October 12, 1943 –
Raised in Palmer’s Crossing, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
On August 28th, 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi. The failure to convict his known killers hit close to home to young Black people, especially young Black Mississippians. Joyce Ladner and her older sister Dorie, from Palmer’s Crossing near Hattiesburg felt “powerless and frightened” when they read about the incident in their local newspaper. They now fully realized how vulnerable they were, that not even their youth could protect them from racial violence. Joyce Ladner later recalled that she viewed the murder as a “clarion call for our generation to do something.” She and her sister, Dorie, became staunch movement activists and were in that early group of young Mississippians who became a part of student protests and joined SNCC’s efforts in the early sixties.
The Ladner family “had a strong sense of independence and pride in self,” which they instilled within their children. Joyce recalled that her mother “always told us that there was a certain way to carry yourself in order to keep your dignity so that white people don’t walk all over you.” This familial attitude paved the way for Ladner’s movement activity. “When we joined the Movement,” she recalled, “we were doing what they had prepared us to do … and they were all proud of us.”
As teenagers in the late fifties, Joyce and Dorie Ladner helped form a NAACP Youth Council in Hattiesburg. The pair worked closely with older activists, such as Vernon Dahmer and Clyde Kennard–both of whom became important movement mentors. Joyce fondly remembered attending statewide NAACP meetings in Jackson with Dahmer and Kennard. “I’d get to go to these mass meetings and say “God! All these people!” She met Ruby Hurley, the Southeast Regional Director of Branches for the NAACP. “She was the first black woman lawyer I ever met,” recalled Ladner. “I don’t believe I knew that one existed before then.” For the Ladner sisters, these meetings were an introduction to a tradition of Black activism in Mississippi, a tradition that they worked hard to uphold when they became part of SNCC in the early sixties.
Joyce and Dorie were the first generation in their family to go to college. “My mother, who went to the fourth grade, always said, ‘if you get an education, nobody can take that away from you.’” Joyce took her mother’s encouragement to heart and worked hard to balance her academic work with her activism. After she was expelled from Jackson State for participating in sit-in demonstrations, she enrolled in Tougaloo College and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1964. She went on to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri to earn a Ph.D. in 1968.
While Ladner was a Tougaloo student, she was in and out of the Delta and other parts of the state, helping organize voter registration drives. She also helped organize the March on Washington under the direction of Bayard Rustin. She worked in the Harlem office for the March. “My job was really to raise money,” she recalled. “So I went out to New Jersey, around the city, spreading the word about the March and why it was so important to bring people who were involved in the Movement from the South to participate.” It was a running joke that every time Ladner went out to raise money, she came back with enough to rent another bus.
Although she was deeply involved with SNCC in Mississippi and elsewhere, Ladner continued with her academic studies, becoming a noted sociologist. She did regret, however, leaving her older sister in the field, while she “lived in the safety of graduate school.” But she never forgot her movement years. Dr. Ladner transformed her passion for social and political activism into writing, teaching, and advocacy in the 21st century.
She served as vice president for academic affairs at Howard University from 1990 to 1994 and as interim president of the University from 1994 to 1995.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Joyce Ladner, “Standing Up for Our Beliefs,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012), 217-223.
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Interview with Dorie and Joyce Ladner by Joseph Mosnier, September 20, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.
Interview with Joyce Ladner by Joseph Sinsheimer, May 23, 1986, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.