It is night, and the nation endured another day of Trump’s slaughter of democracy and his takeover of cities with storm troopers who are terrorizing pro-democracy groups. As much as the guardians of White male history try to hide it, state sanctioned terrorism on the streets of America against pro-democracy groups is not new. It was the order of the day during the Southern Freedom Movement.
Today I woke up with the memories of the bravery of my SNCC sisters who faced torture, death, gender violence and psychological warfare from White southern vigilantes and state sanctioned murderers during the Southern Freedom Movement. Here is their story. Let us remember and celebrate the bravery of Black girls and women! Let us not forget that our freedom was written in their blood. Here are the imprints!
Historians tell us that in a Mississippi jail during the Southern Freedom Movement Fannie Lou Hamer, Annelle Ponder and seventeen year old June Johnson were tortured. White police forced Black male prisoners to invade and degrade their bodies.
These White men who would hang a Black man for simply looking at their daughters, sisters, wives and neighbors beat seventeen year old June Johnson so badly in the face until they popped out one of her eyes.
These White men who lynched Black boys or men for simply looking directly at a White woman exposed and gawked erotically at Ms Hamer’s bare black body. There are other reports that they beat Ms. Hamer on her vagina. These White men who killed Black men in the name of racial purity and the protection of White womanhood could not contain their sadistic lust for the bodies of Black women. According to Ms. Hamer, one of the White men became ” hot and bothered” from witnessing and participating in this act of sexual sadism and other forms of torture of her Black woman’s body.
When the story finally made the rounds, White Mississippians did not stand up and defend her virtue and honor. Nor did the White wives, sisters or mothers. They did not break rank with these White men. Instead they either turned their heads or, as was their sordid history, blamed Annelle Ponder, June Johnson and Ms. Hamer. To these White women, Black women were not women as were they. Instead they were dirty whores who got what they deserved for challenging the way of life that their husbands gave them off the backs of Black people.
Nor was Annelle Ponder’s body sacred. Rather these White male war criminals saw her body as their territory to invade, torture and degrade. They put all of their male strength and fury into the hose pipe with which they pounded her body until she could only raise her fist and say freedom now to their demands that she call them sir. She would rather have died than call them sir. Rather she raised her battered arms and whispered freedom now through bloody and swollen lips.
Blow after blow in a Mississippi jail two Black women and a girl did as their female ancestors. They endured and resisted with a soul force that was more powerful than the sadistic torture of White men who like their fathers feared this force.
Annelle Ponder, June Johnson and Ms.Fannie Lou Hamer were not alone. Rather, they were part of a band of young Black women across the South who worked in SNCC in sites of White Supremacist terror during the Southern Freedom Movement. Many of these young Black women came from cities, counties and towns throughout the South. They came from communities that loved, claimed and protected them. A large number of them were high performing college students who put the Southern Black Freedom/ Civil Rights Movement above their careers. They dropped out of historically Black colleges such as Tugaloo, Spelman, Albany State, Tuskegee University and Alabama State.
Dorie Ladner was one such young SNCC woman who emerged from the bloody battlefield as a leader and hero. She was not alone. Throughout the South Black young women such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, Jean Smith, Gwendolyn Patton, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Joyce Ladner, Martha Prescott, Judy Richardson, Ruby Doris Robinson, Diane Nash and many more too numerous to name here left colleges to live in freedom houses where they became one with Black local people. They sang and meant “Oh freedom over me, over me—before I be a slave, I will be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
Movement narratives often leave out the stories of Black women although they were the sowers that grew and sustained it. Tonight I invite us to remember to call the names of these sisters who faced guns, psychological terror, jails and yes even death to participate in community for freedom. To them we owe both honor and apologies for erasing them from history. In their honor, let us put our bodies and ourselves on the line to preserve the tattered threads of democracy as Trump sews fascism into the fabric of our nation.
Ruby Sales is the founder and director of the Spirit House Project, a non-profit that works towards racial, economic, and social justice. As a teenager at Tuskegee University in the 1960s, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) and went to work as a student freedom fighter in Lowndes County, Alabama. A social activist, scholar, public theologian, and educator, Sales has preached around the country on race, class, gender and reconciliation. She has degrees from Tuskegee Institute, Manhattanville College, and Princeton University. She also received a Masters of Divinity from the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in 1998.