October 31, 1937 – January 4, 2023
Raised in Victoria, Texas
Sandra “Casey” Cason Hayden, grew up in East Texas. Unlike most other white families in her neighborhood, Hayden was raised by her single working-mother and grandmother. Her mother, with cigarette in hand, would comment on the paper over breakfast, complaining about pay inequality. It was in this “multigenerational matriarchal family” where Casey Hayden first heard about the ideas that would her into SNCC.
As a student at the University of Texas in Austin, she got involved with the YWCA, meeting Black students and becoming a national officer. She joined sit-ins to desegregate Austin restaurants in the spring of 1960 and, that summer, went to the National Student Association Congress in Minneapolis. “I cannot say to a person who suffers injustice, ‘Wait,’” she told an auditorium of student representatives, “And having decided that I cannot urge caution, I must stand with him.” Many of the students who would go on to form Students for Democratic Society (SDS), including her future husband Tom Hayden who she first met at that NSA Congress.
Casey Hayden attended SNCC’s second organizing conference in 1960 and began working with Ella Baker as a campus traveler for a human relations project. Under Ms. Baker’s guidance, she did everything from taking minutes at meetings to organizing and participating in the Albany Freedom Rides. “As a white Southerner, I considered the southern freedom movement against segregation mine as much as anyone else’s,” she recalled.
In 1963, she moved to Mississippi where, along with Doris Derby, she began a literacy project based at Tougaloo College. “I chose not to work in the field,” Hayden explained, “Being a white woman meant that wherever I was, the Movement was visible, and where there was visibility there was danger.” Hayden became part of the COFO staff planning for the influx of students who would be participating in the 1964 Summer Project.
By November 1964, “we were in disarray after the summer of ‘64 on all fronts,” and the SNCC staff had gathered at Waveland, Mississippi to openly critique and reevaluate the organization. There, Casey Hayden and fellow SNCC activist Mary King, co-authored a paper noting gender inequalities within SNCC. The following year, she and King wrote another, longer paper, entitled, “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo from Casey Hayden and Mary King to a Number of Other Women in the Peace and Freedom Movement,” which became foundational in the developing feminist movement. It was circulated among a group of about forty women activists, some of them working with SNCC. It raised questions of gender disparities coming out of their activist experiences and sought “real efforts at dialogue within the movement.”
As SNCC began to confront a growing sense of black consciousness and how to reorganize itself in the mid-1960s, Hayden struggled, as did many whites in the organization, with what her role should be. “I took seriously the notion that whites should work with whites,” she remembered, and in 1965, she began organizing poor white welfare women in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Ivanhoe Donaldson later said to her, “Casey, when we said whites should work with whites, we didn’t mean you.”
Casey Hayden, “On to Open Ground,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 49 – 52.
Casey Hayden, “In the Attics of My Mind,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 381 – 388.