In 1962 white, preacher’s daughter, Mary King, graduated from college, and decided to give up her cosy middle class lifestyle and head south to work for the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC).
This memoir is the story of her four years in one of the most dynamic, civil rights organisations. The SNCC was an organisation of young people; mainly black and male. Even at its height only 20% were white. It was a grassroots organisation which was set up to work in the southern states of the USA ,and alongside the black community, to challenge their oppression .
Mary’s first job with the organisation was to travel with another young woman, who was black, across the cities of the south and assess the extent of academic freedom in southern colleges. In the 1960s in the south this was a head-on conflict with the system of legalised segregation. As Mary explains; “The machinery that kept this system in place operated through the overt, legal channels of segregated education, healthcare and transportation; denial of voting rights: and infringement of the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. But it was also maintained through extralegal, covert means-unlawful detention, police tyranny, terror, firebombing of homes and killing.”
Mary went onto to play a key role in the SNCC as its Communications Worker, a commitment that brought her face to face with her own possible death. She says; “I was willing to take on the possibility of being killed – as many known and unknown civil rights activists were.” But working for the movement was “everything I might have hoped for”.
Racism, then and today, is one of the key issues affecting American democracy. The SNCC was a radical organisation, unlike some of the other more prominent civil rights groups, which challenged some of the big, moral issues of the 1960s. This included the relationship between black and white people and between women and men, non violence versus violence, grassroots versus top down leadership and reform versus revolution.
Mary says of the SNCC; “Its enduring significance is that, within the American context, we raised these quandaries, projecting them into contemporary political debate, in some ways contributing to the terms of the discussion that continues to this day.”
The strength of this book is that it is the firsthand account of a young woman at the heart of the movement and alongside it traces her own personal development. During the day she was working for the SNCC, going back to an apartment in the black projects (which was very unusual for white women in the 60s) which she shared with fellow worker Casey, and spending their spare time educating themselves by reading the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing.
Mary and Casey used their experience in the civil rights movement to raise issues about the role of women within the organisation – issues at the time were seen as groundbreaking. One aspect of the book which I really like is the way in which Mary promotes other women; telling their story and giving them back their place in civil rights history.
This is not an easy book to read because the history of the civil rights movement is a brutal one. Each chapter of the book opens with a song about freedom because as Mary explains: “The freedom songs uplifted us, bound us together, exalted us, and pointed the way, and in a real sense, freed us from the shackles of psychological bondage.”
“Freedom Song”, written in 1987, is as relevant in 2018. Its relevant to people in the UK is that it shows that it is grassroots organisations with the oppressed at the centre that will really change their lives. Its relevant to the USA in 2018 as recent research shows that in the ex-Confederate southern states that there are still 4 million unregistered black voters. Then as now, the reality is that these southern states and their black populations, are key to the liberation of the USA. As Mary commented in 1987; “The best gauge of the success of our democracy and the true measure of justice in the USA is still the status of America’s black community.”