The Power of Dr. Gwendolyn Patton’s Autobiography

Young Woman at the March on Washington. Photo: Flickr.com

In 1967, Gwen Patton was driving to Montgomery, Alabama when her car started to rattle and stutter. She pulled over and seconds later, the “car imploded.” When she regained consciousness, she was in Tuskegee’s John Andrews hospital. With help of her friend (and Angela Davis trial chronicler) Bettina Aptheker she was transferred to a New York hospital. There, she had string of visitors—everyone from SNCC Executive Secretary, James Forman, to “Yuri Kochiyama, who cradled Malcolm X’s head after his assassination,” to James Baldwin, and Julia Wright, Richard Wright’s daughter. This moment was indicative of Patton’s power and influence in the movement (this wouldn’t be the only time someone tried to harm her). It was also a testament to her stature in the activist community that so many luminaries came to her bedside. In a movement haunted by COINTELPRO, it’s rare that a freedom fighter such as Patton survived such attacks. It is even more extraordinary when they live long enough to offer a multi-decade accounting of their role in the movement.  

Yet Patton, who passed away in 2017, developed a detailed accounting of her decades-long work in the Black Freedom Movement which is now published in her posthumously autobiography, My Race to Freedom: A Life in the Civil Rights Movement. Born in 1943 and raised amid a politically-minded family, Patton deftly recounts the moments that shaped her personally while also offering clear-eyed reflection how these same moments formed the Black Freedom Movement. Part mid-century coming of age story, part organizing manual, My Race for Freedom is the history of the movement as told from the vantage point of the grassroots Black women organizers who sustained it. 

The child of well-to-do Alabamians who migrated to Detroit as part of the Great Migration, Patton’s childhood “was characterized by the dialectic between the trappings of middle-class life and insurgent black politics.” Patton spent her years in the “Ford Factory Town” of Inkster, where her first introduction to political organizing was listening to her father talk about “the interplay between workers and the bosses” at the Ford River Rouge Plant. She and her brother enjoyed a “carefree childhood” until her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent relationships made her grandparents’ home in Montgomery feel more like home. She relocated to the Alabama capital in high school and began formal political organizing. As a teenager, Patton joined her grandmother in working with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the group responsible for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Early on in My Race to Freedom, Patton recalls how her grandmother “took [her] to weekly Monday night mass meetings in support of the boycott” that featured ministers and community leaders. She also learned at the feet of the women in the MIA, who “drove out to rural, outlying Negro communities to set up voters’ clinics and to encourage local leadership.” Patton quickly picked up on the nuanced lessons of organizing. “At a young age,” she recalled, “I was able to discern the class conflicts and the attendant problems of who would be the leaders in our movement” and the debates over movement strategies. Patton recognized “that we needed both tactics—mass demonstrations and the legal component—to mount a strategic movement for social and structural change.” Perhaps most importantly, watching the MIA work shaped her ideas about the interplay between local organizing and national organizations. When Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) wanted to absorb the MIA, the Montgomery organizers chose to remain autonomous. Watching these debates take place made “the concept of coalitions beg[i]n to germinate in [Patton’s] mind as an organizing principle.” 

Patton got a chance to apply these lessons when she enrolled at Tuskegee University, where she became a cheerleader, a stellar student, and the first woman president of the Student Government Association (SGA). The co-ed also counted herself as part of the “intellectual underground” that debated the philosophy and direction of Black activism. Organizing in the mid-1960s amid Freedom Summer, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Vietnam War, Patton helped Tuskegee students become a separate, but aligned contingent of the movement through the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL). Her classmates found her to be a capable and dynamic leader, joining Patton in segregation boycotts, anti-war organizing, and partnering with SNCC to advocate for voting rights and the creation of the  Black Panther Party in Lowndes County. Patton became an exemplar of how of the “student-activist,” serving as a bridge leader between Tuskegee students and movement organizations and thereby participating in many of the southern civil rights movements’ major struggles. 

Because of her success on campus, SNCC asked Patton to become a full time organizer after graduation. Moved by the invitation, and the acumen of Black women SNCC organizers as Gwen Robinson and Fay Bellamy, Patton considered it. However, she struggled with the idea of “‘movement work’ as separate from the ordinary life experiences of our people on a daily basis, regardless where they were in the scheme of living.” Patton opted to take on a range of jobs in conjunction with organizing. One of her most underappreciated roles was explaining the meaning of Black Power to students across the country. Patton was a prolific theorist of Black Power, publishing articles about the subject and its origins such as “Pro Black, Not Anti-White.” The Student Human Relations Project (SHARP) paid her to visit college campuses to explain Black Power philosophy and practice. Wille Ricks and Stokely Carmichael may have popularized the term, but it was theorists like Patton who helped flesh out its contours and applications for everyday people.

The second half My Race to Freedom shows the intertwined nature of Patton’s study and struggle after Tuskegee. She chronicles her life working as an English teacher, a curriculum specialist, and an adjunct professor all while creating and running two major movement groups: the National Black Anti-War, Anti-Draft Union (NBAWADU)and the National Association of Black Students (NABS). The former was the first national organization designed to address racism and sexism within the anti-war movement, the latter was collective of students and activists aimed at fostering the “transition from ‘student to student worker to worker consciousness.’” Throughout the book, Patton continually offers insight into the analysis that informed her organizing decisions. Explaining the creation of NBAWADU she notes that contemporaneous groups had single issue frameworks such as “end the war” or “fight against racism and poverty” and “all will be well.” For Patton, the path to freedom was more complex. As she put it: without “thoughtful analysis of the war-peace machine, government, corporation, capitalism, and imperialism” these groups would be complicit in the very schemes they fought against. Whether teaching, organizing students, or returning back home to Montgomery to live, organize, and even run for office in the 1980s, Patton always kept a clear analysis of who she was, what she stood for, and who she was fighting for. 

It is because she documents the analysis that undergirded her movement choices that My Race to Freedom is as much an activist handbook as it is a movement memoir. As she recounts her story, Patton consistently emphasizes the symbiosis of study and struggle, the importance of having a class analysis without letting class differences impede organizing people, and the primacy of organizing people based on their needs and interests first. It was this principled approach to organizing, even in the midst of sexism, COINTELPRO harassment, and organizational factionalism, that made her a movement legend and garnered her wide-ranging support as reflected in her hospital visitor roster. 

 My Race for Freedom joins the cannon of Black women’s movement autobiographies including Coming of Age in MississippiA Taste of PowerAssata, and Angela Davis: An Autobiography.  Like these texts, it chronicles Patton’s politicization, gender politics, and struggle for freedom amid myriad oppressive forces. But its uniqueness lies in the fact that most people don’t know Patton and don’t come to the autobiography with preconceived notions of who she was, what she stood for, or as with Davis, an iconic image of her that stands in for her politics. The beauty of this is that we get to explore the nitty-gritty of organizing, the day-to-day questions of strategy and approach, and the interconnectedness of movement causes and coalitions alongside Patton on her terms. In the end, Patton shows us that studying the movement through grassroots Black women’s organizing experiences offers a chance to reconsider the most notorious groups, moments, and activist strategies, and movement intellectuals in a new light. Such accounts are needed to demystify struggle and widen our conceptions of movement heroines. 

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.