Civil Rights activist talks OWS, celebrates Civil Rights women

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By Michael Wunder, News Editor

A Civil Rights activist and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee told a group of UNO students Friday she was skeptical of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests.

The mostly middle-class students participating in the movement have failed to reach out to members of the lower classes struggling with poverty, homelessness and joblessness on a massive scale, said Martha Noonan, who currently teaches history in Baltimore, Md.  “I’m disappointed they’re not addressing the very obvious needs that we have.”

Noonan’s comments came during a question-and-answer session during the first of two presentations to Introduction to Black Studies classes about the often-overlooked importance of the role women played in the push for equality between whites and blacks in America throughout the 1960s.  

Noonan is a co-editor of “Hands on the Freedom Plow:  Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC,” a 2010 book compiling a series of compassionate and elucidating testimonials from women engaged in the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement.  The SNCC was a student-led branch of the American Civil Rights Movement that played an instrumental role in organizing sit-ins and freedom rides throughout the segregated South.

 The knowledgeable speaker, however, read to students excerpts from a different book, “African American Women and the Vote,” which chronicles through personal accounts the struggles African American women shouldered in order to register to vote in the early 60s.

Noonan focused on the compelling story of Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist who joined SNCC at the age of 37 and succeeded in passing the voter registration test which white officials made excessively difficult.

 After leaving a South Carolina voter registration workshop in 1963, Hamer and her colleagues were arrested at a bus terminal in Winona, Miss.  Hamer was jailed separately and repeatedly beaten by two black inmates at the bequest of a Highway Patrol officer.  

Hamer told attendees at the 1964 Democratic Convention in New Jersey the senseless beating left her with permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in the artery of her left eye and a limp.  Her speech served as a wake-up call to the American public of the inhumane treatment African Americans received in the South—treatment blacks suffered throughout the movement.

“When you see those people sitting-in, riding busses—they made a decision before they went,” Noonan said.  “They were willing to die.”

Noonan joined the SNCC shortly after her time at the University of Michigan.  To her, school seemed irrelevant during such turbulent times, but her parents were vehement against her going south to become a lifetime organizer.

“My parents disowned me,” Noonan said.  “They told me I couldn’t come back home.”

It was a decision Noonan doesn’t regret in the least.

“This is the place I belonged,” she said of the movement, which wasn’t blighted by an urge for profit or power.  “It’s about changing the world.”

Noonan left to work alongside fellow students dressed in overalls and rural clothing to connect with sharecroppers and domestic workers on the “basis of equality.”

“We were very careful not to think of ourselves as leaders,” Noonan said.  “We saw ourselves as part of the community in which we worked.”

Noonan was moved by the sheer determination of the men and women she encountered, who, having nothing, risked more than anyone else to bring American life into the future.

“This was giving up everything on the possibility that you could change things for the next generation,” Noonan said.

At first, when approached to work on a book about women in the movement, Noonan was reluctant.  She didn’t want to talk in specifics, but rather on the movement as a whole.

“I went through a whole big thing about this at the time,” she said, laughing.

Eventually, after thinking, Noonan came around to the idea and embraced it vigorously, impassioned by celebrating the tremendous courage of the women she had worked with and respected.

“These are the people who made the Civil Rights movement,” Noonan said.  “These are the people who changed the whole nature of American Society.”

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