Ruby Doris Smith was born in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., in 1942. Her introduction to movement politics was solidified when she enrolled in Spelman College in Atlanta in 1959. Once there, she joined the Atlanta Student Movement. She began participating in local sit-ins and other non-violent civil disobedience actions. As a result of her participation, she was arrested multiple times.
In 1960, she was instrumental in leading the development and escalation of an economic boycott of businesses throughout downtown Atlanta. The boycott was carried out successfully for several months despite the fact there were multiple days where Ruby Doris Smith served as the lone protestor.
In 1961, she attended her first meeting with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) a national youth civil rights organization started by Ella Baker in 1960 at Shaw university in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. it was announced during that meeting that a contingent of SNCC activists had been arrested during a demonstration at Rock Hill, South Carolina, U.S. The decision was made at that meeting to send a delegation to South Carolina. On the spot, Ruby agreed to be a part of this delegation and once she and the others arrived at Rock Hill, they were also arrested. She spent 30 days in jail as a result, but the exposure to political work outside of the Atlanta area inspired Ruby and she made the decision to continue working with SNCC.
Soon after, she joined SNCC and immediately became their Southern Campus Protest Coordinator, although ironically, the workload of the position pushed her to drop her classes at Spelman in order to focus full-time on the activist work at hand. In one such protest in May of 1961 that she helped organize, Ruby and others participated in a freedom ride from Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., to Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. During this action she was viciously beaten, arrested, and shipped to the infamous and notorious Parchman Prison in rural Mississippi where she spent almost two months locked away under her self-initiated resistance slogan of “jail, no bail!”
During this time, she became acutely aware and outspoken about the contradiction of European (white) involvement in the civil rights movement, especially the over reliance on European money to finance movement activities. As a result, she was one of the very first activists in SNCC to seriously address this challenge when she formally proposed that SNCC consider limiting the number of European activists and donations accepted as a way of reaffirming the African leadership and independence of the movement. She was also equally as outspoken about the internal class contradictions within the African community citing the activities of African fraternities and sororities and other petti-bourgeoisie African organizations as detrimental to the movement for mass African self-determination. Ruby also used her position to speak out constantly about the dominance of patriarchy within SNCC’s decision making processes. Although she was one of the very first persons, despite the difficulty then and even still today, to raise these types of contradictions on a wide scale, she did so constantly. In fact, she was so consistent in raising these contradictions within SNCC and forcing the organization to struggle over them while making proposals about how to address these contradictions that Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), when asked about Ruby years later recalled her as “a tower of strength within SNCC!”
Ruby reapplied and was readmitted to Spelman in 1963 with a personal recommendation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During this time, she participated in a protest action against a segregated hospital where she and the other SNCC activists purposely antagonized the European staff by entering the facility through the “whites only” entrance. When the head nurse attempted to order them out because “none of you are sick” Ruby reportedly, and courageously, broke away from her comrades, walked up to the woman, vomited on the floor in front of her, and while looking her directly in the eyes, stated: “is that sick enough for you?!”
She became SNCC’s Administrative Secretary later in 1963 and she used that position to continue to advance her concern and position that African people should uncompromisingly be in leadership positions within SNCC and all civil rights organizations. Her diligence on this issue would serve as one of the strong foundations for SNCC’s evolving position within the civil rights movement from that of integrationist organization to advocates and activists for African self-determination articulated through the Black power mantra SNCC popularized in 1966.
In 1964, Ruby was among the SNCC delegation that accepted the invitation of the Democratic Party of Guinea and President Sekou Ture to travel to Guinea, West Africa, as official guests of the government. When she returned, she married Clifford Robinson. When the couple had their first child, inspired greatly by her experience in Guinea, she named her son Toure after the president of Guinea.
In what was probably one of her most impactful contributions within SNCC, although she was not even present at the actual event, Ruby – in her new role as Executive Secretary of SNCC in 1966 – served as the key logistical and resources coordinator for the Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi march in June of 1966 (better known as the James Meredith “March against Fear” or the “Black Power” march). It was during this march that Smith-Robinson, from her post in Atlanta, helped SNCC orchestrate and implement its strategy to take over the national march and move it away from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Dr. King’s organization) theme of “freedom now” to “Black power.” Of course, it was this march that launched the national Black power movement which changed the landscape of this country. There were many critical variables taking place during this march. The strategy to prepare the masses for the Black power slogan. The need to determine the right time and place to launch the new slogan. The effective method in which SNCC won over the right of the Deacons for Defense to participate in that march, and provide armed protection for the marchers, despite the loud and impactful disagreements of Whitney Young (National Urban League) and Roy Wilkins (NAACP). The need to quickly and effective make adjustments when key organizers like Kwame Ture, the chair of SNCC and its chief spokesperson, were arrested. The shrewdness of SNCC being able to use the emotion around Ture’s arrest and release to launch the slogan in front of an international audience. And, every key militant within SNCC during that march, from Kwame Ture to Cleveland Seller, to James Forman, and Mukassa Dada (Willie Ricks), is on record saying that the success of how each of those efforts were navigated would never have been possible without the steady and consistent behind the scenes coordination of Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson.
In early January, 1967, Ruby was diagnosed with a rare cancer and on October 7, 1967, she made her physical transition at the tender age of 25. Despite the loss of her physical presence, there is not an African alive anywhere on earth who has not been touched by the legacy of her movement work. Her courage, determination, and commitment to lifting us higher are principles that will continue to inspire our movement for justice and forward progress.