June 29, 1935 – September 13, 2019
Raised in Opelika, Alabama
Donald Stone’s activism was part of his Black Belt, Alabama lineage. Born in Opelika, Alabama to a militant and well-loved African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church minister, Stone early-on understood the common plight of Black communities in the rural South. Stone remembered one year when the bishop didn’t give his father an appointment, and one of the church-going ladies was fixing dinner in the basement. “She came up with a butcher’s knife looking for the presiding bishop.”
Stone, a Morehouse College graduate, was working in an Atlanta post office when Lonnie King, a former classmate and leader of the Atlanta Student Movement, invited him to a meeting. He quickly became active with the Atlanta Movement and started Freedom Schools in the city to teach Black history that was not covered in students’ normal curriculum.
Stone’s belief in emancipatory education ran in the family. His grandfather attended the Tuskegee Institute led by Booker T. Washington. In 1893, he founded Snow Hill Institute to provide relevant, industrial-based educational opportunities for Blacks in the rural Black Belt of Alabama. “The greatest strength,” his grandfather wrote in his autobiography Twenty-five Years in the Black Belt, “comes from overcoming – from resistance and struggle.”
Starting in 1966, Stone worked with Bill Ware and others on the Atlanta Vine City Project, which focused on empowerment in one of the city’s most impoverished Black neighborhoods. It was SNCC’s first foray into urban organizing. Though relatively new to the organization, they had strong allegiance to SNCC’s values of Black empowerment and liberation and generated new ideas of how SNCC should continue its work.
As SNCC struggled to articulate an organizational position toward whites in the Movement, Stone and others in the Atlanta office put out an unofficial position paper: “Black Power: Position Paper for the SNCC Vine City Project.” The paper advocated for “a conscious change in the role of whites” to put an end to paternalism and create Black autonomy in the Movement. The paper, picked up by the New York Times, called for whites to leave the organization–however dedicated they were to SNCC and the communities where they worked. “If we are to proceed towards true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people… We must form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties, write our own histories,” it read.
The paper, identified as SNCC’s official policy although it was not, created tensions that ultimately led to the entire Atlanta project’s suspension from the organization in 1968. Stone and some in the project were eventually put back on staff, and Stone took the role of deputy chairman in charge of education projects when SNCC reorganized leadership roles in June of that year.
While in SNCC, Stone fervently opposed the Vietnam war. By linking SNCC’s fight in southern communities to the anti-war movement, Stone and others protested systemic racism that spanned the globe. In August of 1966, the Atlanta Project started showing up at the induction center to protest the racist selective service system and US intervention in Vietnam. On August 18, when Michael Simmons from SNCC was ordered to report for induction, Stone and 20 others from the Atlanta movement protested. He was among a dozen SNCC workers arrested that day.
In 1969, after traveling to meet revolutionaries in Cuba and North Korea, Stone was sent to jail for obstructing the selective service. The night before he started his two year sentence, Leah and Stanley Wise threw him a party. Stone got up and told his friends, “I had alternatives open to me. I could have done other things. But going to jail is keeping with my political reality and I figure black people will have to deal with jail and so I am going to serve.”
Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 3.
Interview with Donald Stone by Zachary Robinson, November 5, 2010, Black Belt Oral History Project, University of West Alabama.
“Anti-Repression Movement in Atlanta: Where it is and Where it is Going” Great Speckled Bird, August 26, 1974, Atlanta Cooperative News Project, Georgia State University Digital Collections.