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“I Want to Be Your Friend, You Black Idiot!!”: The Dynamics of Majority Involvement in Minority Movements

speakers' biographies

Fannie Theresa Rushing

SNCC, Chicago Friends of SNCC

Although I was not born there, my story begins in Holly Springs , Mississippi. My great grandmother moved from Ripley, Mississippi to Holy Springs in order to send her children to the newly opened Rust College. Her husband died when she was pregnant with her fourth child. She sold everything she had in order to make this move. She washed clothes, sewed and farmed to send her children to Rust. Her only daughter, my grandmother, went to school with Ida B. Wells. The two became rural school teachers at around the same time. She would remember this time fondly and in tribute named her only daughter Ella B in memory of Ida B. Wells. When my grandmother died a few months after my mother was born, my great grandmother began the task of raising her grand daughter and when she became of school age enrolled her in Rust’s preparatory school where she remained until 1929 when she completed college.

There could not have been a worse year to finish college than 1929, particularly for an African American woman. My mother, like thousands of others became a part of the Great Migration that led her to Chicago, Illinois. One of her former teachers from Rust had bought a home here in Hyde Park and that became the destination for her and a carful of her classmates. My mother began an exodus of the Rust class of ‘29. They all lived togther not only because of the housing discrimination they faced but also as a way of surviving the Depression. Rust College was a school and an extended family.

When I was born in Chicago, Illinois, many, many years later, it was across the street from the family of my mother’s former teacher who still lived in the same house. It was a house, like ours that still served as a gathering point for those still coming from Mississippi. I grew up in the context of this vast extended family network radiating from Holly Springs, Mississippi. I have said all this so that it is possible to understand why I say that although I was born in Chicago, I was socialized in the context of Mississippi and the HBCUs. My mother organized the Rust College alumni association. She believed that there was nothing more important than preserving the HBCUs.

My father, although from Mississippi as well, wanted to sever all ties with the South. He realized that he could no longer live there and accept the role of even appearing to be submissive to White minority rule. He was so excited to see this being challenged first with Brown V. Board and then in Montgomery. He would rush to the Television every evening to watch Blacks in Montgomery as they struggled against and won their fight for desegregation of the buses. How we cheered the night when the announcement was made. The joy was short lived as soon the images of dogs tearing out the legs of people in Birmingham filled the screen.

Because of my young age, I could only be a spectator to the events of the early days of the movement. However by the early 1960s, as the student sit-in movement spread throughout the South, I felt a special kinship with the students because of the manner in which my family related to the HBCUs. In addition to that, groups in the North were springing up in support of the southern students. They were holding sympathy pickets and boycotts against the local stores of chains that refused to serve Blacks in the South. I was still in high school but my Saturdays became devoted to doing sympathy pickets. Since there were usually only a few of us, it was possible to get picket signs from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC/the Quakers.)  My dream was to have a much larger picket line, knowing as I did that would solve all the problems of the South.

A big problem for me was that, it was time for college and I had applied to and been accepted at the University of Mexico. My mother did not want me to go; she wanted me to go to an HBCU. We compromised and I enrolled at the University of Illinois/Chicago. Very soon, my mother began to regret the compromise and long for the University of Mexico as I began, first as part of the Young Democrats, to canvas for Abner Mikva in order to have a wider circle to recruit for my Saturday pickets. Having a larger circle and needing more signs, I was told by AFSC that there was a Chicago SNCC office and that they had more signs. As we prepared for our first big picket line on State Street, I made my first trip to the Chicago SNCC office. Some of the people from the office showed up on the picket line and we talked on the line. The next week, when I went to get signs, they asked me if I could have a speaker on my campus to talk about what was going on with the sit-in movement in the South. I thought that was a great idea and said I would look into arranging it.

What I discovered was that in order to have a speaker on campus, you had to have a registered student group. I would first have to create a Friends of SNCC group on campus, get it recognized and then get other groups to help pay for and organize the event. In the process of doing this, I had to work with all the major student groups on campus and I began to work more and more in the SNCC office. The speaker, Ivanhoe Donaldson, came and inspired us to become more involved in the work of SNCC. We committed to getting permanent recognition on campus and to start a food and clothing drive. We raised money, did the food and clothing drive and coordinated demonstrations with other campuses of the University of Illinois and helped to organize chapters of Friends of SNCC. My final act was to get our group permanent recognition. In order to do so we staged a sit in at the office of the Provost. We did get permanent recognition. However, I was told that I could take my show on the road any time. I had already decided that I could not learn any more in school and that I had to get South as soon as possible.

After yet another compromise with my parents, the agreement was that I would spend a year working in Chicago before going South. Although the primary reason for the Chicago Friends of SNCC office was to raise money and do support work for the southern movement, given the nature of Chicago, it became increasingly difficult to do this without becoming involved in Chicago issues. The primary issue was the horrible condition of the public schools. The Chicago Area Friends of SNCC/CAFSNCC, under the leadership of a dynamic young social worker from SSA, Larry Landry, became the moving force behind the campaign to fire Benjamin Willis, the racist superintendent of schools, get rid of the trailers where classes were being held in Black communities and to improve the quality of education. As part of the campaign two school boycotts were organized that emptied the schools on the South and West sides of the city. During the days of the boycott, we borrowed a tactic from SNCC in the South and organized Freedom Schools all over the city. Before I realized it, I spent the next five years working full time for SNCC. Maxed out and exhausted, I worked to raise enough money to go and live and study in Mexico.

On returning to the states, I went back to school and studied anthropology. After I finished my bachelors degree, I got a job working for the Department of Children and Family Services in a new program located in an alternative school St. Mary’s Center for Learning. I got very involved with the large alternative school network and introduced the Freedom School methods that I learned in SNCC.  I also got very involved in protesting against the coup sponsored by the United States that ended the Allende government in Chile. As part of that, I came to know many of the people fleeing the new military regime of Pinochet in Chile. At this time the liberation struggle in southern Africa was also intensifying and we held many sessions for our students on what and why these struggles were occurring in both areas. When St. Mary’s closed, I went to work for AFSC as the director of their Southern Africa Program in Chicago.

While working for AFSC, I was part of the Third World Coalition. This allowed me to reconnect with many SNCC people, Zoharra, her former husband Mike Simmons, Phil Hutchings, Fran Beale, and Jim Early. During the same time, I became the Chicago coordinator for the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee (PRSC). For both the Quakers and PRSC, I went to New York about once a month. This allowed me to reconnect with another SNCC person, Miss Ella Baker. She convinced me to work with her on organizing the Mass Party, a non-sectarian party to bring progressive social change to the United States. I worked on organizing for the Mass Party in Chicago, organized an international conference on southern Africa for AFSC, established the first city-wide coalition on southern Africa and a rally in Madison Square Garden in support of Puerto Rican independence.

When I left AFSC, I went to work at Dominican University (Rosary College) as the Director of Minority Student Services. During that time, I went back to school and got a Master s in Educational Psychology. Feeling that I had developed the Minority Student Services program there as much as I could, I began to teach at Dominican. I also began to work with the Third World Studies Foundation organizing an annual conference of Third World Scholars for community groups and schools. It was also during this time that Harold Washington began his campaign for mayor of Chicago. I worked on organizing schools, women’s groups and groups in the Latino community.

Later, I went back to the University of Chicago for my doctorate in Latin American history. My area of specialization was the African Diaspora in Latin America. I took graduate classes at the University of Havana, did research over several years in Cuba and wrote my dissertation on two nineteenth century Afro Cuban social organizations and their roles in slave emancipation and independence. Since then I have continued to do research and teach on the African presence in Latin America.

Five years ago, along with my long-time friend and veteran freedom fighter, we began an oral history and archival project on the history of SNCC in Chicago during the period from 1960-1965. We have been collecting the oral histories of those people involved with SNCC in Chicago and the South. The archive is part of the Vivian C. Harsh African American History Collection at Carter G. Woodson Public Library and will open to the public in October 2010.