Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson was a civil rights leader. She became a force in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s when young people dropped out of school to challenge racism in a bid to change America.
Smith-Robinson 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.
She became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s administrative secretary, the first and only woman to serve in that capacity. According to reports, no one in SNCC was tougher than her 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.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on April 25, 1942, to Alice and John T. Smith, Smith-Robinson was raised in Atlanta’s black middle-class neighbourhood of Summerhill. She graduated from Price High School in 1958 and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Spelman College in 1965.
As a student at Spelman College, Smith-Robinson picketed and participated in sit-ins in Atlanta, joining the Atlanta Student Movement. That led her to SNCC’s founding conference at Shaw University.
In February 1961, then 18-year-old Robinson 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.
Along with fellow SNCC activists Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones, Smith-Robinson sat in and helped popularize SNCC’s “Jail-No-Bail” strategy. This led to 30-day jail sentences for her and hundreds of other participants.
Smith-Robinson went on to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides. For her involvement, she was arrested and served a 45-day jail term in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi, where prison guards brutalized her and the other activists.
Smith-Robinson served as assistant secretary of SNCC in the Atlanta office, performing duties such as bookkeeping, organizing the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi, and directing SNCC’s Sojourner Truth Motor Fleet. She married Clifford Robinson, a Motor Fleet mechanic from Atlanta in 1964. The following year, they had a son, Kenneth Tour.
In May 1966, Robinson replaced James Forman as SNCC’s executive secretary, the first and only woman to serve on SNCC’s executive committee. “The office would not have run except for her, and then the field would not have survived,” said SNCC staffer Worth Long.
The following year Robinson was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died on October 7, 1967, at the age of 25. On the headstone at her Atlanta gravesite are words appropriate for both her life and SNCC: “If you think free, you are free.”