Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from its earliest days in 1960 until her death in October 1967. She served the organization as an activist in the field and as an administrator in the Atlanta central office. She eventually succeeded Jim Forman as SNCC's executive secretary; Ruby Smith-Robinson was the only woman ever to serve in this capacity. Her SNCC colleagues realized how important she was. SNCC freedom singer Matthew Jones recalled, "You could feel her power in SNCC on a daily basis" (Jones 1989).

Smith-Robinson demanded hard work and dedication from everyone around her. Jack Minnis, a member of SNCC's research staff, insisted that people could not fool her. Minnis was convinced that she had a "100 percent effective shit detector" (Minnis 1990).

This hard-nosed administrator and legendary activist was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 25, 1942, and she spent her childhood in Atlanta's Black Summerhill neighborhood. She was the second oldest of seven children born to Alice and J. T. Smith. The Smith children lived a comfortable existence in their separate Black world. They had strong adult support, and they had their own churches, schools, and social activities. No matter how insulated they were, however, the reality of American racism and segregation intruded from time to time. Smith-Robinson recalled her feelings about segregation in those early years. "I was conscious of my Blackness. Every young Negro growing up in the South has thoughts about the racial situation." She also remembered her reaction to the white people she came in contact with when she was a youngster. "I didn't recognize their existence, and they didn't recognize mine . . . . My only involvement was in throwing rocks at them" (Garland 1966).

In this atmosphere, young Ruby, like many young Black Americans of her generation, became convinced that change was possible. A few years later, when Ruby Smith entered Spelman College, she quickly became involved in the Atlanta student movement. She regularly picketed and protested with her colleagues who were trying to integrate Atlanta, arid she soon moved from the local scene to the national arena. As early as February 1961 she became involved in activities sponsored by the fledgling SNCC. She was a bold and daring colleague, the creator of SNCC's jail no bail policy and one of the original Freedom Riders.

Because of her attitude and her actions, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson soon became a legend. Most early SNCC members could recount at least one Ruby Smith-Robinson story. For example, Julian Bond remembered that when a delegation of SNCC staff was preparing to board a plane for Africa in the fall of 1964, an airline representative told them the plane was overbooked and asked if they would wait and take a later flight. This angered Ruby Smith-Robinson so much that without consulting the rest of the group she went and sat down in the jetway and refused to move. They were given seats on that flight. The innovative and determined spirit displayed in her activism was also part of her administrative demeanor. By 1963, she had become a full-time member of the central office staff. Then, in 1966, she was elected to the post of executive secretary. Throughout this period Ruby Smith-Robinson devoted an enormous amount of attention to SNCC, but there was another part to her life as well. She married Clifford Robinson in 1964, and they had a son, Kenneth Toure Robinson, in 1965. In the meantime, she managed to graduate from Spelman with a Bachelor's degree in physical education.

Because of her talent and commitment, Ruby Smith-Robinson was able to juggle all of these demanding roles--for a time. By January 1967, however, her health began to decline precipitously. At that time she was admitted to a hospital. In April of that year she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died on October 9, 1967.


Garland, Phyl. "Builders of a New South," Ebony (August 1966); Jones, Matthew. Personal interview (April 24, 1989); Minnis, Jack. Personal interview (November 4, 1990).



Black Women in America. An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993), pp. 1085-1086.


 © The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.