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“It Was All Men Talking:” Cathy Wilkerson on 1960s Campus Organizing

Many of those who took part in the student movement of the 1960ís drew their inspiration from the African-American struggle for freedom. That was true for Cathy Wilkerson, who became involved in the civil rights movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1963 while at Swarthmore College. She described her experience as a college student listening to Civil Rights leader Gloria Richardson as the event that changed her life. Wilkerson went on to work in the SDS national office and edited the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. In 1968, she moved to Washington DC to open a SDS regional office, and later became a Weatherman. [The material in brackets was added to the transcript shortly after the recorded interview.]

Listen to Audio:

WILKERSON: Swarthmore was a real hot bed of intellectual discussion. I mean the classes were peripheral and what happened amongst the students was more important to most of the students than what happened in the classes. And there were also people from every political sect on the left there. I had never met anyone from the left. I mean there were red diaper babies, there were Trots, there were Social Democrats, there were everything. Some of the people, there were some people who were involved with the Communist Party some way or another, I’m not sure how. But they had organized this group called the Swarthmore Political Action Club, and it was very big. My freshman year, I went to a couple of meetings and there were probably fifty to sixty people there out of a campus of nine hundred. And they met every week. I wasn’t real involved with them in my freshman year because they were very intellectual and I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying about anything. And no women ever spoke. I went to a couple of meetings, and it was interesting, but I really didn’t know how to relate to it. But the spring of my freshman year they organized trips to go down to Cambridge, Maryland, to participate in the demonstrations that were going on down there. I think they were Woolworth’s demonstrations, or they were the aftermath of Woolworth’s. They had done Woolworth’s but then they were doing some other things in town. I went on a couple of those. Gloria Richardson was organizing in Cambridge and I heard her speak. And that’sóreally if there’s one event that changed my life, that’s what it was. I don’t remember the demonstrations really clearly. But I remember, I think there were dogs and it was, you know, Southern, very Southern. We went back and there was a meeting in a church in the black community. It was, you know, the classic kind of civil rights struggle. And it was big and intense and heavy. [But there was a strong sense of community among the strugglers.] It just completely blew my mind, and nothing was ever the same again.

GRELE: When you talk about Gloria Richardson as being one of the things that affected you the most, it’s interesting because given everything you said, she’s not only black, she’s a woman.

WILKERSON: Right

GRELE: But did that play a part in that?

WILKERSON: Absolutely. I mean not consciously at the time. I don’t think I was aware when I didn’t go to the meetings the first year that it was because it was all men talking, but I think in retrospect that that had a tremendous effect on me. But she made the it [ideas] accessible. She made it [me] feel like it [I] mattered, that everybody was welcomed, not just men in the movement. My attitude was it was a tremendous honor to participate in this work, and you had to be good enough to do it. She made me feel like it was okay, and that gave me the ability to then, the next year, look at the group at Swarthmore and have some consciousness that when the men made you feel unwanted that there was something wrong with that.

Source: Interviewed by Ron Grele 2/17/85
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection