SNCC members, activists talk womens' involvement in civil rights movement
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the History and Afroamerican and African Studies departments hosted a panel discussion titled “Fighting for Our Rights: Three Young Women Facing Southern Racism in the 1960s” on Monday to recognize the contributions of young women to the civil rights struggle.
The panel featured activists and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members Bettie Mae Fikes, Marilyn Lowen and University Alum Martha Noonan.
The SNCC is an organization well known for their activism during the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. They began from a wave of student sit-ins and grew into a larger organization with many supporters.
The event, which was coordinated by Matthew Countryman, professor of history and American culture, was part of a larger symposium dedicated to celebrating King’s legacy and remembering the civil rights movement’s fight for racial justice. Other events included an MLK Day Circle of Unity and a screening of the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”
Through gospel songs and conversation, the panelists told their individual stories and recounted their years of nonviolent activism to a crowd of more than 100 students, faculty and community members.
Countryman said the goal of the discussion was to tell a more “complicated” story of the civil rights movement that included women and lesser-known narratives.
“There is a gap between general knowledge and what we can teach in the classroom,” Countryman said. “This is why events like this are important: because they tell these larger stories and present the story of a movement that is not coming from a few people at the top, but only happened because there was a larger movement at the bottom.”
Noonan, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1964, began the talk by noting how her involvement in SNCC was born both out of necessity and personal conviction. She said the widespread belief the civil rights movement was a struggle for increased rights for African Americans is not entirely truthful.
“We were fighting for survival,” Noonan said. “We were fighting against the white terrorist structure in the South, which somehow is not captured by the notion of fighting for our rights.”
Max Grahl, an LSA sophomore who attended the event, said afterwards that Noonan’s point made him realize the civil rights movement was not only about ensuring civil rights for all Americans, but was vital to the future of African Americans.
“I think it’s hard sometimes to visualize that this wasn’t just a crisis over rights, it was a crisis over these people trying to live their lives,” Grahl said. “It’s something that you can forget once you become disconnected and it becomes history.”
Fikes echoed Noonan’s argument by mentioning how members of SNCC and other civil rights activists were fully aware that they could lose their jobs, homes or lives by participating in the movement. Fikes, who began singing gospel music when she was 4 years old and performed with the SNCC Freedom Singers, said singing gave her strength to endure mistreatment and suffering.
“Can you believe that all those old songs that I despised so much then, I travel the country teaching today?” Fikes said. “You must understand why I do the things I do, why singing is so important to me. One of the reasons is that it releases me. When I have a problem that I can’t talk about, I can sing about it, whether it’s the blues, gospel or whatever.”
Fikes urged audience members to join her in singing traditional gospel and folk songs that were influential during the civil rights movement, such as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “This Little Light of Mine.” She said these songs embodied her commitment to fighting against injustice through nonviolent protest.
“When I see police coming today, people think I’m scared of police — no, I’m not afraid of police,” Fikes said. “I am afraid of the injustice. Being a Black woman, I was taught in Selma, Alabama, what freedom really meant. And when we got together, our energy was so high that when someone asked you a question, they said, ‘Whatcha want?’ and we would holler, ‘Freedom!’”
Lowen discussed her involvement with SNCC in addition to her family’s personal struggles as European Jews in the early 20th century. As an undergraduate at Bennington College in the 1960s, Lowen joined a civil rights group and later joined the 1966 March Against Fear in the South. Referencing a photo of a Nazi police dog, Lowen noted the similarities between European anti-Semitism and American racism.
“It really struck me that this is not a cartoon — this is a real dog wearing a real Nazi swastika and he was used in the same way over there that these dogs were used on us here,” Lowen said. “This picture for me symbolizes the powerful connection between the situations then and now.”
Noonan noted how many women involved in the civil rights movement diverged from the typical female ideal and took a radical approach to fighting injustice by embracing the strength of other female activists. She referred to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” a popular protest song, when describing her motivation for working with SNCC.
“The notion that somehow has crept into some of the literature that we were weaklings, oppressed by men — it’s not in my experience,” Noonan said. “Being a ’60s activist taught me to say, ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.’ In the movement, in my school, in my home, the movement strengthened me and set me free. Like those sharecroppers who formed tent cities in Haywood and Fayette, and later in Lowndes County, Alabama, whatever happens in the future, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. No one and nothing is going to keep me from letting this little light I have shine, shine and shine.”