Martha Prescod (Norman)
Raised in Providence, Rhode Island
Martha Prescod Norman “found [her] real home and [her] real life [In SNCC], … where it was the norm to be black, political and radical.” She was drawn to SNCC and the Movement out of her awareness “that being black in America can be so dangerous anyway that it makes sense to risk everything and enter an even more fearful situation whenever there is some small chance that freedom might be won.”
In 1961, Prescod wanted to attend Fisk University “to be close to the Movement,” but instead, deferred to her parent’s preference and reluctantly enrolled in her mother’s alma mater, the University of Michigan. At Michigan, Prescod became involved with VOICE, a chapter of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS). VOICE worked to combat discrimination and foster political discussion on campus. In the spring of 1962, Prescod attended a joint SNCC/SDS conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with fellow VOICE activists. There she immediately recognized the need to build Black “vehicles of power” at the grassroots, and encouraged by SNCC activists, she decided join the Southern Freedom Movement.
Despite this determination, Prescod felt compelled to remain at university in recognition of her parent’s sacrifices. Furthermore her parents, fearful of what could happened to her, threatened to disown her if she moved South. So, for the next year, she helped organize SNCC fundraisers, participated in Friends of SNCC meetings, helped organize rallies, and hosted concerts for SNCC Freedom Singers. It was at a SNCC Freedom Singer concert that Prescod felt that her father recognized that “the pull of the southern freedom struggle was greater than [her] family’s hold on [her].” At the end of the school year in 1963, she headed south.
She intended to work in Mississippi, but at a SNCC orientation conference for new workers being held in Southwest Georgia, project director Charles Sherrod’s expressed the sentiment that “Mississippi would be too dangerous for northern black women,” and she began working with him. Later, she discovered that “Sherrod just thought up [this] excuse to keep the only two black women at the orientation on his project.” Nonetheless, as a member of the Albany project participating in demonstrations and canvassing in rural communities, she learned that SNCC’s role was to “listen, learn and take [their] lead and direction” from the local Black community members.
A few weeks after arriving in Southwest Georgia, Prescod received a call from Bob Moses asking her to come to Greenwood, Mississippi, and she went. At first she was assigned to the Greenwood office, but Prescod requested a field assignment. Moses assigned her to accompany George Greene and Stokely Carmichael to canvass plantations in Leflore County. She recalls thinking “we were going to quietly sneak into the plantations, stay near the car, and talk to people and move off. No. No, we got out of the car, walked far away, and George and Stokely were singing freedom songs at the top of their lungs.” Prescod soon returned to duties at the SNCC office.
After attending the March on Washington in August 1963, which she felt was “too restrained to reflect the hard struggle we were experiencing,” Prescod returned to Michigan to resume her studies. She worked with Friends of SNCC while she completed her degree and participated in successfully lobbying the Michigan Democratic Party’s convention to support the MFDP. After graduating, she joined the Alabama Project in the winter of 1965 and later the Selma Project, where she worked on voter registration and taught political education classes. She was intrigued by the nearly all-Black climate of these projects; she felt it a source of pride and empowerment.
Prescod left the Movement in the spring of 1966 to pursue a master’s in history at Wayne State, with the intention of returning when she finished her program. She recalls “I had no sense that SNCC was an organization in disarray; rather, I believed SNCC was growing in scope and organizational power.”
She went on to work as an historian and a community organizer combatting poverty and hunger.
Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, “Captured by the Movement,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et. al (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 483 -503.
Oral History Interview with Martha Prescod Norman Noonan by John Dittmer, March 18, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Martha Prescod Norman, “SNCC: How They Stood,” April 14-16, 1988, Civil Rights Movement Veterans, Tougaloo College.