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

speakers' biographies

Sue Thrasher, Ph.D.

Five College Public School Partnership Coordinator;
Southern Student Organizing Committee

I live and work in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. In my early fifties, I completed a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and now direct the Public School Partnership of the Five College consortium, a collaboration of UMass, Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges. I came to UMass after more than 20-years of non-stop social activism in the South. I wanted time to simply read, write, and think. I particularly wanted to reflect on the adult education work I had done at the Highlander Center in Tennessee and to explore its connections with the theoretical writings of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. My dissertation focused on women popular educators; it was, in large part, a mechanism to reflect on my own work and life.   

I grew up on a farm in a rural West Tennessee county that borders North Mississippi and Alabama. My father was a farmer by choice and a carpenter by necessity. Shortly after I was born, my family moved to Oak Ridge, TN where my father built housing for the defense workers who would ultimately build the atom bomb. My mother became a “Rosie” of sorts, entering the work force for the first time driving an army payroll car. When they returned to west Tennessee, my mother went to work in the local shoe factory and my father farmed and did carpentry in the off-season. I have fond memories of growing up on the land, and not-so-fond memories of the constant anxiety in our lives brought on by seasonal layoffs at the factory and the incessant need to pay the bank note or lose the farm. My older sister married at 18 and went to work in the same factory as my mother. I saw college as a way out.

I was lucky. I arrived in Nashville in the fall of 1961, still a major hotbed of civil rights activities with a student (SNCC) and adult (NCLC) movement that worked hand in hand. The period from 1961 through 1966 revolutionized the shape of my life. My first tentative step to speak out on campus issues led to involvement in the local SNCC chapter, and eventually the broader southern movement. In the spring of 1964, I helped organize the founding conference of the Southern Students Organizing Committee (SSOC), an organization to grow and support fledgling civil rights activities on predominantly white campuses. I participated in Mississippi Summer as a member of the “white folks project” working in Jackson, Biloxi, and Hattiesburg. That fall, I opened SSOC’s office in Nashville and served as Executive Secretary for the next two years.

I spent three years (1966-69) at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, a radical think-tank that served as my first (non-degree) graduate school and my first introduction to life and politics beyond the South. While there, Julian Bond, Howard Romaine and I began planning a research institute that we thought would strengthen the southern movement; the Institute for Southern Studies opened in Atlanta in the fall of 1969 and began publication of Southern Exposure magazine in 1970. Our early research focused primarily on military spending in the South and the corporate shenanigans of the southern power companies, but Leah Wise and I also began an oral history project to document the radical movements of the South in the 1930s and 40s (Southern Exposure, V1, #3 &4). During this time I began writing and editing for The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta’s underground newspaper and made my first foray into a feminist consciousness-raising group through Atlanta Women’s Liberation.

In the fall of 1978, I joined the staff of the Highlander Research and Education Center in the mountains of east Tennessee. (Founded in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School, Highlander played significant roles in the organization of the CIO in the South and beginning in 1953, the emerging civil rights movement. In 1961, its property was seized by the state of Tennessee and its doors closed with accusations it was a communist training school – the major evidence being its inter-racial activities.) Once again, I was lucky. Highlander, with its focus on education, provided a new frame for thinking about social change. I organized the Highlander archives and spent a year coordinating an educational program for the 50th anniversary. But most importantly, I participated in and helped plan workshops with community leaders and talked endlessly with Myles Horton and other staff members about the simple, revolutionary process of experiential education.

Nashville in the early 1960s and my association with the Highlander Center remain major touchstones in my life.  

In 1997, I began meeting with a group of nine white women who wanted to write about how our involvement in the freedom movement changed and shaped our lives. Deep in our Hearts was published in 2000 by the University of Georgia Press; I recommend those stories.