Books: Non-Fiction

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

Book – Non-fiction. Edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner. 2010. 616 pages.
An unprecedented women’s history of the Civil Rights Movement, from sit-ins to Black Power.

Time Periods: 20th Century, People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974
Themes: Civil Rights Movements, Organizing, Women's History


In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women — southern and northern, old and young, rural and urban, black, white, and Latina — share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings and arrests and witnessing unspeakable violence. These intense stories depict women, many very young, dealing with extreme fear and finding the remarkable strength to survive.

The women in SNCC acquired new skills, experienced personal growth, sustained one another, and even had fun in the midst of serious struggle. Readers are privy to their analyses of the Movement, its tactics, strategies, and underlying philosophies. The contributors revisit central debates of the struggle including the role of nonviolence and self-defense, the role of white people in a black-led movement, and the role of women within the Movement and the society at large. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9780252078880 | Published by University of Illinois Press.


On March 19, 2011, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture hosted a full-day of presentations by the editors and many contributors to Hands on the Freedom Plow.

Watch the Presentation (4 hours, 35 min.)

On December 27, 2010, the Michael Eric Dyson Show featured co-editor Martha Prescod Norman Noonan and contributor Dr. Bernice Reagon in an hour-long conversation about the tactics and strategies of nonviolent protest, the music of the movement, lessons the country should learn from the Civil War, and what they hope today’s generation learned from their struggles during the Civil Rights Movement.


On October 5, 2010, seven Hands on the Freedom Plow editors and contributors spoke on a panel about the book at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Hosted by Teaching for Change and moderated by Jennifer Lawson of WHUT. View online on C-SPAN Book TV. Photos of the event.

Panel of contributors at Busboys and Poets book event in Washington, D.C. Click to see more pictures.


“Powerful, inspiring, and tremendously moving, the oral histories collected here highlight the essential role women played as organizers and activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South of the early 1960s. These stories demonstrate the strength and bravery required to stand against repression and brutality in the fight against segregation. Included are the newly gathered personal recollections of more than 50 women, black and white, northern and southern, who describe their participation in events that transformed their lives and also helped change the world. The activists, including high school students, were jailed, beaten, threatened, and treated inhumanely at sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, on Freedom Rides to challenge segregation on public transportation, and in doing field work to register voters while enduring the oppression and discrimination of Jim Crow laws. Together, the overlapping stories create an indelible portrait of the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Maryland where women such as Diane Nash, SNCC’s first female field secretary; Joann Christian Mants, an activist who was jailed 17 times by the time she was 16; and many others, worked for social justice. VERDICT: Essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement and crucial for all collections documenting the era.” —Library Journal Starred Review, October 2010

Hands on the Freedom Plow underscores the neglected role women played in the civil rights crusade. Women answered the call, assumed weighty responsibilities, experienced persecution and worked together in the cause of freedom and social justice. Their spirit remains alive in this remarkable book.” —Charlotte Observer

“Page after page reveals remarkable stories of courage and defiance. . . . The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement.” —The Root

“This amazing book rethreads the needle of memory with a stronger cord woven of the testimonies of sisters who never gave up or in. Its gifts are immeasurable as a historical document and a blueprint for ongoing national and international struggles for human rights. We must take our cue from the lessons they teach and tighten our grip on freedom’s plow, pushing on, regardless.” —Darlene Clark Hine, coauthor of The African American Odyssey

“The testimonies of these remarkable women are an indispensable part of the history of the southern movement against racial segregation. They enable us to see the Movement up close through essays that are intensely personal, and at the same time they thoughtfully illuminate the larger struggle for justice.” —Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present

“Hats off to the Hands On sisters! Each story is a treasure, each woman a measure of the Civil Rights Movement’s strength. An overdue and indispensable contribution to the Movement’s historiography.” —Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP Board of Directors

“This is a splendid, spectacular, stirring book. At last the long-marginalized women of SNCC tell their galvanizing, enspiriting stories in their own words. Everyone concerned about women’s rights, human rights, and the future will want to get, give, or assign this fabulous collection.” —Blanche Wiesen Cook, University Distinguished Professor, John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes 1-3

“An extraordinary contribution to historical understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, this work illuminates the ground swell that was SNCC. It’s a complex story, well told by the participants, whose real voices bestow this collection with remarkable authority. These gripping narratives by tough, resilient women, these tales of courage, perseverance, hope, and dedication to a cause, portray an amazing time in America.” —Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln

“This marvelously broad and deep collection of SNCC women’s voices gives the reader a rare insight into the trials and triumphs of the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. These stories related by women at the center of the struggle are simultaneously simple and complex, diverse and united. At the same time, as they relate their own personal struggles for freedom, their voices are punctuated by passion and pain, and frustration and determination.” —Cynthia Griggs Fleming, author of Yes We Did? From King’s Dream to Obama’s Promise

Hands on the Freedom Plow is, quite simply, a stunning collection. These stories of courage, hope, and, yes, conflict, will inspire all Americans who believe in the possibilities of democracy. This volume belongs on that short shelf of books on the Movement that must be read.” —John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

“This collection provides the texture and tone of that eclectic group of women who joined together in common cause, still debating and disagreeing along the way, but united by overlapping values, newfound courage, and the ambitious dream of changing the political face of the nation, which, in large part, they did. A treasure trove of stories and reflections by an amazing group of women activists.” —Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Radical Tradition: A Radical Democratic Vision

“These women’s lives, spent in the freedom struggle, call to us. Their political insight and creativity make them American heroines; their strategic vision allows them to point a better way forward for all, worldwide, who aspire to equality and democracy.” —Wesley C. Hogan, author of Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America

“A remarkable achievement, sweeping in scope, rich with detail, and infinitely readable. Without question, this is the new starting point for learning about the central role that SNCC, and women, played in the African American freedom struggle.” —Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt

Facebook page for the book.

Winner of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change National Book Award for 2010: The award recognizes a publication that best advances an understanding of the American civil rights movement and its legacy.

Winner of the Letitia Woods Brown Book Award, sponsored by the Association of Black Women Historians, 2011

Received a nomination for the 42nd NAACP Image Awards in the category of Outstanding Literary Work – Non-fiction, 2011