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Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Reviewed by Valerie Lannon

August 6, 2014

This book takes you to the US South at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement and never lets you go. The blend of personal accounts and overall analysis of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) allows you to feel the motivation and determination of many of the women who participated in its landmark activities.
Detailed histories of social movements are hard to come by. Their importance for activists today, like those participating in the Peoples Social Forum, is immense--which is why we need to treasure the accounts that do become available. Recently, the history to date of the Idle No More movement was captured in The Winter We Danced. The story of Britain’s massive anti-war movement of 2003 is documented in Stop the War: The story of Britain’s biggest mass movement. And there is a brilliant analysis of a number of movements contained in Leadership and Social Movements edited by Barker, Johnson and Lavalette. Hands on the Freedom Plow adds to this invaluable source of information and indirect advice to future activists.
SNCC came into being in 1960 and became known as the more confrontational arm of the civil rights movement. SNCC used a number of tactics, from direct actions like mass meetings, sit-ins, and freedom rides to other methods such as the voter registration campaign and community organizing. Most SNCC members were women, serving in staff and volunteer positions. Led by and mostly made up of African-Americans, the movement also involved white allies.
The book focuses on SNCC work conducted mainly in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The book chronicles story after story of young women becoming angry, radicalized and then committed to forcing social change. The women were typically students at black colleges and universities. For their actions they were typically met by the state with imprisonment and beatings, and by their families with fears for their safety.
But the movement’s success with ending the worst cases of segregation (e.g. “white only” buses, stores, restaurants) and the tremendous sense of camaraderie served to reinforce the dedication of most activists.
The movement was distinguished by its use of music, particularly freedom songs. We are Soldiers provides the book with its title: “I’m glad I’m a solder, I got my hands on the freedom plow. One day I’ll get old, can’t fight on anymore, but Lord I’ll stand here and fight on anyhow.”

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