Working for the Movement

In 1963, I was a rising sophomore at Howard University, working a summer job for the Marines in Washington, D.C. When I heard about the March on Washington, I wanted to be involved, so I found the March on Washington planning office on 11th Street N.W. and volunteered to work on the planning committee. I was very involved in the setup of it, doing clerical stuff, coordination, planning for the people coming in and the speakers like Bayard Rustin and others. On the day of the march, I was working in a big tent on the Mall grounds that became the focal point for everything that was going on.

So that was my first introduction to the Movement. I was very excited about the whole thing. I’ve always been pretty conscious about our history. Where I grew up in D.C., everything was Black. I never even knew any white people until I got in the Movement.

When I was at the planning office, I met Cleave Sellers and some other people from Howard who were in the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), an offshoot of SNCC. In the fall, I hooked up with NAG and worked with people like Phil Hutchins, Joe Gross, Eric Jones, Topper Carew, Tony Gittens, Stanley Wise, and Courtland Cox. We had a lot of meetings on campus and off. Early in that semester, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Ed Brown used to come out on the quad and speak. They encouraged local actions like going downtown and demonstrating, holding rallies about rent control, and the Home Rule Movement. Lots of us in NAG were involved in those actions. Courtland Cox was affiliated with a campus group called Project Awareness. It brought many important speakers to campus including Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and others.

In 1964, I worked with another Howard student, Michael Thelwell, at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) office on 14th Street, N.W. When Marion Barry relocated to D.C. to organize the local SNCC chapter in 1965, I worked in the SNCC office on First Street and Rhode Island Avenue, N.W. People who were down in Mississippi working on the Voter Rights Project were communicating with our office when things went wrong. I had to call Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach at the Justice Department because he was working with us to keep some of the violence down against volunteers in Mississippi by recording it and trying to respond at the Federal level.

Embracing Black Power

So much had happened before the 1966 Meredith March in Mississippi when Stokely came out and first said “Black Power!” SNCC workers were going to the South; Cleave Sellers and H. Rap Brown crashed a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Even before that, I, along with many D.C.-area NAG/SNCC members, had supported major demonstrations led by Gloria Richardson Dandridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There was a lot of blowback, including dispatch of the National Guard and use of military-grade gas against us.

Then Stokely came out talking about Black Power, and it had a big impact on me. Black Power made sense to me. It was galvanizing because everything was a progressive trajectory. We started off non-violent. Then there were a lot of debates when Malcolm X came on the scene about whether we should be non-violent. Many of us in the beginning were thinking we needed to defend ourselves, so it was a gradual thing to move to that position. When Black Power came up, it made sense to all of us, really. We needed to be more definitive about what we were doing.

To me, Black Power means empowerment. For instance, in D.C. we don’t have the right to vote. We don’t have the representation in government. D.C. was basically a Jim Crow town the whole time I was growing up. If you looked in the paper for a job or a place to live, you had to look in the colored section of the paper. It was very segregated. When you went downtown, even though they didn’t have signs like they did in the South, you knew places that you couldn’t go into. Black Power meant a lot to us because we were disenfranchised – we were invisible. So it had a big impact on me and other people that I knew.

Black consciousness was also beginning to really develop among us. I was inspired by Stokely’s girlfriend Mary Lovelace. She was the only one who wore a natural on campus at Howard. Also my aunt, Yvonne Gregory – a writer, activist, and communist – wore her hair natural in the 50’s. It wasn’t in an Afro, so to speak, but she just wore it naturally, and I remember being impressed by that as a child. So I decided to do it – wear my hair natural – when Black Power came to the forefront and Mary was wearing her hair like that. I thought to myself, “I want to express myself that way.”

I went natural right before we went to Atlantic City for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. I was coordinating in the MFDP’s D.C. office. There are some pictures of me demonstrating out there in Atlantic City with my hair natural. My main thing was to reflect Black pride in our features and our hair because we just didn’t see Black images in a positive way.

On campus at Howard in the School of Fine Arts, there was a lot of debate about it. Some people were inspired – a lot of people were inspired – and some people were upset. They told me, “Why are you wearing your hair like that? You need to fix your hair!” But other women started to do it, too.

Running for Homecoming Queen

I didn’t really decide to run for Homecoming Queen on my own. In the fall of 1966, two years after I started wearing my hair natural, I was approached by Paul Cobb, Huey Labrie, Stanley Wise, and some others from the men’s dorm at Howard University. They said, “We want to run you for the Homecoming Queen because we want to present this image,” and I said, “Oh yeah, I want to do something like that.” The way the homecoming queens were nominated before was through fraternities, and they were usually girls who were in a sorority.

They said, “Well, let’s do this.” They did a lot of the footwork. I was just following their lead basically in terms of the organization of it all because they had a really clear view of how they wanted to approach it. In addition to the men, I got support from SNCC women like Ruth Howard, Cynthia Washington, and Muriel Tillinghast.

We didn’t have a place to meet on campus like the fraternities, so my campaign committee informally met at the art department, at Stokely Carmichael’s house on Euclid Street, and at other off-campus locations. The other four homecoming nominees were sorority women nominated by the fraternities. In the run-up to Homecoming Queen election day, we had to meet with different groups and do publicity and interviews with the Hilltop, Howard’s campus newspaper. There was a big spread about us in the Washington Post.

The drama of it was that no one would know who the queen was until the night of the coronation. When they parted the curtains and I was sitting there, people went crazy. I mean it was pandemonium: people were happy, and there were people that were not happy. I guess some people take it seriously. I’m not saying I didn’t take it seriously, but I saw that it was a play. They had me sit on the throne. The Queen from the year before crowned me, and then they put the cape around me, and I had to take a walk out in a very regal way. I wasn’t really into being a beauty queen, so to speak. We were just trying to make a statement about Black beauty and Black pride.

It was a very significant event that happened. Now, people would say, “So what’s the big deal about that?” But it WAS a big deal, and now, I don’t think things have changed a lot for a lot of people. I remember when the movie School Daze came out, sitting in the theater when the “jigaboos” came on, I just remembered the audience of Black people were snickering and laughing and talking about the natural hairdos like we have never done that. That was really shocking to me because I thought we had sort of gotten beyond all of that. But we still demonstrated a lot of shame around our appearance then, and we’re still having trouble with our appearance now: that athlete they made cut his hair – they cut his hair off before he could wrestle – and news people being told to do something about their hair. We’ve just never gotten beyond it with ourselves or with the white onlookers. So being Homecoming Queen with natural hair was a significant image.

After being crowned, we went to Morehouse and I had to represent. But a lot of things that they normally had for the Homecoming Queen were not offered to me. Like they usually had a tea event with the dean and all these people. They had no tea for Robin. They had a bracelet that they gave the Homecoming Queen, and they usually had a big presentation. They sent a messenger to tell me that there was no big presentation.

They were really upset because we also had a lot of political activity going on at the same time. Like we hung Frank Snowden, the liberal arts dean, in effigy in the quad. That was a prelude to those big demonstrations in the administration building the year after I left. Then, when General Lewis B. Hershey – head of the draft board – came to speak on campus, we had a big demonstration against him. It was very dramatic! He was not allowed to speak because we were all shouting, and we ran him out of Cramton Auditorium. We were saying, “Why are Black people going to Vietnam? It’s the same old thing since the Civil War. We were involved in every war, and we were treated like second-class citizens.”

There was a lot of debate – both formal and informal – about race and politics, and there was a big reaction from the administration, in part because of the U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, commonly referred to as “The District Committee” or “The D.C. Committee.” They were all southern Congressmen, and they were also over the money that came to Howard. So it was very sensitive when we were doing all of this stuff because we were jeopardizing Howard’s funding.

Life After Howard

Before I graduated from Howard in 1967, I spent some time working for the Mississippi-based Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and another group that was seeking government funding to help the Blackstone Rangers and another big gang from Chicago to stop fighting and engage in legitimate community building. Right before I left D.C. to come to California, I was dispatched to different cities like Baltimore and Wilmington, Del., to organize community members because rebellions were happening, and our communities were all being occupied by the National Guard.

Then in 1969, I moved to California, found work in public education, and became consumed with family life. In addition, I was very involved in the practice of meditation and joined a group of people of color who wanted to bring meditation to the Black community. We went to the Ethiopian mountains (now Eritrea) to train under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to become teachers of transcendental meditation. Later on, I studied in India, under Paramahansa Muktananda. Now, I am a practicing Zen Buddhist.

A recent photo of Robin Gregory

Robin Gregory was a student organizer with the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) at Howard University and with the March on Washington. Robin and fellow student activists developed a Black Consciousness coalition that successfully re-defined the concept of beauty by winning the prestigious Homecoming Queen contest at Howard University.

Copyright © 2020 Robin Gregory. All rights reserved.

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