Librarian remembers civil rights struggle

April 13, 2012
By

(Courtesy Photo) Laura Foner conducts a class at the Gould Freedom School during her time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the mid-1960s.

A small-town Arkansas sheriff once threatened to decapitate JP resident Laura Foner and throw her head in a river.

During her time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1965 and1966, Foner, the children’s librarian at the Connolly Branch Library, was a participant in a grass-roots organization for civil rights in a small town called Gould, Arkansas.

It was there, while protesting the segregation of schools, that the local sheriff threatened her.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Foner spoke to a large group at the Connolly on March 19 about why she got involved in the civil rights movement and SNCC and what she experienced then.

“A powerful movement was growing in this country,” she said. “The version of history I was taught at home differed from what I was being taught in school.”

Brought up in a liberal home in New York, Foner grew up learning history that schools didn’t usually cover from her historian father. Soon after her college graduation, she passed up a scholarship to Harvard to volunteer in Gould.

She would live in the black part of town. She would not be allowed out by herself and never after dark—for her own safety.

After a week’s training in nonviolent resistance and community activism, Foner hopped a few buses before ending up in Gould, a small town about 80 miles southeast of Little Rock, where she would spend about a year teaching and organizing.

“I had heard about rural poverty, but I had never seen it. I was shocked and appalled that people lived like that in 1965,” with dirt roads, no plumbing and little indoor heat, she said.

In Gould, Foner helped set up a “Freedom Center” that included a library, classroom and meeting room. She participated in efforts to desegregate Gould’s schools and restaurants.

Within a year of her leaving Gould, the “Freedom Center” set up by SNCC was burned down.

Foner said she sees the work she did in Gould and the work she does now in JP as “completely linked.” A public library, she said, is one of the few public spaces truly accessible to all.

“I believe that public libraries are crucial,” she said.

The black civil rights movement in the mid-20th century aimed to undo a century’s worth of systemic oppression of African Americans in the form of segregated services and voter disenfranchisement. The movement used civil disobedience tactics, including marches, boycotts and sit-ins. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of its achievements.

SNCC was a student-founded civil rights organization formed in 1960s. It was partially responsible for the 1963 March on Washington and was most successful in black voter registration drives.

Last year, Foner contributed a chapter to “Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas,” edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach and John A. Kirk, recounting her memories of her year in Gould. “Arsnick” is available at booksellers and through the Boston Public Library.

Best of JP 2014