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William (Bill) Hansen, a longtime political activist, was the first director of the Arkansas Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hansen worked as a civil rights activist in Arkansas between 1962 and 1966. Under SNCC auspices, he participated in a number of protest activities including voter registration drives and sit-ins. Hansen was the second white field director to join SNCC, a predominantly black organization.
Bill Hansen was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a working-class Catholic family. He came of age watching the burgeoning civil rights movement unfold on television. While a student at Xavier University, he co-founded the Xavier Interracial Council, which was designed to support the Southern civil rights struggle. Not content to sit on the sidelines for long, Hansen soon dropped out of college and, in 1961, joined SNCC. Members of the group worked in some of the most staunchly segregated areas of the South, risking violent reprisals from whites opposed to the goals of the civil rights movement.
One of Hansen’s first stops in his career as a civil rights worker was in Albany, Georgia. In 1962, he was arrested for taking part in a demonstration there and then brutally beaten by a prison trustee who viewed him as a race traitor. He remained undaunted by his crushed jaw and broken ribs. At the invitation of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR), Hansen traveled to Arkansas later that year to establish a SNCC presence in the state. Under his leadership, SNCC played a supporting role in a series of sit-ins that led to the desegregation of much of downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County). SNCC quickly established a presence in the eastern part of the state, setting up field offices in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Helena (Phillips County), Forrest City (St. Francis County), and Gould (Lincoln County). The dedicated SNCC workers sought to dismantle the barriers posed by segregation, to increase voter registration, to empower local black leaders, and to increase educational access in the black community.
While participating in these activities, Hansen met Ruthe Buffington, a black woman from Arkansas. The couple married on October 12, 1963, in Cincinnati. Because interracial marriage was then illegal in Arkansas, the union caused consternation on the part of many locals. Hansen received a great deal of publicity—much of it negative—from the local media. He was also a prominent target for Arkansas law officials. By his own count, Hansen was arrested forty-five times while working as a civil rights activist. In fact, he recalled being imprisoned in Helena on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Hansen soon became convinced that leadership of the Arkansas Project belonged in the hands of an African American. In 1964, he publicly relinquished his position as sole director, becoming instead co-director under James Jones, a black Arkansan man, who served as director. Meanwhile, on a national level, SNCC began to question the role that white activists should play in the liberation struggle. By the summer of 1966, Hansen correctly guessed that whites were on the verge of being expelled from the organization altogether, and he resigned preemptively.
Hansen’s separation from SNCC did not signal an end to his political activities, and he has continued his advocacy on behalf of the underprivileged in the United States and beyond, for example, working for the National Sharecroppers Fund and the Westinghouse Learning Corporation’s Vista Training Project. He has also become involved in the field of education. Hansen has taught on four different continents, including at the American University of Central Asia and the American University of Nigeria, where he currently holds the position of professor of international and comparative politics.
For additional information:
Finley, Randy. “Crossing the White Line: SNCC in Three Delta Towns, 1963–1967.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (Summer 2006): 117–138.
Riffel, Brent. “In the Storm: William Hansen and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, 1962–1967.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Winter 2004): 404–419.
Riva, Sarah. “Desegregating Downtown Little Rock: The Field Reports of SNCC’s Bill Hansen, October 23 to December 3, 1962.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Autumn 2012): 264–282.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. “Replicating History in a Bad Way? White Activists and Black Power in SNCC’s Arkansas Project.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Autumn 2008): 268–287.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, and John Kirk, eds. Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Georgia College & State University
Last Updated 10/16/2012
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