The movement was everything to me: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live. When I was no longer welcome there and then when it was no longer there at all, it was hard to go on. Many of us in this situation, especially the Southern whites, only barely made it through. I count myself lucky to be a survivor. But that is another story. Some felt that what we were doing was the most normal and proper thing in the world, that we were heroines from the very beginning, that each move was carefully planned. Actually, as I recall, one thing led to another and it was all quite underground, illegal, dangerous and on the road. There was a lot of bumming of cigarettes from each other and long cross-country drives in the night to meetings and a lot of going home with someone afterward, or taking someone home. It was outrageous, ready, exciting, liberating, spicy, when we were young and in the South. Sometimes I have longed for the movement so profoundly. The only nostalgia that compares is for my grandmother’s backyard when I was a child—the pomegranates and ripe figs, roses and sweet peas, ferns and irises and crepe myrtle, and oleanders, pecans and walnuts and swings and wet grass on little bare feet in the summertime. The movement was rich like that. And in like manner there is no going back.
There was a comfort, in that time that was born of the absolute certainty that what I was doing was the right thing. Nothing compares to it except the carrying, and nursing of my children. When we were young and in the South—we were so beautiful and naïve. It was a children’s crusade, really. We were the fair-haired girls and nothing could touch us. Looking back, we marvel at our courage, but at the time there was no courage, no fear. We were protected by our righteousness. The whole country was trapped in a lie. We were told about equality but we discovered it didn’t exist. We were the only truth-tellers, as far as we could see. It seldom occurred to us to be afraid. We were sheathed in the fact of our position. It was partly our naïveté which allowed us to leap into this position of freedom, the freedom of absolute right action.
I think we were the only Americans who will ever experience integration. We were the beloved community, harassed and happy, just like we’d died and gone to heaven, and it was integrated there. We simply dropped race. This doesn’t happen anymore. And in those little hot black rural churches, we went into the music, into the sound and everyone was welcome inside this perfect place.
We were actually revolutionists, in my opinion. We loved the untouchables. We believed the last should be first, and not only should be first, but in fact were first in our value system and it was only the blindness of everyone else not to recognize this fact. They were first because they were redeemed already, purified by their suffering, and they could therefore take the lead in the redemption of us all. We wanted to turn everything not only upside down, bur inside out. This is not mild stuff. It is not much in vogue now. We believed, pre-Beatles, that love Was the answer. Love, not power, was the answer. All the debates about nonviolence and direct action and voter registration, in my view, were really about whether love or power was the answer. And we did love each other so much. We were living in a community so true to itself that all we wanted was to organize everyone into it, make the whole world beloved with us, make the whole world our beloved, lead the whole world to the consciousness that it was our beloved and please come into the fire, come in here by the fire—This is where it is truly safe. The movement in its early days was a grandeur which feared no rebuke and assumed no false attitudes. It was a holy time. This is, of course, just my personal experience, as is all of life.
Some of us were radicals. We liked to think of being radical as going to the root of things. Of course, I was with the New Left folks a lot, the rowdies, although they were quieter and more scholarly then. Unfortunately, radicals of the right came up with clearer answers to the questions raised than we did and better PR. The failure of liberalism which we correctly identified has in fact issued forth in a right swing. I don’t know any left-wing radicals today, really. The following approach to the women’s movement is an example of the style in which we thought, mostly at the time about race. Even for those of us who do not pretend to be politically involved it is good to do these exercises now and then for old times’ sake, to keep the fort intact. Traditionally, the notions that women are trapped by and need to be liberated from their childbearing function, their biology—is widely accepted — I think it’s incorrect. If carried to its logical extreme, the position would result in the eradication of the human race.
Why not take biology, the body, as positive and see the problem in the society, the culture’s attitude toward birth? No one talks about labor much anymore, and never about labor as a source of value and seldom about labor as in bearing children; both are undervalued and their place in the rewards of the culture are not reflective of the truth of their value to the experience of being human. Anyone who is present at a human birth, and especially the conscious mother, knows a great secret. Freedom is not a question of the control of the birth function (although certainly that is useful to have at our command) so much as recognition and dignification and reward of this function and the child-rearing function that follows from it. This line of reasoning carries one into deep waters, of course. We used to think like this all the time, these radical approaches with astounding implications.
We used to hold hands and stand in a circle to sing “We Shall Overcome.” When we were debating how to continue to work and create together at Waveland after the summer of 1964 (which was a momentous time and a time when we couldn’t seem to get at deciding what to do anymore) I remember talking about circles. Instead of lines and boxes and hierarchy in the diagrams of how to organize SNCC, I was drawing circles indicating people working together and the circles overlapping other circles as we all generated programs and things to do together. That was how the movement really was — our side lost. But we were right. Hierarchy could not replace the circle dance. Bob Moses changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, around this time of the women’s memos. It was going back to something else to make the present full, to reach an understanding. He was the only one who knew what to do. Bob wanted to do his doctorate at Harvard on the philosophical differences in Swahili and English. I understood after he and Janet and the kids got back from Africa. After the SDS reunion there was some money left over which came to the New York group and we used it to throw a party to raise some money for a film on Ella Baker. At the party, Bob spoke and he talked about a Swahili word which meant the mother of the tribe, the spiritual guide of the community. He said Ella was that. He told about when he was a kid in Harlem and his family was very poor and the only way they could afford milk was through a milk co-op. Years later in the South he learned that this milk co-op had been organized by Ella Baker.
Things do now always fall apart. Sometimes what looks like falling apart is only part of a coming full back around. 1 think we have to have hope for that, for a time when the truths women and old organizers know will be honored and the secret compassion we have secured in our hearts will find value in the population, among the people. Or that the people will find we have shared this all along. Somewhere in the questions that the Swahili/English text would raise must be the question of whether history is linear or circular, or maybe spiral. What is progress, really? How is history to be served? How do we serve each other? What is to be done?
When I was working several years ago with Elaine Baker, another Tougaloo Freedom House grad on an oral history project, in a remote part of southern Colorado, we came up with this idea of putting tape recorders and tapes in the local library. Then we had the idea to get a grant and do it all over the country so anyone anywhere could come in and record their life history and put it in the local oral history archive. We were working on an old SNCC axiom that everyone is as valuable as everyone else, and so is everyone’s experience as valuable as everyone else’s. Radical equality is like a mother’s love which sees each of her children as equally valuable. We can seize the time and make it our own, make our story in our own style and fashion. For instance, a book about my life would look like a Sixties comic book and be called, “The Amazing Life of Casey Cason Hayden: How She Escaped Death and Lived to Tell About it.” Getting it published or broadcast, is not: the main thing. We all remember the discrepancy between reality as we experienced it in the movement and what we read about that reality in print. We know that publication does not validate experience, nor do we need it for our experiences to be valid. What you record will be used, be useful, someday. It will be a service to the future. Save it for your grandchildren….
For the Zen teacher body and mind are one. So for a brief time in history, in our very own lives, art, religion and politics were one. Those of us with SNCC in the South in those days were political it is true, but more radically, we were observers, participants and midwives to a great upheaval, uprising, outpouring of the human spirit. This was the spirit of the thousands and thousands of poor Southern blacks who were in fact the movement. The form, the style, the very life of the movement was theirs. They were there when we got there and there when we left. Many of them could not read or write and they could barely speak the English language. They will never see this writing. They, and not we, were the heroes, the heroines. I was privileged to have been their servant for a while. To them, for all I learned from them and for the beauty I witnessed, I extend my most sincere and humble thanks.
[Editor’s note: Like the Dew has linked in our Recommended Reading section to several stories recently about the 50th anniversary reunion of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was held in Raleigh earlier this month. This article was written by Casey Hayden, a Texas native who was a founding member of SNCC as well as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a leading activist in the civil rights movement. She lived in Atlanta part of the ’60s working with SNCC. Written in 1985, the article appeared in part in the preface of Mary King’s book, “Freedom Song.” It is published here at the suggestion of Ms. Hayden’s friends and with her permission.]