker, critical without being too Personally critical !!! H.M. Romaine

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