In 1961, Bernice Johnson Reagon was a junior at Albany (Ga.) College. She also was part of the growing civil rights movement and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was perfecting the use of civil disobedience to combat the blatant and pervasive racism and injustice that infected the South.
Of course, civil disobedience in the South also meant jail time—and Reagon, founder of the all-female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, says she had a “jail song.” This morning at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., in a book-reading event honoring the women of SNCC, she led about 100 people in her jail song, “Since I Laid My Burden Down.”
Reagon is one of 52 women—35 African American, 15 white and two Latina—whose stories are part of a new book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker says the women used the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Summer and later struggles “to challenge and confront injustice and the system of Jim Crow.” (Click here for a video report from the Machinists News Network)
Too many people don’t know of the work of the women in SNCC. Without their involvement, the movement’s foundation would not have been as strong.
Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, one of the book's editors, says the women profiled in Hands on the Freedom Plow “used their skills in a harsh southern environment to build movement.”
We wanted to provide a picture of women’s broad contribution to the civil rights movement.
Reagon says the lyrics of “When I Lay My Burden Down”— I feel so much better…my friends don’t treat me like they used to—“describe one of the many things I discovered about being locked up in jail.”
The idea that I would be locked up but not really locked up had never occurred to me before participating in demonstrations and against segregation policies throughout the city and country.
She says her actions were the “antithesis of what we were told at the time, stay out of trouble and stay out of jail.” But the best way to move ahead in her life was through the civil rights movement and that meant “getting into trouble.”
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland told the audience she is “Southern and white…as southern as Lee’s Mansion overlooking the Potomac and as southerner I wanted to do what I could to make my home the best possible.”
In the spring of 1961, when the Freedom Riders who were traveling the South to fight discrimination and register voters were met with increasing violence, she joined a group of Washington, D.C.-area students and headed to Jackson, Miss. She and several of her African American colleagues were promptly arrested for refusing to leave a “Whites Only” train station waiting room. That resulted in a quickie trail and a two-month jail sentence, including a stretch in the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary.
In 1963, Noonan, then a junior at the University of Michigan, traveled South to work with SNCC, including registering voters. She says that while “nothing awful happened to me directly, the realities of violent southern racism surrounded us every day.”
The unspoken question when you were asking people to register to vote was, “Are you ready to lose your job? Are you ready to get beaten up? Are you ready to have your house shot up?” And many said, “Yes.”
The moving personal accounts in Hands on the Freedom Plow provide a seldom-seen look into the women who helped lift a heavy burden and move America forward.