Social activists present keynote address for MLK commemeration

On Thursday March 8 in the College Union Ballroom social activists Judy Richardson, Dorothy Zellner and Betty Garman Robinson presented a keynote address based on their work on the award-winning book Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.

The speakers reflected on their personal involvement in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization that advocated for equality during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The presentation contributed largely to Geneseo’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the college’s commitment to social justice. The history department and history professor Emilye Crosby organized the event.

Hands on the Freedom Plow is a collection of stories told by women involved in SNCC. Richardson, Zellner and Robinson, along with three other women, met periodically for 15 years to collect the stories and complete the book.

“We knew we had to stay together because we knew the stories were important,” Robinson said.

Published in 2011, the book won numerous awards including the Benjamin Hooks Book Award and was nominated for an Image Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for Outstanding Literary Work.

During the keynote address, each of the speakers gave insight into their personal backgrounds and motives for joining the Civil Rights Movement.

“The reason I went to the South was that I could not stand idle by,” Zellner said. “This was an incredible moment and I wanted to be a part of it.”

“My coming into SNCC absolutely changed me. It gave me new eyes, in a way,” Richardson said. “I got sucked in by the energy and the passion and the brilliance of the people around me.”

The speakers also discussed the role of women in SNCC, a major theme in the book. Each of the presenters said that there was a very high level of gender equality within the organization.

“Women were a tremendous resource for the movement,” Zellner said.

The three authors also added that they unanimously aimed to encourage the students to find their own places in the new movements for human justice.

“Young people will see themselves in our stories,” Richardson said. Concluding the presentation, they invited the audience to ask questions about their experiences and outlooks on more modern societal concerns, including poor education systems and sexism in organizations. A reception and book signing followed the keynote.

“I’ve been reading this book for class,” freshman Regina Carra said. “I thought [the keynote] was very interesting, especially the part about education being inadequate.”

“I just think it’s interesting seeing this other perspective on the civil rights movement because, as they were saying, we often get a watered-down version of it,” senior Dave O’Donnell said.

On March 7 the film Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 was screened alongside a discussion by Richardson. Robinson also led a community-organizing workshop for students.

Each of these events was part of Geneseo’s King Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, which is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, Africana/Black Studies Program, the Xerox Center for Multicultural Teacher Education, the Office of Multicultural Programming and Services, and the Women’s Studies program.