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Robinson, Ruby Doris Smith (1942–1967)

Robinson, Ruby Doris Smith (1942–1967)

Civil-rights activist, founding member of the Atlanta Student Movement and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and outstanding organizer who urged those in the movement for racial justice not only to work for goals which would benefit poor- and middle-class African-Americans but to risk their lives in the process. Name variations: Rubye. Born Ruby Doris Smith in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 25, 1942; died of cancer in Atlanta on October 9, 1967; second of seven children of J.T. Smith and Alice Smith (who operated a beauty parlor and a used-furniture business out of their Atlanta home); attended Price Hill High School; graduated and made her debut in 1958; entered Spelman College of Atlanta University in 1959; received B.A. in physical education, 1964; married Clifford Robinson, in 1963; children: Kenneth Toure Robinson (b. 1965).

Joined Atlanta Student Movement and Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (1960); attended founding meeting of SNCC (1960), elected to executive committee (1962), executive secretary (1966).

Ruby Doris Smith Robinson quickly achieved legendary status within the ranks of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her bold defiance of segregationist policies, her "100% shit detector," and her unique ability to merge the passion of a field activist with the careful attention to detail of an effective administrator, made her, in James Forman's words, "one of the true revolutionaries of the civil rights movement."

There is no written record of her short life, but her accomplishments as an organizer can be most fully documented in the daring projects she was instrumental in implementing for SNCC—especially the jail-no bail campaigns, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Freedom Summer program of 1964, and the voter registration campaigns of 1965 and 1966—and her individual passionate acts for racial justice. For example, Julian Bond and Robinson were part of a SNCC delegation determined to visit Africa in 1964 when they learned that their plane had been overbooked. As Bond later recalled, Robinson remained determined to leave on schedule, rejected the airline's requests to take a later flight and stormed onto the jetway, where she conducted a one woman sit-in until the group was allowed to follow their original schedule.

Yet Ruby Doris Smith Robinson was not raised to be confrontational. Born April 25, 1942, Ruby Doris was the second child of J.T. Smith and Alice Smith , who used their 794 Frazier Street home in Atlanta to provide a comfortable middle-class life for their seven offspring. While the children played and studied in the main part of the Smith home, their parents ran a successful small business out of an addition to the house. African-American businesses and clientele and segregated schools formed the backdrop of Robinson's early world. She attended Price High School where she accompanied the school marching band as a majorette. Following local custom, she made her debut in black Atlanta society in 1958. And, like most middle-class African-American women in Atlanta, the following year she enrolled in Spelman College, the women's college of Atlanta University which had a reputation for merging finishing-school skills with academic preparation. Her first year in college passed uneventfully.

In 1960, inspired by the sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's, Robinson joined the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and attended the April 1960 meeting, called by students and Ella Baker to discuss ways to marshal student protest, which gave birth to SNCC. When SNCC established its field office in Atlanta, Robinson quickly devoted most of her time to the young organization. Consequently, when SNCC activists debated what action to take when students were arrested in January 1961 for trying to desegregate a Rock Hill, South Carolina, lunch counter, Robinson had proved her commitment to the organization and therefore was in a position to have her voice heard in debate. She suggested that SNCC encourage its members to refuse bail and thereby fill the jails, and, in early February, she went to Rock Hill to practice her own suggestion. She then served a 30-day jail term, marking the first time that a civil-rights activist refused bail and served a full sentence. In May, she joined the Freedom Rides organized by SNCC and again endured beatings and served her full sentence. Yet many activists believe that her greatest contribution to the Rides was yet to come. Once the violence escalated, Robinson worked the phones across the nation to recruit students to replace those riders who were arrested; thus, she not only kept the program going but also pressured the Kennedy administration into action. She finished the year in McComb, Mississippi, helping SNCC coordinate its voter-registration drive. By April 1962, her leadership in SNCC was so well known that she was elected one of three at-large members to the SNCC Executive Committee, ultimately becoming James Forman's special assistant. The following year, she joined SNCC full time.

Robinson spent her time at SNCC trying to make the movement stay attuned to realistic change rather than to lofty, unimplementable ideals. By the spring of 1964, she decided that civil rights was a dead issue since integration had little relevance to those poorer African-Americans concerned "with the basic necessities of life." She argued that "a new strategy" was needed, especially one "with new and creative tactics" that would clearly show "how our work is affecting basic changes in the power structure." Furthermore, she believed that SNCC's decentralized structure and uncoordinated approach to the media undermined its effectiveness. Rather than respond to every issue racism provoked, she argued that SNCC "needed to define its ideology, establish specific goals, and explain in very definite terms how it will project itself in the mass media." Consequently, when students at Fisk University appealed to SNCC for aid in organizing their protests, she responded by traveling with Cordell Reagon to Nashville to help coordinate their efforts.

In the midst of this intense political commitment, she also found time to make a commitment of a more personal nature. After a short, very private courtship, Ruby Doris Smith married Clifford Robinson, a quite, private man who was not involved in SNCC activities. In 1965, she gave birth to their son, Kenneth Toure Robinson.

By 1966, Robinson's leadership skills would be challenged in a different way. Many members had become dissatisfied with the sitting leadership. James Forman had served as executive secretary since 1961 and John Lewis had served as chair since 1963. Forman announced that he did not want to seek reelection, but Lewis remained willing to dedicate his time and energy to SNCC. Many SNCC activists thought Lewis too mainstream and resented the time he spent working with the White House Conference on Civil Rights and his very public fund-raising tours. Stokeley Carmichael, whose stature in SNCC increased with his success in urging African-American Alabamians to support the Black Panther Party on election day, appealed to those frustrated with Lewis. Yet Lewis still won the election and Robinson was chosen to replace Forman as executive secretary. The vote was contested illegally, and another ballot initiated. Although this time Carmichael, with support of white staffers, easily defeated Lewis, Robinson's support remained firm and she became the first and only woman to lead SNCC.

Her tenure as executive secretary would be short-lived, because a rare cancer would kill her within a year. Nevertheless, her contributions to SNCC during this period were notable because she could maintain the delicate balance between black nationalism and integration and between feminism and the historic prejudice against African-American men. Repeatedly, she urged staffers and volunteers alike to demonstrate a commitment to work "rather than sit around talking about white people." When Mary King and Casey Hayden submitted their famous manifesto "The Position of Women in SNCC," Robinson supported them and even accompanied them on an earlier sit-in in Forman's office. Yet despite her awareness of sexism, throughout her six-year commitment to SNCC, Robinson's priority remained the prejudice that oppressed African-Americans.

When she assumed the leadership of SNCC, the organization was in financial chaos and its energies were drained by a myriad of projects promised by activists and volunteers who were given free rein by its decentralized structure. Once she became executive secretary, Robinson had an immediate impact on SNCC. Media releases became more coordinated, projects were evaluated, and monies better budgeted. This leadership led many activists within SNCC to believe that she could revive the floundering organization. However, within a few months, cancer destroyed her energy. She died on October 9, 1967, in Atlanta, age 27.

sources:

Carson, Claiborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Fleming, Cynthia Griggs. "Black Women Activists and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Case of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson," in The Journal of Women's History. Vol. 4, no. 3. Winter 1993, pp. 64–82.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. NY: Morrow, 1984.

King, Mary. Freedom Song. NY: Morrow, 1987.

suggested reading:

Fleming, Cynthia Griggs. Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Garland, Phil. "Builders of a New South," in Ebony. Vol. 21. August 1966.

Washington, Cynthia. "We Started from Different Ends of the Spectrum," in Southern Exposure. Vol. 5. Winter 1977.

Allida M. Black , Visiting Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, Penn State University, Harrisburg

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