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story | selected interviews | slideshow

Selected Interviews: Betty Garman Robinson

Betty Garman RobinsonQ: What town did you grow up in?

BG: I grew up in Pleasantville, New York, which was a suburb of New York City. It was a working class—mostly white, working class town. There was one Jewish family and one Black family that had kids in my high school the whole time I was there. And it was pretty sheltered, pretty sheltered. And my parents were Republican, and you know, blamed everybody for the problems of the country except for the upper class people. And I grew up with all that stuff. You know: "he's to blame, she's to blame, they're poor, it's their fault." That type of stuff. I had to undo all of that, too.

Q:Talk about how you came to get involved with SNCC and with the Summer Project.

BG: I was in college between 1956 and 1960; I went to a women's college in upstate New York, the name of which was Skidmore. In my sophomore and junior year I got involved in something called the National Student Association, which was an organization of student body leaders.... And when the sit-ins occurred in the spring of 1960, NSA contacted representatives on campuses and, you know, gave us more information than was available in the New York Times. And there were three of us ... [who] decided we wanted to do something at Skidmore... so we held some meetings. And we got two and three hundred students to come to these meetings and they were like huge debates about the sit-ins and what was happening in the South and what role and responsibility Northern students had, and should we get involved or should we not get involved. And it was finally decided that we would hold a picket at the local Woolworth's.

So we massed one afternoon—I think there were like 150 of us, something like that—and we marched downtown with pickets and banners saying we supported the sit-in students. And then we came back to campus, and when we came back to campus a little knot of students formed on the corner saying "this was not enough; we couldn't stop here" and in fact some of the younger students—'cause we were seniors, the three of us that had kind of initiated this—the sophomores and the freshmen were saying "we have to do more, we have to do more." So it was agreed that we would send four students every hour for the next few days down to the Woolworth to do an informational picket. And as it turned out the first students who went down were picked up by the police—and not booked, because one of the students who was picked up happened to have a father who was a lawyer—and she knew that you didn't have to give your name and your address or anything before you were told what the charges were. I guess because of town-gown relations the police were very reluctant to charge the students. ....

The next year I worked for the NSA and then the following year I got in touch with students who were forming Students for a Democratic Society, which was mostly a Northern-based organization, so I got involved with that. And then I went to Berkeley, California for graduate school in Political Science and as a member of SDS I did some work on the campus—but at the same time the events in the South were escalating. Tom Hayden and Al Haber who were SDS people, were traveling in Mississippi, in McComb; this was when the high school students walked out of class, and a number of them were beaten.... And Al and Tom were sending these descriptions of what was happening, and saying "do something; get some support going."

So I'm at Berkeley, this big radical campus, right? And I'm going from organization to organization...with these descriptions of what's happening in McComb, and they're saying, "Well, we can't do anything—you do it. We're too busy with other things. You do it." And so I did. I formed an organization in Berkeley to support the Southern Movement, and as a the result was in contact with [SNCC organizer] Jim Forman and actually [SNCC staff member] Casey Hayden in the South, and we did a Freedom Singers Tour in Berkeley and we raised money and we got some demonstrations going, and as a result of being in touch with them I went to the Howard University November of 1963 SNCC Conference and then talked with them, and they encouraged me to come South in the spring, and I did. So that's how I got to SNCC.

Q: And so spring '63 was the—no, spring, '64....

BG: March of '64. I left Berkeley, left graduate school without finishing, and moved to Atlanta. And then I worked in the SNCC office in Atlanta until the Oxford [Ohio] Mississippi orientation where I helped out with the orientation, and then I went to Mississippi worked in the national SNCC office, which was in Greenwood. ...

Q: What stories can you tell us about the training in Oxford?

BG: I can tell you more about the emotions that I carried forward, and less about the concrete presentations. Although I know that there were presentations about the history of voting rights in Mississippi certainly, and how the distribution—the racial distribution in the various counties, and poverty issues and education issues and things like that, so that there was a lot of concrete information. And there was a lot of information about conduct and behavior: how you should carry yourself when you were in Mississippi, how to be as unobtrusive as possible—especially if you were white—how to be sensitive to the local people, although I think that took more than one lecture. In other words there may have been one lecture or one discussion about that, but that was like a real important growth process that some of the students handled really well and some did not handle well, and there ended up being a lot of tension about that later on.

I can remember the emotions of the incredible excitement, enthusiasm, and feeling that we were really on the front line, that this was going to change the way that America thought about ... you know, that we were going to demonstrate the moral rightness of African Americans in Mississippi having the right to vote, the right to dignity, the right to be part of American society. And I remember the fear of what will happen to us collectively—not just us as white students from the North, but what will happen to our coworkers, SNCC people. We knew the work was dangerous, so some of it was talking through the fear, and trying to help people dig down and find their strengths and ... try to overcome the fear.... So I can remember those emotions more than I can remember the concrete presentations. I can remember nonviolent workshops where people practiced responding nonviolently to harassment, and I can remember incredible evenings of singing where people stood in a circle and sang "We Shall Overcome," and [James] Forman always talking about the band of brothers and the circle of trust, kind of building the collective spirit and stuff.

Q: Were you part of—there were two weeks, right, two separate weeks of training.

BG: I was there both weeks. And I did a lot of the behind the scenes organization, like the nuts and bolts things to make sure that things ran, that type of thing, which actually my experience, because I had run the National Student Congress for NSA... in Wisconsin, so I had those types of skills. So I was there both weeks, and the other thing I can remember, the most significant thing of course, was the second week when Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were found to be missing. Rita Schwerner [Michael Schwerner's wife] was still at Oxford....

Q: What are your memories of Greenwood?

BG: I was given a room in a small house, maybe formerly a tenant farmer's house. The house as I remember it had three rooms: a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. And the family that I stayed with gave me the bedroom. And I remember feeling very embarrassed that they gave me the bedroom and they then slept in the living room all summer long. And, in other words they gave me any resources they had, like a fan... made the bathroom available to me in any way, at any time. They were incredibly, incredibly giving. And I remember of course I worked really long hours in the office, and sometimes I worked all through the night and [slept] during the day, so I can remember not having a lot of contact with them, but the contact that I did have with them, I was accepted, incredibly accepted in their home .... And I look back on it and I feel like I wasn't appreciative enough at that time of their hospitality, in being caught up with the movement that I forgot.... And that was one thing that you could do, you could get so involved in this movement that you, that there were people there, human beings that you might have treated them, unconsciously so, but not well.

Q: You describe that as having been caught up in the movement. Some people we've talked to have talked about that kind of thing and called it racism.

BG: Oh, I think that's true too. I think that's true too. I think those of us who were middle class coming to the South, I think that we didn't have a clue how to bond with or relate to on a really human level someone who was a rural Southern tenant farmer or a rural Southern sharecropper, and you had to work really hard at that to do that, and get out of your own prejudices and preconceptions of how a person should talk, what they should think about, what the conversation should be about, and all of those things. So, yes, I think it was both. Because if I had been plunked there and wasn't involved in the movement, and I just had all day just to sit in that house, I think I might have been able to figure it out a little bit better than I did. Maybe not quicker, but a little better. But the fact that I had this pressure meant that it was easy to ignore, so I think it was both—not to minimize the role of racism, because racism was definitely rampant.

Q: What were some of the other manifestations of that? You talk about the volunteers—some handling it better than others.

BG: Some of the other manifestations were, if you were working with a group of people and there was a leaflet to be made, you came with your education from the North and you knew how to make a leaflet and you knew what you wanted in it, so you made it, instead of having a group process where people made contributions and talked about it, even if it wasn't perfect, at least the local community would have ownership of that leaflet more so than this white teacher or whoever, coming in and kind of doing it for them. So it didn't encourage independence and self-sufficiency to have whites come in and have a take-over attitude, kind of "I can do it better" and go do it. So that's another example of it.

Q: How much impact do you think that kind of thing had? There's more than one way I mean the question. One is, [SNCC staffer and Mississippi native] Hollis Watkins opposed bringing in Northerners on the basis that it would set back the development of local leadership, and he believes that it in fact did that. Maybe we should take that one first. Do you think that in a lasting way that it could have had that kind of impact?

BG: It certainly could have, and I don't have enough information to evaluate that. But the way I look at it is now, at this point in time, I hear that Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials of any state in the country, percentage wise. And that began with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Summer process. So, if in fact the white students coming in set back the development of local leadership, the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party propelled it forward. So to the extent that those two things go together, I'm not sure that I can make the same conclusion he does. Cuz it may be that without Mississippi Summer, that the Freedom Democratic Party wouldn't have been propelled forward in the way that it was, that the organizing in the communities wouldn't have been done, that people wouldn't have been brought to Atlantic City. So maybe it's a contradiction within a contradiction type of thing.

Q: So you see the MFDP as being very helpful in developing black leadership.

BG: Absolutely. And local leadership. In other words, instead of having one individual go down to the courthouse and register to vote, this was a community-based organizing strategy or method where people came together and took collective control of the decisions that were being made in their county, or about their elected officials, and it brought people together in a much more powerful way than this man and this woman going down to register to vote and being beaten down or being accepted and therefore then having to go back in November to vote and you go into the voting booth and nobody knows who you're voting for. This was collective, community-based organizing, and that was very significant I think in developing leadership.

Q: The other part of my question is the question of race relations within the movement, and the later sort of dis-invitation of whites, sort of "we don't need you."

BG: I mean, I don't think this is uncommon just to SNCC; it's common to all organizations. I mean, if you bring in too many people all at once, then that changes the character and the face of the organization maybe more than you wanted it to. And I think that by bringing in so many whites, even though SNCC didn't bring onto its staff all the whites that were there for the summer, by the fall there were a number of whites that wanted to stay. A lot of Northern whites were brought onto the staff in the fall, and again because of racial dynamics too, where you had indigenous Southern African American young people who were being brought in but who didn't have the same education level and hadn't had the same experience... you had the college-educated student dominating the movement instead of encouraging more indigenous leadership to develop. So I think it did change the dynamics within SNCC. At the same time, there was also a dynamic because of American racism. I didn't understand so much of what was happening at the time. In retrospect I can look back and I can analyze it a little bit better, and I'm not sure how many people—black or white—did understand fully what all the tensions were about and how to work them out. Maybe we understood the tensions but didn't know how we could work through them and build the organization in a strong way.

Q: You were aware of the stresses, the racial stresses?

BG: Oh yeah. I mean, some of it was unconscious and some of it was conscious. But I don't think I knew what to do or how to handle it, or I didn't have a framework in which to understand why this might be happening and that it was OK that it might be happening, and you have to separate your personal feelings from reality, and you have to take yourself out of it and say "OK, I'm a white person. I grew up in America. I'm clearly racist, and I'm gonna have ragged edges. And it's gotta be OK for people to get angry at those ragged edges, but it doesn't mean that I'm an awful person. And many times you started to think you were an awful person, and you couldn't separate the two, so....

Q: So you think on both sides there was a sort of disillusionment. Sort of, "We thought that we were all going to get along great and we're not, so, damn it, I'm outta here"?

BG: No, I don't think it was a "dammit, I'm outta here." It was maybe a disillusionment because people didn't understand how deep racism really was and didn't understand all the nuances of it or even some of the nuances of it, so it was like "Oh my gosh, what is going on." So if you could get on with the process of unlearning your racism, which many of us—some of us did and some of us didn't at the time—like I say, I think it's a lifelong process to unlearn your racism. But also because so many people acted out of personal concern, like "Oh my gosh, people can't vote; people are living in poverty"; the concern was a very personal concern, and then there was anger. So, you know, I'm trying to do this good thing and there's all this anger. So that said to me that the whites—myself included—didn't understand the anger of oppression. We had no clue what that was all about, the anger that came out of oppression.

Q: Was some of the tension about interracial relationships?

BG: Some of the tension was about interracial relationships... Some of the tension was simply about relationships period, because there were men in the movement had multiple relationships, and that was overlaid with interracial relationships. Some of the other tensions were class and race: in other words white middle class, black middle class, Southern black working class, or high school student, community people, even versus some of the middle class black, so there were a lot of different tensions, and there were male-female tensions that we certainly didn't understand. And then there were tensions around political philosophy, and what you saw as the way to solve this problem. And again, if you were naïve like I was, you came from a relatively sheltered background, you believed you were doing a good thing. You know, I didn't have a clue. Some of my friends did have a clue, because they grew up in more political families. I did not have a clue. I just knew that I was in the right place, I wanted to be doing what I was doing, and it took me a long time to figure it all out.

Q: How did your parents feel about you being in the South?

BG: Oh, they thought I was brainwashed. They thought I was brainwashed, they thought I had been duped by communists. They were sure that my mind had been twisted, that something was definitely wrong with me. They would call me up—they were listening to Fulton Lewis this whole time, who was a right-wing commentator at the time. They would call me up, and my father would say "Your mother's going to have a heart attack if you don't leave the South. So I had all this going on and I would have to say—to him I could say "the heck with it, I don't care." But then [I felt] guilty, like what if something did happen to my mother?, Should I leave, should I stay? And I always opted to stay.

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