‘I Play Flute’
A celebration of life for SNCC veteran
In the Sixties no Movement people inspired me as much as those of SNCC: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They seemed to me, as a Southern black teen-ager about to enter the scary apartheid wider world, very thoughtful, very brave, very pure. I loved them. Among them were poets. Especially Jane Stembridge, whom I never met.
She has left us, as has Bob Moses, whom I also did not meet. Our spirits met. And it was her poem about the flute, the sound of it, missing during the final turbulent years of pain and distrust, that lived in my thoughts as so many of our good dreams for our people and our country crashed around us.~aw
Jane Stembrige, sister Southerner from Georgia, Presente.’ `aw
Bob Moses and Jane Stembridge died within 3 days of each other. Perhaps Jane did not want to be on this earth if Bob wasn’t. And she went first. Yet Jane and Bob’s bond has traversed decades as a part of SNCC’s origin story. On the occasion of Jane’s passing, SNCC veteran Casey (Sandra Cason) wrote: “Jane and Bob shared deeply, and their world views twined around and reflected each other. Now they have died within three days of each other. The serendipity of their deaths seems a benediction for us all.”
Most SNCC folk and our allies have been deeply affected by Bob Moses. We can all tell stories about what he meant to us. But few of us, and probably fewer of our allies, know about Jane Stembridge.
Jane Stembridge, a white southerner born in Cedartown, Georgia, was the daughter of the late Rev. Henry Hansel Stembridge and Lois Sawyer Stembridge. Rev. Stembridge was a white Baptist minister who, according to Jane, was unwelcome in his own church as he had a Christian commitment to witness a gospel that eschewed segregation and its violence.
In May 1960, SNCC convened its first organizational meeting and voted to hire a temporary office worker during the summer. Jane accepted Ms. Ella Baker’s invitation to take a position as temporary administrative secretary. One of Jane’s responsibilities was administrating an upcoming October gathering of activist student leaders from various sit-in movements, primarily based at HBCU’s, to be hosted by SNCC. She noticed that most of the inquiries and commitments to attend came from urban-based students and student groups. Jane felt it critical that rural areas be represented. At this point, Bob Moses had come down from Harlem as an SCLC volunteer. Jane and Ms. Baker suggested that he travel across the Black Belt South to find young leaders in small towns and rural areas. Ms. Baker gave Bob names, addresses and letters of introduction: her network of veteran civil rights activists.
This trip into the bowels of US apartheid changed Moses as well as Stembridge, and began what is now the permanent SNCC legacy of Ms. Baker’s ‘theology’ of non-hierarchical leadership from the bottom up, focused on the leadership of ordinary people. Between 1961-1966, Jane was in and out of SNCC. She spread poetry as an expression of how to survive this often violent, conflicted, and transformative movement to dismantle US apartheid.
“She found poetry everywhere,” SNCC veteran Mary King wrote in Freedom Song. “Jane… heard it in the cadences of the speech of community people. She found it sitting over coffee. Hers had no literary tradition, no school of thought… no literary style.”
“Jane and I worked together against segregation,” Sandra Cason remarked, “and her poetry informed my view of those years. A believer in the power of love, she was loyal, brave, funny, and deeply moved by — and humorous in spite of — our human foibles.”
in all this awful apparatus we acquired
is the flute
which thinner than the rain
stood, she said
no sir. (with emphasis)
We didn’t come
for no two
all of us
SNCC veteran and historian Charlie Cobb, when asked about how Jane Stembridge impacted his life wrote: “Poetry; it was Jane who pulled me into writing poetry. In a house in New Orleans, in a year I don’t remember –1962 or ‘63, Jane was passing around her poetry for a group of us to read. For the first time in writing, I recognized the people and Movement I was part of. I didn’t know Jane well then but saw enough of myself in her words to want to do the same myself.”
SNCC folks so appreciated Jane’s poetry that several got together to publish a book that would be called “I Play Flute”. Enough poems were harvested during this era to fill four poetry books: Two (“I Play Flute” and “Hoe Trails” by Charlie Cobb) were published in 1966 by SNCC workers but lack of funds prevented the printing of two more civil rights workers poetry books. Seabury Press published a second edition of “Flute” in 1969.
When presented with the poems that folks had selected, Jane commented, “Why did you choose some of those poems?… Some were a product of a seven-second impulse.” SNCC staffer Maria Varela, who coordinated the publishing effort, responded, “the book has 20 editors… mostly SNCC people. We had chosen the poems because they were milestones in our history… and in a sense, these poems weren’t hers anymore… they were ours.”
everywhere we went
there was at least
we went to where
1963 (in jail)
The book was printed at Mr. Henry Kirksey’s print shop in Jackson, Mississippi. (Kirksey was elected to the Mississippi State Senate in 1979—one of the first Black senators since Reconstruction.) Mr. Kirksey commented to those helping assemble the book, “I don’t like poetry….but while printing these pages, I couldn’t get some of the poems out of my mind. “
“Poetry of desperation,” as some called this era of creative writing, came from the hardships, violence, burn-out and hopelessness, but always with glimpses of beauty wherever it could be found.
The imprint of the origin story of SNCC, fashioned by Ella Baker, Jane Stembridge, Bob Moses and others, is captured in a tapestry of 60-year-old stories and poems. Jane Stembridge’s story is woven not only in her poetry… but in the poetry that she released in others.