50 years later, a civil rights activist reflects on progress and unfinished business

Civil Rights Activist Judy Richardson (center) at a SNCC sit-in, Atlanta, Ga., 1963. Courtesy photo,  UMass Lowell.

Civil Rights Activist Judy Richardson (center) at a SNCC sit-in, Atlanta, Ga., 1963. Courtesy photo, UMass Lowell.

By Ayah Awadallah

It was the 1960s. And the whole world watched a collective group of courageous citizens fight for a country where all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, could live as equals.

Judy Richardson, a teen from a small town 25 miles north of Manhattan, was among them. A member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Richardson helped redraw the lines of the law in a movement that changed the world.

Helping UMass Lowell commemorate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Richardson, along with journalist, author and professor Charles Cobb, share firsthand accounts with students and the public 4pm Thursday, April 30 in the O’Leary Library (61 Wilder St., south campus).

HOWL recently caught up with Richardson who talked about life on the front lines of a racial divide, and her thoughts on race today.

As a young girl, you lived in the village of Tarrytown, New York. Can you describe the neighborhood and what it was like growing up there?

Judy: I lived in what was called the ‘Under the Hill’ area, where many African Americans and lower income white people lived. My father and the fathers of everyone I knew worked at the Chevrolet plant. My father helped start the local union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). When I was seven years old, he died of a heart attack on the assembly line. My mother became a full-time working mom. It was a pleasant growing up time. However, I was the only African American in my Advanced Placement class. In my tenth grade AP History class, and I remember this vividly, we were using the nationally prescribed textbook. The section we were covering was Black Reconstruction, right after the Civil War. It showed a black guy with his hair all pick-torn, clothes tattered and his bare feet up on the desk of the state legislature. It also showed a white guy, who was referred to as a ‘scalawag,’ coming to assist. This was supposed to be the depiction of Black Reconstruction. The message that my white classmates and I got was that this is what happens when black people are put into any position of authority or control. Of course, all of the kids are looking back at me because I’m the only black kid in the class.

HOWL: How old were you when you first learned there was a difference in how people were treated based on race, and can you describe the experience?

Judy: I always knew that people treated me differently. Growing up in Tarrytown, when little slights would happen, I assumed it was personal because my mother never talked about race. I knew there were places black people did not live and I knew that it was not just a matter of economics, but I didn’t have a name for it until I get to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). My mother got me to Swarthmore, the elite Quaker college in Pennsylvania, on a full four-year scholarship. My first year there, I came in contact with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I happened to go to this meeting of the SDS chapter, and they were working with this amazing local movement in Cambridge, Maryland to integrate so-called public facilities. I decide to go on the bus that this SDS chapter had chartered to take people from Swarthmore to be in these demonstrations. So, I’m in a line trying to get into this bar and grill, but this big burly guy is telling us that we can’t go in because we’re black. It put a label on all of the little slights that I had. What this racist beefy guy did, was put a name on it for me. I realized this isn’t some individually discriminating person; this is systemic racism. I get arrested in Cambridge. Then, I am in jail on the weekends more than I am on campus. This was the first time I come up against the visual that made me understand what it really was.

HOWL: How did you begin to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?

Judy: After those demonstrations, a young white student says to me, “I heard you’ve been going to the demonstrations. You should think about taking off the next semester and just work for SNCC full time. Then, you can just come back.” I ended up doing that. Except, the six months became three years. I didn’t just go to Maryland. I went to Mississippi, Alabama and Southwest Georgia. The SNCC Legacy Project, the group I am still a part of, just finished a yearlong collaboration with Duke University in North Carolina. We just launched a great website about the voting rights struggle. It’s called onevotesncc.org.

HOWL: What was the committee’s role during the civil rights movement?

Judy: We were the vanguard. We were the only youth-led national organization in the Civil Rights Movement. I was surrounded by young people coming off these campuses, and we were guided by adults in the local communities, many of whom had been struggling around this years before we were even born. The amazing thing about SNCC was its array of departments. Our communications department was run by Julian Bond, who was in constant contact with The New York Times, The New York Post and other papers around the country. If there was a beating or a church burning, he would get that out. In our print shop, we made a newsletter that went out to a certain list of people. It would go out to Friends of SNCC, the adult group set all over the country, in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. It would also go out to Campus Friends of SNCC, which is the student group located at the more or less progressive colleges like the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley. We also had a photo department. We would send people down if there was a Freedom Day or when black people were lined up to register to vote. We would send those photos out to the mainstream media, but also use them in our newsletter. The all-white Southern Congress and business people were saying that the reason why you have, for example, an 80 percent black population, but no black registered voters, like in Alabama or the Delta, was because black people don’t want to get registered to vote and they are fine leaving it up to us. Our point was to show that black people really do want to get registered to vote and they will even put their lives on the line to try and do that. These strong, amazing local black people would get in this line knowing that the spotlight was on them, that they could lose their jobs, their homes if they had their own homes, that they could lose everything, but they understood the relationship between making a better future and their ability to vote. Our thing is really about getting people to pay attention to the fact that black people are going through all of this to vote and are getting killed. But it’s also about the things that come with the vote like economic equity, employment and all of the things that local black people had been fighting for years before we even get there, but the spotlight wasn’t on them. So now, we’re helping to bring the spotlight.

HOWL: You were on the front lines of a major movement, during a volatile time. How did your parents feel about your involvement?

Judy: When I first told my mother that I was going to take off the first semester of my sophomore year, she took it very calmly. However, my sister, who is almost nine years older than me, is screaming at me saying, “You can’t do this! You can’t give up!” I said, “I have gone to the administration and they promised that I will retain my full four-year scholarship. I’m not giving up any money.” What was interesting was that the more I talked to her about why this was important to me, the more she was fine with it. She became a fundraiser for SNCC because she worked with Harry Belafonte, a famous activist and artist at the time, who had committed to doing fundraising for us in Long Island. My sister was coordinating that through our main fundraising office operating out of New York City.

HOWL: Was there a particular moment during your work with the SNCC that you knew you were part of something that would help change the course of history?

Judy: I’m not sure. I was absolutely exhilarated when I got into SNCC. I don’t know if I ever thought we were making history. I did know we were making change. I was surrounded by young people my age, most of whom looked like me, and they were changing the world as I knew it. That was amazing to me. It was a chance to get back at all the little stuff that had happened to me growing up in Tarrytown. Growing up, they never taught us about all of the black people in the south who were unable to vote. I never knew that in Las Vegas, for example, up until Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack goes in with Sammy Davis Jr. in the late ‘50s, that black people couldn’t stay or perform there. You forget that it’s not just a southern phenomenon. The whole country is part of this systemic racism. When I saw black people getting killed for trying to register to vote, I realized, this is change. We were making radical change that would help people in terms of their daily lives. I did understand the connection between the vote, black people getting a better shake at life and stopping what was basically the continuation of slavery.

HOWL: Did you ever feel like your involvement with the SNCC put your life in danger?

Judy: Yeah, we were shot at. When we were coming back from the local SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi, someone shot at us. Mrs. McGee, who was from a strong local family in Greenwood, was known to take up guns against police officers. She beat a police officer when he tried to arrest her son. People assume that this is just about philosophical nonviolence and that nobody used guns to protect themselves. The reason that we are still here is because the black folks in the community who had guns were there and they protected us. Even though I was arrested nine times, the kind of thing I went through was different from what a lot of the local people and field staff went through, who were encountering this twenty-four seven. I was just there that summer, but most of the SNCC worked in this environment all of the time.

HOWL: How did you find the courage to carry on? 

Judy: Mainly the people around me. When you looked at people like Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and 15-year-old June Johnson who, even after they get beaten horribly in Winona, Mississippi for sitting on the white side of the bus station, they never stopped. You encountered local people who had been beaten, had their churches burned or seen their fathers and mothers killed. Yet, they never stopped. Assuming nobody killed me, I could go back to Tarrytown, but for these people, this is where their home was and this is where their lives were. What they were risking was not just their lives, but the lives and livelihoods of everybody in their community. For me, it was a matter of feeling that I could do no less. The other part is, it was extremely energizing. You would come out of jail or a protest into a mass meeting, and people would be singing freedom songs and talking about what the action for the next day was going to be. And the music was just incredible. You would get so energized by the passion for people getting freedom. We all had this sense that freedom meant the vote. It meant being able to control your life and the environment that you lived in. That energy just suffused everything.

HOWL: Women such as Annie Lee Cooper had been organizing for voting rights in Selma since the 1930’s, even before Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement. Why do you think people like Cooper, who were revolutionary in paving the way for change, go relatively unnoticed in popular culture?

Judy: Because this country likes to have the great man theory. What people know about the movement is Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We’ve made it seem as if it wasn’t regular people like us who did the movement. If you think it is just one person, Dr. King or Rosa Parks, who did the movement, and you don’t know that it’s you, your cousins, fellow clergy and classmates who made and sustained that movement, then you don’t know that you can do it again. If you think it has to be somebody with the greatness of Dr. King, you don’t do anything. There was a New York Times Quote of the Day by Reverend Joseph Lowry that said, “We’ve put Martin on this rotunda of unrelenting adulation and removed him from the struggle for economic justice. Somewhere along the way, we managed to resurrect the messenger and bury the message.” They want to give all of us in this country a sense that it was one man, and that he was only talking about walking hand-in-hand, black and white together, Kumbaya. Well, no. There were many people who plowed the ground before Dr. King, SNCC and CORE got there. They were people like Mrs. Boynton, Mrs. Cooper and Amzie Moore. Again, if you don’t know that it is just regular people like yourself, you don’t know you can do it again. Then, the other side wins.

HOWL: The 1960s is a decade marked with memories of civil rights strife but having lived through it, is there anything you would like to pull from that time period and apply it to how we live today? 

Judy: Part of it is that you understand the importance of the right to vote and use it. We had an understanding that you had to be organized to do this and that you had to organize at the grassroots. It couldn’t be top-down. The people most affected by the conditions they lived in had to be the ones who organized for change. One of the things that SNCC people talk about now is that even though using electronic media is important, at some point, you need to get people together so they see whom they are working with and conference together. Mrs. Baker called the first organizing conference in April of 1960, after the sit-in movement. She got all of the leaders together to talk about common strategies. You don’t only depend on social media. A lot of young folks certainly understand that black lives matter because they talk about systemic change, which is what we were talking about. There are a lot of youth groups that are talking about not just demonstrations, but also grassroots organizing. Those kinds of things are important and what you need for change now.

HOWL: In 1982, you were Director of Information on the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, participating in its protests against police brutality in New York City. Can you share your thoughts on the recent events in Ferguson, Mo. and what it says about race relations in America today compared to when you got started 50 years ago? 

Judy: The police have been used as an occupying force generally in black and Latino communities for a long time. I’ve done documentaries for the History Channel on slavery. I did the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. What has always been true is that the larger white community, particularly the police force, has never seen black people as human. That comes from way back in slavery. There are legacies of slavery that folks in this country really don’t want to admit. I heard a white former police officer who just recently wrote a book and he said, ‘You’re not going to change anything until you change the way that officers are trained.’ He said he was trained by watching videos, usually showing people of color as the enemy coming at them. You are not taught to see these people as people. You are taught that they are the enemy and what you’re trying to do is make sure that they don’t kill you. Particularly, when they don’t know the community, people of color become the other. Police are not taught to distinguish between good black people in the community and other people who are up to no good. It’s not just Ferguson, where you have a 67 percent black population and only one or two black people on the police force. It’s always a large percentage of black people with a miniscule number of black folks on the police force and in the government that is governing that community. This is what was happening in the ‘80s, too. When I was at the Commission for Racial Justice during the state of police brutality in Howard Beach, I put together a chronology of racially motivated violence and police brutality over the past twenty years. I wanted to make sure people understood that this is not an aberration. This is systemic. The only way you get people to see that is by showing them all of the police who do this. It’s not just because a particular officer hasn’t had enough sensitivity training. It’s because there’s a culture of racism that exists in most of these police forces. When a white officer kills a black man, even in the back, once the officer says, ‘I thought my life was in danger,’ not, ‘My life was in danger,’ he is just given a pass. That is what we were trying to show in the demonstrations and protests against the police brutality of the 80s.

HOWL: What can people do as individuals, as communities, and as a country to eradicate racism from our society once and for all?

Judy: First of all, you have to recognize that it exists. A lot of people are still in serious denial. It’s not just the older generation who think this way. There are younger people who really do believe that whole thing about a post-racist society just because President Obama has been elected. There is no logic to that. Just because you have one man as president, doesn’t mean that you don’t have any racism. I really appreciate the people who are working in anti-racism and doing local organizing around issues of housing, like the lawyers helping racistly-targeted people get their homes back. There are so many ways that you can fight racism. It is by making sure that people register and vote. It is by talking to people about voting, and the political and economic equity issues that really do exist in this country. We don’t want to talk about class. It really is the .01 percent that owns humongous amounts of welfare in this country. We’ve got to start admitting that issues of systemic racism exist and that there’s a growing gap between rich and poor in this country, and counter these issues in an organized way. It’s the law. It’s grassroots organizing. It’s education. You can’t poorly fund public schools in this country. You’ve got to start doing early childhood education. There has to be funding of nutritional services for poor people. There is a way that we as a country have to operate. We are the richest country in the world and those riches are going to the top .01 percent of the people. There are a lot of ways that you can fight this, but it’s going to take people doing it in a really intentional way.

Activist Judy Richardson is also director of the 14-hour Academy Awarding-winning PBS series Eyes on the Prize, about America’s civil rights movement.

Email writer Ayah Awadallah at hello@howlmag.com

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