Sojourner Motor Fleet
“When a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary began work in Marshall County, Mississippi in the summer of 1962, he had to ride a mule from settlement to settlement.” The same was true in Wilcox County, Alabama in 1965. “Neither worker was trying to impress the local citizens,” the SNCC fund raising appeal stated, “They just didn’t have cars.” SNCC workers needed to traverse rutted, dusty back roads and long stretches of highway to organize in the rural areas of the Deep South. Cars were so important that SNCC formed its own transportation company, the Sojourner Motor Fleet, Inc., to keep its staff mobile.
In the early days, SNCC drove old family cars, donated at the very end of their lives to the cause of freedom. A 1956 Ford station wagon, a 1952 Studebaker, a 1951 Buick sedan, a 1953 Dodge. Ivanhoe Donaldson’s car was missing a floor. His main co-organizer, Charlie Cobb, used to joke that they were more likely to die of suffocation from the Delta dust swelling up inside their car than from the Ku Klux Klan. SNCC workers drove their already well-used cars hard, outrunning hostile nightriders. The cars often ended up in mechanic’s shops needing repairs and frequently stayed there because no one had the money to pay the bill.
SNCC cars were owned and insured by individuals, which created its own set of problems. A field worker in Canton bought a car with funds donated to SNCC. But the insurance was in their name, and they refused to let anyone else drive it. Transferring titles when cars moved to a new project was also a bureaucratic nightmare. By the middle of Freedom Summer, the car situation had “gotten out of hand.” One report explained, “Interested individuals are giving SNCC used cars, summer volunteers are giving SNCC cars, SNCC is buying cars, SNCC is thinking about renting cars.”
In June 1964, SNCC created the Sojourner Motor Fleet, Inc. to deal with its transportation problems. The fleet–named after Sojourner Truth–assumed legal ownership of SNCC’s vehicles and insured them all under fleet rate insurance. This not only took the cars out of the names of individuals, but it gave the Sojourner Motor Fleet control over where and to whom SNCC cars were assigned. All SNCC drivers first had to be authorized for insurance purposes, and then the Sojourner Motor Fleet could lease a car to them. Ruby Doris Smith administered the Motor Fleet’s operations from SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters.
The apple of the Sojourner Motor Fleet’s eye was the fleet of 23 new, tan Plymouths that SNCC acquired from a United Auto Workers local in Detroit. The UAW’s labor contract mandated that SNCC could purchase cars at cost, so the progressive, mostly Black local fronted for SNCC, selling them the Plymouths at a savings of around $2,800 per car. Not thinking about how these cars would spend most of their time cruising hostile backroads, someone painted SNCC’s logo–black and white hands clasped together–on the car. The field staff wasn’t happy, and the insurance company flat out refused to insure the cars…so the logos came off.
“Course every project wanted one of these babies,” explained Stokely Carmichael, and keeping track of them was no small feat. The fall after Freedom Summer, Casey Hayden attempted to figure out exactly how many cars SNCC owned, who was driving them, and where they were. She titled her report “Results of Hayden Masterful Investigation of the SNCC Car Confusion.” There were a number of cars no one seemed to know anything about. Hayden deemed Southwest Georgia a “special category since there seems to be immense confusion about cars they have/used to have/never had.”
In 1964, a few of the cars were used to transport COFO workers from Mississippi to Atlantic City for the Democratic Convention. Their tan color at times made other motorists think they were police cars, a reaction that added some humor to a serious and sometimes tense drive.
Maintaining SNCC cars was about as difficult as keeping track of them. George Greene over in Greenwood had souped up engines on the engines on their project’s new Plymouths, so they could outrun any Klansman or sheriff. But he also taught his SNCC staffers how to do “high-speed turns and ‘fishtails’ and generally how to take evasive action at high speeds,” as Carmichael remembered. The Sojourner Motor Fleet took a beating. By summer 1965, SNCC opened its own mechanic shop to service the almost 60 cars and trucks in the fleet. Meanwhile, SNCC’s program department pleaded with staff members to take better care of their cars. Even with all the problems associated with the Sojourner Motor Fleet, the cars remained a welcome–and necessary–addition to SNCC’s resources.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekweme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003).
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).
Riots, Civil and Criminal Disorders, U.S. Congress, Senate. Committee on Government Operations, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1969, 3988.
Charlie Cobb, “Remarks at Ivanhoe Donaldson’s Memorial Service," May 13, 2016, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website,.
Letter from Betty Garman to Hal Light, May 7, 1965, Sojourner Motor Fleet Records, January 1, 1964-January 31, 1964, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
Memo to Friends of SNCC re: Sojourner Motor Fleet Shop in Atlanta, July 7, 1965, Alicia Kaplow papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Memo to Jessie Harrison from Casey Hayden, ‘Results of Hayden Masterful Investigation of the SNCC Car Confusion,” Septempber 18, 1964, Sojourner Motor Fleet Records, January 1, 1964- January 31, 1964, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
Memo from Shessie Johnson and Dinky Romilly re: Automobiles, July 31, 1964, Samuel C. Shirah, Jr. Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
“You Can Help Too,” SNCC fundraising appeal for Cars for Freedom, [n.d.], Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Judy Richardson, correspondence, September 2016.