In the past few days since the death of Dr. Dorothy I Height, I have been spending time thinking about her, and researching more about Wednesdays In Mississippi the organization Dr. Height founded in 1963 with my mother, Polly Cowan, . Today I found this fascinating article from 2002 by Lottie Joiner from the The Crisis Magazine. All quotes are from the article:
"By 1964 Black people had been fighting for civil rights for more than a decade, but white resistance remained strong. From the sit-ins in North Carolina to boycotts in Birmingham, demonstrations in Little Rock and freedom rides from Washington to Louisiana, civil rights battles were being fought all over the South. Yet hardly a dent had been made against segregation in Mississippi, a state distinguished by its often brutal stands against civil rights. The first White Citizens Council was established in the state in 1954. Lynchings were common. So were church bombings and cross burnings. Blacks who tried to register to vote were beaten, harassed or killed by local law enforcement officers, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Civil rights sympathizers mysteriously disappeared, their remains found years, sometimes decades, later in rivers, fields or under the hard red clay that supported the state's cotton economy. "
Down In The Delta, from The New Crisis, by Lottie Joiner 2002. I apologize for the ad links but I wanted to show you the original article with photos and I don't have a hard copy to scan. The scroll links are active, so click the arrows and you can look at it all. Please note the beautiful photographs by Michele Stapleton and Dennis Dennis Marsico.
"It was in this climate that women such as Ruth Batson decided to travel to Mississippi in 1964. The call came in March. Leaders of five national women's organizations - the National Council of Negro Women, the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women and United Church Women - convened a three-day summit in Atlanta to address the treatment of women and girls who were jailed for their civil rights activities. Black and white women came from Atlanta and Albany, Ga.; Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and Danville, Va.
The women heard firsthand accounts of the brutality inflicted on civil rights workers. The sessions were led by NCNW's Dorothy Height, who encouraged the women to organize locally and work on ways they could help in their own communities.
For many who attended, it was an education in just how harshly and unjustly the South was treating its Black citizens. Before the session ended, Claire Harvey, the spokeswoman for the Jackson, Miss., group, stood and issued this plea:
"If northern women could visit us regularly during the summer, to act as a quieting influence by going into areas that are racially tense, to try to build bridges of communication between us, between our Black and white communities - to be a ministry of presence among us - it would be of tremendous help to us."
Dr. Dorothy I Height and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1960
"Every detail of the project was meticulously planned, including travel and safety precautions, but also how Black and white participants would interact with each other and even how they would dress.
For the participants, many of whom had never crossed the Mason-Dixon line, it was a lesson in the southern way of life. For example, the Black and white participants could not be seen speaking to each other publicly and could not lodge together. The women were told of police traps, such as handmade stop signs or extremely slow speed limits. So they wouldn't stand out, they were advised to wear white gloves like most women of the South did at the time.
" 'We helped to get them to understand the importance of living within the pattern," Height says. "There was no way we could bring about change if we went down there and tried to upset it.' "
Original packing list for Wednesdays Ladies. Wednesdays in Mississippi, from Wednesdays In Mississippi digital history website
"We got the news the night before we went to Mississippi that [the three young men] were missing," remembers (Susie) Goodwillie. "I realized then that this was really serious. I was committed to go more than ever." The world would realize how serious the situation was when the bodies of the three men were discovered more than a month later.
In Jackson, Goodwillie, joined by her college roommate, who had just completed her first year of law school, was housed in the elegant Magnolia Towers. She says their rent check from NCNW had to be laundered several times before it reached the hands of their landlords, prominent members of the White Citizens Council.
If people asked, the young women told them that they were in town working on a cookbook featuring southern recipes. Like nice southern ladies, they wore white gloves and attended church three times on Sundays. "We had to be impeccable," says Goodwillie. "If we were going to get through to white women we had to be totally acceptable to white Mississippi upper-class standards."
(Doris) Wilson lived with a Jackson State University librarian and her family until she found other housing in the Black community. She eventually stayed with a professor whose mother was afraid to turn on the lights at night because she feared being shot.
"My God, it really was bad," recalls Wilson. "These were [financially] comfortable Black people, but that was the kind of tension they lived in." Their housing needs met, Goodwillie and Wilson faced another dilemma. They had to meet each week to arrange site visits and meetings with local women willing to host discussions about race relations. But the two couldn't be seen in communities outside of their race, much less get together."
Dr. Dorothy I. Height
"(Josie) Johnson and her team were held to strict secrecy, only immediate family and the U.S. attorney general's office could know about the trip. The women were also told that they could not travel as an integrated group beyond Chicago. "When we arrived at the airport [in Jackson] I think I expected to have the Klan there and whisk us off to who knows where," Johnson says.
But Johnson was met by members of her host family, who took the group to a community rally held in a local Baptist church. Johnson, who is 70 now and still living in Minneapolis, was surprised to see the perimeter of the church patrolled by Black men with shotguns.
The next day the team traveled as an integrated group to Vicksburg, Miss. They were well aware of the cars that were following them. "I remember the fear in driving from Jackson to Vicksburg," says Johnson. "It was such a beautiful state. You have this image of all the evil and ugliness that was taking place there, the abuse of people. To see that it was a lush, green, beautiful state was a surprise."
Team Debriefing. Scan of original document. WIMS digital website.
"At the freedom school, the group observed young workers sorting books. The facility was a converted barn with partitions separating classrooms. Johnson could see the difficult struggle. "When you think school, you think walls. This was just benches and, like an open-air facility," she says.
After the visit, the women drove through Vicksburg's Black section. "I can close my eyes and see it," Johnson says. "Many of the places where people lived were shotgun-looking houses. You could stand in the front door and look out the back. It didn't look like a thriving community. The people looked like they were living on the very margins of our society."
The group returned to Jackson that evening and attended a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at Tougaloo College in Jackson. The organization was gathering data on the condition of the people who were working on the voter registration effort. The women heard stories of people being jailed, fired from their jobs, placed on detention in school and "just all kinds of things that seemed incredibly unreal."
The next day, they learned that the freedom school they had visited had been bombed later that evening"
Scan of original document from Wednesdays In Mississippi . WIMS website
I have quoted from this article with permission of the author Lottie Joiner, who is a senior editor at The Crisis Magazine . When I mentioned this article to Marlene McCurtis, one of the documentary filmmakers who are making the Wednesdays In Mississippi documentary she told me that this was the article that actually gave her the idea for the film. Figures.
I urge you to read the entire article which is in a very easy to read here at Bnet
Mary McCloud Bethune, Dorothy Height, Polly Cowan. National Archives for Black Women's History at the Bethune Council House