Ruby Doris Smith (Robinson)
April 25, 1942 – October 7, 1967
Raised in Atlanta, Georgia
Calling from the field to SNCC in Atlanta meant calling Ruby Doris. From her position as SNCC’s administrative secretary, she saw to it that field secretaries got what they needed. If anybody ran SNCC, it was Ruby Doris.
Moreover, no one in SNCC was tougher than Ruby Doris Smith Robinson when it came to standing up to segregation and white supremacy. She “was convinced that there was nothing that she could not do…she was a tower of strength,” recalled Stokely Carmichael.
Her strength and commitment manifested early in life. Born to a middle class family, Smith was relatively shielded from segregation growing up but “was conscious of my blackness.” She admitted that her only direct dealing with whites was to throw rocks at them. Smith once told her sister that her mission in life was to set the Black people free. “I will never rest until it happens. I will die for that cause,” she said. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the February 1, 1960 Greensboro sit-ins showed Smith a way to fight against the many injustices she felt and saw.
As a student at Spelman College, Ruby Doris Smith picketed and participated in sit-ins in Atlanta, joining the Atlanta Student Movement. That led her to SNCC’s founding conference at Shaw University. Then in February 1961 at the age of eighteen, Smith volunteered to go to Rock Hill, South Carolina to support the “Rock Hill Nine,” local college students who had sat in and refused bail after they were arrested. Smith, along with fellow student activists Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones, sat in and helped popularize SNCC’s “Jail-No-Bail” strategy by serving out their 30-day jail. Smith’s sentence included serving time on the chain gang. From there, Smith joined the Freedom Rides, serving 45 days in Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi.
In 1963, Smith formally became SNCC’s administrative secretary. In the Atlanta office she worked closely with Jim Forman and coordinated SNCC efforts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Whenever staff needed anything, Stanley Wise explained, “everybody in the organization went to Ruby,” She also made sure that field staff had cars, creating the Sojourner Truth Motor Fleet and incorporating it as a separate entity. “The office would not have run except for her; and then the field would not have survived,” explained SNCC staffer Worth Long.
She went about the business of organizing SNCC organizers in a no-nonsense fashion. At the end of one of the Freedom Singers’ tours to the west coast, a member was late and missed his car ride home. Smith refused to send him money for a plane, train, or bus ticket. She maintained that he should have been responsible for getting to his ride on time and that SNCC shouldn’t have to pay for his lateness. Her advice to him was, “Well, walk back.”
At the end of 1963, Ruby Doris Smith married Clifford Robinson. Her new husband joined SNCC as well, working as a mechanic on the Sojourner Motor Fleet cars. Not long after, they had a son they named Kenneth Toure Robinson after President Sekou Toure of Guinea. Toure spent much time in SNCC’s Atlanta office.
In 1966, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson was elected to replace Jim Forman–who was stepping down–as SNCC’s executive secretary. She was the first and only woman to serve on SNCC’s executive committee. That fact mattered little to her. Being a woman had never limited her capabilities or authority–nor would anyone have suggested that it did.
Only one year later, she died of terminal cancer at the very young age of 25–a devastating loss to her movement colleagues and SNCC itself. On the headstone at her Atlanta grave site are words appropriate for both her life and SNCC: “If you think free, you are free.”
Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008).
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Soon We Will Not Cry: the Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).
Faith S. Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).
Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987).