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Freedom Fighters

’60s civil-rights activists reflect on past dangers, ponder present challenges

Susan Preston Martin ’63 lay on a thin jail cot mattress and ran her hands across her belly. She understood for the first time how noticeable her pregnancy had become. She was 21 and had graduated just a month earlier. Save for the rare moments when it was quiet enough to tap on a pipe in her cell and whisper to the women caged adjacent to her in the “colored” cell, she was alone. Arrested together, they were jailed separately after the white men in an integrated group—her then-husband Hugh Martin ’61 included—decided to “liberate” the “colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains during a ferry ride from Plaquemine, La.—where the Martins were registering black voters—to New Orleans. Because the ferry captain had turned inland and radioed for the local sheriff, she did not know what town they were in and had no idea if the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) did, either.

Shortly after that arrest, Hugh was incarcerated again. He anxiously listened for another kind of tapping: His fellow white-male inmates were bending their spoons into knuckle rings—which they intended to use on him. Thankfully, CORE was quick to bail out its activists.

The Martins were just two of many 1960s graduates who risked their lives to bring justice and equality to a nation in turmoil. Following are some of their stories, made perhaps even more poignant today when this nation’s racial divisions are still glaringly apparent. 

 

DURING THE SAME summer that found the Martins behind bars, Mimi Feingold Real ’63 sat huddled in a jail cell in Port Allen, La., clutching a pencil she’d pilfered from her jailor and a roll of toilet paper. Years of civil rights work while at Swarthmore had familiarized her with imprisonment. 

After spending the night in a horse stall at the Iberville Parish fairgrounds (the local jails were clogged with activists), Real began to write: “I have never seen such hell and such terror as we witnessed in Plaquemine Sunday evening.” Her adrenaline-fueled account describes a peaceful demonstration turned violent after the federal marshal and local police joined forces with white supremacist vigilantes to suppress a peaceful protest. Demonstrators panicked when confronted by mounted police clenching cattle prods. The protesters scattered, but most made their way to the town’s black church, only to be met with tear-gas canisters flung at them through stained glass. Vigilantes ransacked homes searching the black neighborhoods for James Farmer, director of CORE, who was leading the night’s protest. 

Real’s letter, smuggled out of jail in the hem of her dress and now housed in the Wisconsin State Historical Society, goes on, “If they had a [cattle] prodder they used it. … They pulled down one girl’s pants and prodded her between her legs.”

 Later that year, Judy Richardson ’66, H’12, who is black, found herself in “the hole”—a cell with no cot or water, just a drain on the floor—after a sit-in. Her Atlanta jailors had opened the window and the December winds whistled in around her thin coat. A few months later, she’d be jailed again, but this time kicking and screaming, in spite of the strict nonviolent imperative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Richardson, thanks in part to her 90-word-per-minute typing, was working as the secretary for SNCC Executive Secretary James Forman. It was one of the few times she showed her anger in the face of overt white oppression.

 “Growing up in Tarrytown, N.Y., there were a lot of little slights, but I always assumed they were individual,” says Richardson. “[Segregationists] saying, ‘You can’t come through these doors because you’re black,’ really put a name on it. It was white supremacy.” 

 

Oppressive Conformity

Swarthmore in the early ’60s is regularly described as a mecca of progressive thought. “My parents were victims of McCarthyism, so I grew up with a consciousness that was, probably, out of step with most of America,” Real says. “I wanted to go to a college where political ideas were open.” Right away, she joined the Swarthmore Political Action Committee (SPAC). 

“All political action on or off campus was out of SPAC,” says Real. “We were pushing the envelope.”

Richardson, who came to Swarthmore in 1962 as one of “eight or nine” African-American students, still recalls the passion for social justice evident in Real during the first SPAC meeting Richardson attended. From that first meeting, Richardson soon would help organize the all-black college cafeteria staff, protest de facto segregation in nearby Chester, Pa., and sit in against Jim Crow laws in Cambridge, Md. 

 “The student sit-ins really galvanized us,” says Real, who spent 40 days in a Mississippi prison in the summer of 1961 for her participation in The Freedom Rides, a CORE initiative to test the federally mandated integration of bus depots across the South. “This was a time of such oppressive conformity; then here was this blast of students who just went against the power structure and endured all of these horrible things, like having food thrown at them and being beaten and jailed.” 

 

‘We Will All Go on Hunger Strikes’

Meg Hodgkin Lippert ’64, who had journeyed to Somerville, in Fayette County, Tenn., during her spring break to help build a black community center, was another SPAC activist down South in summer 1963. A practicing Quaker, she also worked with the American Friends Service Committee. Fayette County was one of only two in the state with a majority black population among its 9,000 residents. Despite that majority, in 1960 only 17 African-Americans were registered to vote. 

Lippert steeled herself for the worst: “… going without food for two days last week just to see what it was like,” she wrote in a letter to Tom Webb ’66 in mid-July. “If we get imprisoned, we will all go on hunger strikes.” 

Lippert stayed with Quaker activists from Ohio, Art and Carolyn Emery, and their two small children, in a tiny sharecroppers’ cabin on “negro”-operated land several miles outside of Somerville. Lippert’s letters detail how she farmed in the morning and helped register voters in the afternoon before driving the day’s harvest to a supermarket in Memphis.

One day, Art was forced off the road by a band of white locals and arrested for reckless driving. That night, “a group of whites surrounded our shack and shone their lights into our windows saying to get out,” Lippert recalls. “We wanted to stay; we wanted to fight, but the longer we stayed, the longer they’d keep Art in jail.” 

Lippert continues, her voice cracking with emotion, “We left that day, and it was devastating to Carolyn and me. We had tried to do something good, and we failed. … We failed.”

 

Three Were Missing

The Martins had gone north about a month before Real penned the toilet-paper letter, but Hugh was keen to return south the next summer. This time he wanted to go to Mississippi to work on the CORE project “where three civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner] were murdered,” says Susan. “Our baby was born in January, and I had a recurring nightmare that we were under attack in a big house in Mississippi, and I couldn’t find a safe place for her.” 

Hugh was diagnosed with cancer in spring 1964, and the couple, who have since divorced, relocated to California to begin a “transformative and healing lifestyle,” says Hugh. The move ended their role in voter registration. 

 

IN SUMMER 1964, Bob Moses, the tall and bespectacled leader of SNCC’s voter registration effort in Mississippi, started the daily Mississippi Freedom Summer orientation the same way: by slowly striding to a chalkboard and writing, “The three are still missing.” By this time, Richardson had moved with SNCC’s national office to Greenwood, Miss., and remembers Moses as particularly stricken by the late June disappearance of the three CORE workers. Their gunshot-riddled bodies were discovered 44 days later, their deaths attributed to the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement.

Richardson’s diary, featured in the anthology Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, chillingly reflects the daily worry over the missing young men. 

June 20: Three kids—Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andy Goodman lost after arrest in Philadelphia, Miss. No publicity.

June 21: Kids still not found.

June 22: Guys still lost.

June 23: Still lost.

June 25: Still not found. President makes another inane statement about inability to send federal marshals to protect those working in Miss.

Richardson, who had been shot at a couple of times during her work in the South, continues, “The disappearance and murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had profoundly changed things for me. [It] forced me to realize that my amazing friends/family/colleagues really could die here.”

 

Necessary but Not Sufficient

The disappearance of three CORE activists has been credited with ensuring the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial, religious, and gender discrimination nationwide. After the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively forcing the segregationist states to remove all barriers to the ballot box for minorities; but in Mississippi, Richardson watched as the Jim Crow South did what it could to resist the law. 

“If there was a federal registrar in the community, you could get black people registered. If there wasn’t one, the racist folks running the voter registration wouldn’t let more than a trickle through,” Richardson says. By the time the Voting Rights Act arrived, she had worked in the field for SNCC for three years, electing to remain down South rather than return to Swarthmore after her freshman year. 

Real was to begin an American history master’s at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in fall 1963, but she deferred for a year to stay in East Feliciana Parish, La., where she’d braved incarceration and a 6-foot cross set ablaze in front of her shack. When the registration site closed, she turned to helping the black community organize and deal with white retaliation against those who’d attempted to register. In summer 1966, Real returned to Louisiana from Madison, Wis., to collect ephemera from the tumultuous era for the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s civil rights collection and found a very changed way of life. 

“There were already political divisions in the black community,” says Real. “It was like, aha! They’ve joined the 20th century! Here were people exercising their right to vote and doing all the things that go along with that. It was so heartening.”

 

The Great Hope

Now in the 21st century, an apparent backtracking in progress dismays some Swarthmoreans who put their lives on the line for voting rights. Richardson had always dismissed the conspiratorial musings of friends from her SNCC days about the Voting Rights Act being put asunder. But in 2013, the United States Supreme Court dismantled crucial sections of the 1965 act.

“After the blood and the lives that were lost fighting for this basic right, I thought they wouldn’t dare overturn this. Ha!” Richardson says. “They gutted it. They gutted it.”

“That the Supreme Court could say that these provisions were outdated just blew me away,” Real remarks. “The fact is, there are all kinds of ways the Deep South is still preventing minorities from voting.” 

Richardson, who continue working on civil rights as a historian, writer, teacher and documentary filmmaker, has also closely watched recent nationwide incidents of police brutality against blacks. 

“There is a cumulative effect even on white society,” she says. “This may not be your mother’s racism, but it’s racism, and if you do nothing, nothing changes. 

“That’s why young people are the great hope,” Richardson continues. “Some older activists will say, ‘We are passing the baton to the next generation.’ I say, ‘No. We are going with them—with the baton—hand in hand.’ ” 

 

+ Watch Judy Richardson reflect on her time at Swarthmore in a speech to the Class of 2012.