By Dr. Lawrence Brown
Upon learning of her passing early this week, Baltimoreans flooded their social media timelines with remembrances, tributes, and expressions of Betty Garman Robinson. One such remembrance was a photo shared by Charlie Cooper. The photo, above, shows Betty Garman in her twenties sitting in a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting in 1964.
She’s sitting directly in front of Andrew Goodman—a SNCC activist who would be murdered by white supremacists (including the local police) in Philadelphia, Mississippi along with two Congress of Racial Equality organizers named James Chaney and Michael (Mickey) Schwerner. According to Cooper, they were murdered the very next day after the photo was taken. Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner all risked their very lives during the 1964 Freedom Summer. The tragic loss of their lives reveals that Betty was also risking her life. But in spite of that ever-present risk, Betty Garman was willing to sacrifice her personal safety and comfort to advance the Black Freedom Struggle. She sacrificed her personal well-being to increase Black voter registration and make America a racially egalitarian democracy in the Jim Crow South.
Before arriving in the Deep South however, Betty was already an accomplished activist and organizer. While an undergraduate student at Skidmore College in upstate New York in the late 1950s, Betty had worked with the National Student Organization opposing McCarthyism. She later joined Students for a Democratic Society which opposed racism in American society and later war overseas. By the time she joined SNCC, Betty was already a veteran organizer and activist for social justice.
Betty discontinued her graduate studies at the University of California Berkeley to move to Atlanta in March 1964. She served as the SNCC Northern Coordinator at the invitation of Jim Forman. In a letter dated October 27, 1964, Betty wrote the Friends of SNCC and fellow college students appealing to them to step into high gear to support Black voter registration and racial justice in the Deep South. Explaining the situation in McComb, Mississippi she wrote a letter (below) to SNCC’s northern supporters and funders:
Those in jail felt the protest necessary to demonstrate once more to the nation that the Federal Government is indeed not involved to the extent of its capabilities—in bringing pressure against local officials who will harass voter registration workers, who will beat them and jail them and continue to make a mockery of the very term justice as we know it in our society.
On the second page of her letter, Betty called out the local police by writing:
Ask, too, that the Justice Department file for a temporary restraining order in federal court to enjoin police officials in McComb and county officials in Pike County from interfering with voter registration activity.
In calling out both the federal government and local police, Betty Garman spoke truth to power. She urged SNCC’s northern supporters to contact public officials and demand that they make civil rights and human rights a reality.
“We Were Trying to Register People to Vote Without Getting Them Killed”
On March 30, 2015, I had the delightful experience of interviewing Betty Garman Robinson and Judy Richardson as a fill-in host for the Marc Steiner Show. I talked with them about their experiences and reflections of serving as leaders and organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Over the course of the show, Betty and Judy regaled listeners with stories and recollections from their time spent in SNCC. They recalled how the organization helped to eventually overthrow Jim and Jane Crow in the Deep South.
In the broadcast, both Judy and Betty offered their critique of the movie Selma and how it depicted SNCC activists. As living witnesses and active participants in the Civil Rights Movement, both made the point that the movie did not accurately portray just how much regular people served as leaders. They emphasized that the young people in SNCC were thoughtful and engaged organizers.
Betty remarked that she hoped the movie would depict young people in this way so that young people in the then-emerging Black Lives Matter movement could see how they could also play a leadership role in the fight against contemporary injustices. Speaking of her own entry into SNCC activism, Betty recalled:
I was energized by the sit-ins—the February 1960 to April 1960 sit-ins. I led a demonstration with some other women to the local Woolworths. We got in trouble with the local police there. We were told we were “unladylike”—all of that.
For me, it was: what kind of country am I living in? I thought I was living in a different kind of country. And I see African American students being beaten for trying to be served at a lunch counter. I am in shock. So I begin to do some fundraising for SNCC after that.
Discussing SNCC’s organizational structure, Betty explained that: “SNCC was a horizontal organization. It wasn’t a top-down organization [with] one leader.” Betty also spoke about her memories of Fannie Lou Hamer—still referring to her as Ms. Hamer—and Stokely Carmichael, who later became Kwame Ture. She attested to their tenacity, genius, and relentless labor on behalf of the Black Freedom Struggle. During the broadcast, Judy Richardson also explained how much young SNCC organizers learned from Ella Baker. In his autobiography Ready for Revolution, Kwame Ture elaborated on lessons they all learned as young people from Ella Baker:
We all learned a lot about organizing—I know I certainly did—from being around Ms. Baker. And it wasn’t just process either. It was also substantive. Our definition of SNCC as a group of organizers, for instance. Our faith in and respect for the local people. Our egalitarianism and notorious distrust of hierarchical leadership.
Regarding Stokely Carmichael, Betty offered her recollections:
He was a fabulous organizer. And he had incredible vision. He had incredible energy. I mean, I think of him in Greenwood [Mississippi] going all day, all night. Going out into the rural areas, talking with people about the importance of them taking a stand, overcoming fear. And yes, we as Judy said, we were trying to register people to vote without getting them killed.
In his autobiography, Kwame Ture mentions Betty Garman and other White organizers in SNCC on page 307. Having once said there were no White people in SNCC, Ture offered his explanation on page 308:
So how could I say there were no “whites” in SNCC? Because upon joining us, those comrades stopped being “white” in most conventional American terms, except in the most superficial terms.
To start with, for these young “white” Americans even to seriously think about joining the struggle in the conditions that prevailed meant they were unusually conscientious and socially aware young people. Then, quite apart from the danger, the ones who joined were “whites” who had no problem working happily in a black organization with black leadership and that worked mostly in rural black communities at considerable risk. That alone would separate them from the general run of their white countrymen—then and now—and entitles them to our respect.
Baltimore’s Living Link to SNCC
In the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, Stokely Carmichael is often neglected or completely omitted. Many movement narratives either actively ignore him or act like he never existed. But Betty Garman organized with Stokely Carmichael. She knew the man. And she took what he said to heart regarding White organizers and applied it in her later work in Baltimore.
Stokely posed a compelling question in a 1966 speech: “can White people move inside their own community and start tearing down racism where it in fact does exist?” He posed this challenge for White activists and challenged them to not “be a Pepsi generation who comes alive in the Black community.” Betty Garman heeded Stokely’s words and they would help shape her organizing later in life.
After moving to Baltimore by 1974 and proceeding to marry and raise her children, Betty began working with groups such as Baltimore Racial Justice Action and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Baltimore. Both organizations worked to help White Baltimoreans confront and dismantle racism “inside their own community.” In this phase of her work, Betty mentored and taught other White people to foster anti-racist action just as Stokely Carmichael had requested.
I witnessed such action in the summer of 2015 when an intrepid group of young White SURJ activists joined Black and Brown organizers in confronting the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)—while the Maryland FOP were having their conference! SURJ also helped illustrate the discriminatory discrepancy in BPD tactics during the Saturday after the April 27, 2015 uprising in Hampden. Betty’s work with SURJ helped ensure that SURJ didn’t merely give lip service to anti-racist action and protest. SURJ was willing to confront BPD and FOP racism in policing by confronting racism “in their own community.” Like Betty, SURJ Baltimore also put their lives on the line.
Her Crusading Life
Betty was often fond of saying (while shaking her fist): “We gotta keep up the fight!” Her entire life was a testament to an unwavering commitment to organizing and base-building for racial equity and social justice. From her time at Skidmore College to her organizing life in Baltimore City, Betty always kept up the fight. From SNCC to SURJ to her union organizing (with groups such as Unite Here!), Betty Garman Robinson fought for civil rights and human rights. She kept alive the majestic legacy of SNCC by becoming a SNCC archivist and historian. She cared deeply about the lessons SNCC had to offer future generations.
As a 2003 OSI Community Fellow, she dedicated her time to helping “research, document, and popularize the history of social justice organizing to
help organizers learn from the past.” Her OSI fellowship work would contribute to Betty eventually co-writing and co-editing the 2010 book Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.
Betty Garman Robinson was—and remains—a great Baltimorean, a great American, and a great freedom fighter. She walked with giants in the Black Freedom Struggle and the struggle for human dignity. In doing so, she became a giant in the annals of social justice organizing. This kind of excellent service deserves to be honored and remembered so that when Baltimore City schoolchildren are learning about great Baltimoreans, they hear names like Walter Percival Carter, Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, Vernon Dobson, Lucille Gorham, and Betty Garman Robinson.
These Baltimoreans were all masterful organizers who never held public office, but walked with the people—desegregating, liberating, rebuilding, and championing freedom. Betty was a model of organizing excellence, constantly pulling people together, motivating, encouraging, and provoking action for human rights.
For over 60 years, Betty dedicated her life to the study and application of effective social justice organizing. Her crusading organizing life was a flesh-and-blood template of the fierce care and concern we need to redeem and remake America into the country it can be. May the legacy of her life be a guiding light, in this, our darkest hour.
Dr. Lawrence Brown is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and formerly an Associate Professor at Morgan State University. He was a 2012 OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow and was honored by the OSI with the Bold Thinker Award in 2018 for his advocacy and contribution to the discourse regarding racial segregation in the city. His book, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in January, 2021.