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Jewish Women in Civil Rights - Harriet Tanzman

Harriet Tanzman
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Harriet Tanzman assisting two women injured on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, Selma, Alabama. Police on horses charged civil rights activists attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
c.1965, 1980, 2000 Bob Fletcher. Reprinted with permission.


Harriet Tanzman was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Far Rockaway in Queens. Harriet grew up in a predominantly Jewish part of Rockaway, where there was some diversity; the two largest groups were Jews and Blacks. Harriet remembers being upset at some residents' and fellow high school students' prejudiced comments because they ran counter to the very liberal Jewish set of values with which she had been raised. Tanzman chose to continue her studies at the University of Wisconsin because of its reputation for progressive faculty and students. As a member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Club, Tanzman also worked with the local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter.

Tanzman first considered going South after hearing some Freedom Riders speak in 1961. In the summer of 1963, she heard Gloria Richardson, of the Cambridge, Maryland movement speak during a visit to California about how she endured death threats and physical repression in a violent fight to end school segregation. Tanzman recalls, "She basically invited us. There is this work to be done and you could participate." In September of 1963, she started a graduate program in Social Work at Wisconsin, but after JFK's assassination in November of that year, she quit school and went to work in the Atlanta Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee office. She worked in Atlanta until January of 1964, and then went back to Wisconsin for a semester of graduate work in history. She remained connected to the civil rights movement through her involvement with CORE. However, after hearing Diane Nash speak on campus, she felt a strong pull to return to the South.

From late 1964, to June 1965, Harriet worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Alabama. She first worked in Gadsden with a black organizer, Ben Luchion. Then, following orders from SCLC leaders, Harriet returned to Selma, teaching reading and other skills to local people from January to June 1965. Later, Harriet worked on a Southern Conference Educational Fund project in New Orleans. She returns to the South as much as possible and remains involved in local political issues. She has worked as a historian and chronicler of the movement with a number of organizations and institutions, including NYU's Tamiment Library. Her current activities include work at WBAI, New York's progressive radio station.


Harriet Tanzman spent a year working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Selma, Alabama where she was completely devoted to her literacy work.

So much of myself was put into the work thatÂ…it was enormously emotionally satisfying. It was incredibly satisfying. I mean I've never met people quite like some of the people I met in Selma and in the South, and at a certain point there were hundreds of people involved. And you're talking about mass meetings every night of the week. And enormously courageous people of all ages-very little ones to elderly. So for me, I was just always learningÂ… I really had a lot to learn.

Tanzman further describes her experiences as an SCLC worker and the impact it had on her:

Teaching people who knew an enormous amount about survival, about caring, about giving, about seeing old people as neighbors and family, but who didn't have some of the basic skills at all. So I taught but I also taught them to teach. You know, neither of these things did I know how to do beforehand. And I was able to do things that I never knew I could do. I mean it took the best of us, the movement, whether we were eighteen or twenty-five. It empowered our lives. We felt that we could do many things that none of us knew we could do before. And we were always surrounded by many role models.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Women in Civil Rights - Harriet Tanzman." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <>.