Raised in Albany, Georgia
The support of entire families like the Christian family made SNCC’s organizing in communities across the South possible. Often youth led the way. Joann Christian joined the Albany Movement as a junior high student and brought the entire Christian family with her. Sometimes when she got out of jail, she’d come home to find that her mother, Odessa “Dessie” Mae, had given her bed away to another civil rights worker.
When “Freedom Riders”–as SNCC organizers Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon were often called–came by Carver Junior High asking the students to come to a mass meeting, Joann asked her father, James Christian, if she could go, and he said yes. Joann and her sister, “Dear,” began frequenting the SNCC office. She remembered SNCC workers Charles Jones, Bill Hansen, Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon and others just “sitting around discussing the issues of the day – how they would deal with a particular situation and what would be the consequences of their actions.”
When the marches started, Joann again asked her father’s permission to march with the Freedom Riders, and he told her, not paying much attention, “Yes Sugar. Lead the line.” So she did. When her father came home from work the next night, he counted his children and found one missing. Mrs. Christian had seen Joann on the nightly news standing in the arrest line and suggested that their daughter was in jail. That night, James Christian called his whole family to proudly report what his daughter had done.
While the Christian women got arrested for protesting, Joann’s father, a World War II veteran, provided protection for SNCC activists. He had served in France during the Second World War, but when he returned to Georgia, he found that fighting for democracy abroad hadn’t secured his right to vote at home. To protect SNCC organizers and community members meeting inside, he and his cousin would park themselves under a spotlight outside of Shiloh Baptist at night, shotguns visible in their laps.
By the time Joann Christian turned sixteen, she had been in jail seventeen times. Along with her went her younger sisters, Dear and James Zenna, her mother, her cousins, and even her six-year-old sister, Loris. “I think the calling was a family thing,” Joann later explained.
Faith Holsaert, “Resistance U,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 181 – 195.
Joann Christian Mants, “We Turned This Upside-Down Country Right Side Up,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 128 – 140.
Joann Christian Mants, Hands on the Freedom Plow Panel with the Women in SNCC, April 1, 2011, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.