Ruby Doris Smith Robinson
Birth: April 25, 1942 in Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Ethnicity: African American
Occupation: civil rights activist
Source: Notable Black American Women, Book 3. Gale Group, 2002.
By the time she was twenty-five years old, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson had lived a brief, but meaningful life in service to the cause of civil rights in the United States. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 25, 1942, to John Thomas and Alice Smith. Her father was a Baptist minister and furniture mover, and her mother was a beautician. Smith Robinson's parents migrated from the rural to urban South in order to improve their lives. Atlanta provided a number of opportunities, including racial conditions only slightly less oppressive than in the rural areas. Smith Robinson began studies at Spelman College in 1959, and by the time of her graduation she had become active in the Civil Rights movement, helping to organize protests against segregation. Later, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1964, she married Clifford Robinson, and a year later she gave birth to their son, Kenneth Toure Robinson (her son was named for the President of Guinea, Sekou Toure). In 1965, Smith Robinson graduated from Spelman with a bachelor's degree in physical education. She has been described by many as "audacious and courageous," because of her uncompromising stance and activism in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Smith Robinson joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961. She was on the front lines of protests and jailings, and she took part in the early Freedom Rides, which challenged the desegregation of public transportation in the United States. In the spring of 1961, Smith Robinson, like many young activists, spent forty-five days in jail in Jackson, Mississippi, after refusing to post bail. Smith Robinson served her time at Parchman State Prison for participating in the Freedom Rides and remained in Mississippi after her release to work on the SNCC's voter registration campaign. While women played an important role in SNCC and other civil rights organizations, the administrative leadership was largely male dominated. Smith held a number of positions in SNCC, including personnel officer. In 1966, she became the first female to be elected as executive secretary of the SNCC.
Smith Robinson took a no nonsense approach to leadership, which was demonstrated by her administrative style. She was considered hard and uncompromising as she courageously challenged sexual discrimination and racial segregation as well as the work of SNCC members. There are numerous stories, some now reaching mythical status, of how Smith Robinson was respected and feared as a leader, especially by some whites in the movement. One story involving white women workers had to do with an SNCC position paper on women in the Civil Rights movement ("Women in the Movement"). Ultimately, Smith Robinson ended up presenting this paper as two of the white SNCC writers of the document refused to sign. The paper was ridiculed, yet Smith Robinson faced and challenged the criticism, and many came to believe that she was the sole author of the document.
Often penetrating, highly strategic, and analytical, Smith Robinson is often singled out as an example of the effective leadership of women in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Smith Robinson felt that the SNCC staff members were losing their effectiveness and needed to be held accountable. Her actions often caused mixed reactions among the staff, some even resenting her assertive nature and powerful leadership efforts as a woman. Today she is viewed as having added significantly to the overall struggle for black and female equality. The first major biography on Smith Robinson is Cynthia Griggs Fleming's Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. Griggs Fleming has described Smith Robinson as the "most powerful female administrator" of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.
Smith Robinson was a major advocate of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the United States. Those who knew her continue to use words like caring and abrasive, fearless and kind. Others see her as modifying her position on white participation in the movement and women's roles in the overall struggle to include the primacy of children and family. Notwithstanding this, Smith Robinson remains a change agent for gender and racial equality.
In April 1967, Smith Robinson was diagnosed with a rare form of a terminal cancer, and she died later that year on October 9, 1967, at the age of twenty-five. The import of her brief life is evidenced in the various works that acknowledge her formidable personality, indomitable spirit, and authoritative leadership style. Many of her SNCC colleagues felt that perhaps foul play contributed to her untimely death. Yet others, such as Kathleen Cleaver, assert that the combined roles of movement work, marriage, child-bearing, and the constant state of being embattled was the demise of Smith Robinson; that "she was destroyed by the movement." Smith Robinson is often depicted as "larger than life," yet even her death raises important issues for African Americans and women in the movement for civil rights and equality.