Raised in Washington D.C.
May 26, 1939 – March 9, 1970
Ralph “Feather” Featherstone was driven by the need to teach for change. He decided to go to the notoriously dangerous McComb during the 1964 Freedom Summer and teach, even though originally there were no plans for a Freedom School there. The school linked adults and young people in common cause. “The older people are looking to the young people, and their courage is rubbing off,” Featherstone explained, “The school makes the kids feel they haven’t been forgotten…They feel the school is for them.”
Featherstone had come to Mississippi that summer after graduating from Washington D.C.’s Teacher College. He was first sent to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had disappeared. There, along with Cleve Sellers and other SNCC workers, he searched empty houses, ravines, and wells. Despite the danger and the fear that accompanied it, Sellers remembered that Featherstone stayed “calm but firm.”
From Mississippi, Featherstone went to Selma, Alabama. After being arrested, he held freedom school classes in the jail as a way to bring people together. They worked collectively to define words like ownership and theft, thought about who they might apply to, and asked questions exploring the state of the country and the meaning of economic democracy.
Over the next few years, Featherstone’s leadership role in SNCC grew, and in 1967, he was elected SNCC’s program secretary. H. Rap Brown became SNCC’s chairman at the same time. Featherstone served on SNCC’s overseas trip committee, which selected SNCC representatives for international gatherings. In October 1967, he was part of a SNCC delegation that attended a treaty-signing convention hosted by Alianza Federal de Mercedes, an organization leading the land-grant movement in northern New Mexico. The Alianza’s call for the restoration of land resonated with Featherstone, who in the South had seen the relationship between land ownership and political and economic power. At the convention, Featherstone made a show of solidarity, approaching the podium chanting “Poder Negro” and speaking to the shared struggle between Blacks and Mexican Americans.
Featherstone had always been especially interested in economic and educational projects, and in West Point, Mississippi, he helped manage a cooperative catfish cannery that produced fertilizer and canned fish for consumption. He later helped manage the Drum & Spear Bookstore, a D.C.-based bookstore born out of the Black Consciousness Movement and founded by SNCC’s Charlie Cobb, Judy Richardson, Courtland Cox, and Curtis Hayes in 1968.
On March 9, 1970, only hours after closing up shop at Drum & Spear, Featherstone and fellow SNCC staffer William “Che” Payne were driving along Route 1 in Maryland when a bomb exploded beneath the floorboard of their car. Both men died instantly. Although authorities claimed that he and Che Payne were planning to bomb the courthouse where Rap Brown was on trial, SNCC released a statement charging that their fallen comrade had been murdered. “He was murdered by the powerful forces in America that in their fear have decided to behead the black militant movement…they are blaming the victim for the crime, still acting as if they can blot out ugly truth by destroying the people who speak it.”
Ralph Featherstone was survived by his wife, Charlotte, and his ashes were later taken to Nigeria, where he was laid to rest.
Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell, The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 1990).
Interview with Cleveland Sellers by Gloria Clark, September 2, 2003, Mississippi Oral History Project, University of Southern Mississippi.
“Freedom Schools in Mississippi,” Student Voice, August 5, 1964, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
“Underground Education: The COFO Freedom Schools,” Bay Area Friends of SNCC, January 1965, Robert B. Starobin Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Ralph Featherstone, “The Stench of Freedom,” February 20, 1965, Lucile Montgomery Papers, 1963-1967, Wisconsin Historical Society.
James Forman, “Memorandum on the Structure of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” circa 1965, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
“We Are Going to Build,” The Movement, June 1967, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Charlayne Hunter, “Blast Victim Regarded as Top Rights Organizer,” New York Times, March 11, 1970.