Raised in Washington, D.C.
As a Howard University student and comrade of Muriel Tillinghast, Stokely Carmichael, and Jean Wheeler, Ruth Howard ran in a circle of people seriously engaged with the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). NAG, Howard’s campus-affiliate group of SNCC, brought speakers, hosted debates, and instilled a sense of what was possible in a group of activists–many of whom went on to commit themselves full time to SNCC. When Howard left school in 1964 to go south, she never went back.
She worked as a SNCC field secretary in Greenwood, Mississippi and Lowndes County, Alabama but spent the most time in the national Atlanta office. Working in the communications department with Julian Bond, she learned how words and images could tell the story of SNCC’s work and galvanize people to action. It was natural when SNCC organizers in Lowndes County turned to her when the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) needed to find their new party’s emblem.
According to Alabama law, the party needed a symbol. Organizers there asked Ruth Howard to find an emblem that could communicate their message of Black power and autonomy. “I came up with a dove,” she recalled. “Nobody thought that worked and someone said I should look at the Clark College emblem…That’s where the panther came from.” Howard traced the panther and showed it to the group. Stokely Carmichael remembered the immediate impact the symbol had. Folks said, “yeah, and it sure can eat up any ol’ white fowl too.” (The Democratic Party of Alabama had a white rooster as its emblem.)
In tandem with political organizing, Howard saw the need for a Black-led arts space to serve the activist community in Atlanta. Above Alex’s BBQ and next door to Ralph Abernathy’s church on Hunter Street, she and a fellow activist founded the Lovin’ Spoonful, an after-hours cafe. There, where the door was hardly ever locked, she helped cultivate a community of poets, musicians, and friends interested in cultural organizing. At the Lovin’ Spoonful, friends and patrons heard Amiri Baraka’s poetry and were moved by Bernice Reagon and the Harambee Singers. Some nights there were open mics. As Worth Long remembered, “That concept was very important for that particular time… it provided a venue at which you could express yourself.” People would wander in, wondering what was going on, and learn about organizing, community power, and Civil Rights.
Throughout her work in the Movement, Howard committed herself to the movement family around her. “We were a close-knit staff,” Stokely Carmichael remembered, “unified with a clear direction. A talented, tough-minded group of young people.”
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Times of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2005), 160, 412, 463, 465.
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 97-99, 128, 235.
Jeffrey Ogbonna Green Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
Conversation with Worth Long and Maria Varela, “Come on Over to the Lovin’ Spoonful,” Duke University, 2016.