TOPIC: Wednesdays In Mississippi Civil Rights Activism in the 1960's

WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI: The real housewives of Jackson Mississippi

This Op-ed was written by Marlene McCurtis & Cathee Weiss, producers of the Wednesdays In Mississippi Documentarty Film.

There been a lot of buzz recently about (the book and movie) The Help – Is it “true”?  Who is represented fairly?  What’s good and is not so good. Many question the actual merits of movie’s  “feel good” approach to race relations.  As filmmakers this controversy has confirmed our belief that we need more books, more films, and most importantly more talk about what really happened in Mississippi during this time of enormous change.

Set in the middle of the civil rights era in Mississippi, The Help depicts the relationship between two groups of women-- middle class white southern women and their black maids.  At the end of the day, it is a piece of fiction, one writer’s interpretation of the complexity of racial relationships in the south.  Yet, during this same time period there were real-life  black and white women in Mississippi quietly, and some times not so quietly,  working  hard to dismantle the dehumanizing Jim Crow system.  These women were obsessed, not about their toilets or polished silver, but rather about the abject terror incited by such racist stalwarts as the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were determined to do what they could to help create a more just society  for themselves and their children.   A few years ago we discovered a story about a few of these very real and committed Mississippi women. As documentary filmmakers, we felt compelled to add their story to our shared history.  It is the story of an amazing, yet little known organization called Wednesdays in Mississippi.

 

During the summer of 1964 under the banner of Wednesdays in Mississippi, over 400 women, both black and white met behind tightly drawn curtains to discuss how they could support the civil rights movement.  These were middle class women—white women who did have ‘help’, yet could clearly see the cruelty and the untenable nature of the segregated system.  They were also black women who were not maids, but who were business owners, schoolteachers, nurses and librarians.  They all were women with power and the will to invoke change. 

Hope justice resolve
Dorothy Irene Height and Polly Cowan, co-founders of WIMS. From the WIMS website 

These revolutionary meetings were organized by Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women and her close friend and colleague, Jewish political activist, Polly Cowan.   Dorothy and Polly were northern, yet they knew women all over Mississippi were working to support civil rights. 

 

The summer of 1964 was Freedom Summer. Thousands of Northern college kids came into Mississippi to set up Freedom Schools and register people to vote.  That same summer Wednesdays in Mississippi brought black and white women from the north into Jackson to meet with their southern counterparts. Here’s how it worked: every week a team of women from a different northern city flew into Jackson. They came in undercover, as respectable ladies- wearing white gloves and  pearls.   They went into the heat and terror of Jackson, often against the wishes of their families, sometimes with great risk to their personal safety. Their goal was to listen to and support the women of Mississippi who sought peaceful and lasting change.

  dorothy height, polly cowan, fanny lou hamerFannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan


While in Mississippi these northern women met with women like Elaine Crystal, a Jewish woman who decided, “to stop playing bridge and be a part of some thing that made a difference.”  Elaine helped form Mississippians For Public Education and fought to keep the public schools opened. And women like Jane Schutt, who was an active member of the integrated organization Church Women United and served as the chair of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.  When in December of 1963, the Klan burned a cross on Jane’s yard, she decorated it with Christmas lights and kept right on working for racial equality. 

 

In the black community they found women like Clarie Collins Harvey.   A prominent businesswoman, Clarie had the economic freedom to boldly stand up to racist policies.  She  started WomenPower Unlimited, a grassroots organization  to support young civil rights workers in the state and to register black voters.   Clarie also developed the Chain of Friendship, an informal network of white women outside of Mississippi who supported the efforts of women fighting for integration inside the state.   Jessie Mosley was another mover and shaker in the black community. A professor’s wife, she started the first chapter of the National Council of Negro Women in Mississippi in the 1950s. While her husband’s courses at the Jackson State University “were often observed by members of the Klan or White Citizen’s Council”, this didn’t deter Jessie. She was a huge supporter of Wednesdays in Mississippi and worked  closely with Fannie Lou Hamer and other women activists to develop Head Start programs.

 

Throughout the 1960’s Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan continued to work through Wednesdays in Mississippi (which later became Workshops in Mississippi) to join black and white women together.  They spread throughout the state helping women work together to develop everything from home ownership projects for low-income families to community-based farm co-ops. 

 

In the end, it doesn’t seem fair to place the burden of truth on just one story, like The Help.  Wednesdays in Mississippi offers another perspective on this “truth”. As those who were involved in this project are now reaching their 70s, 80s, and 90s, it is crucial that their story like so many others from that time be documented before they’re gone. The truth will be found when the stories of those on the front line and in the living rooms, those who were the backbone of the movement are told.    Wednesdays in Mississippi is just one of those many stories.

 

 

To find about more about Wednesdays In Mississippi and other women in the movement, please check out the following links:

wimsfilmproject.com

http://www.history.uh.edu/cph/WIMS/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wednesdays-in-Mississippi-Film-Project/266953138296

http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy

http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/freedoms_sisters/main.htm

http://www.nps.gov/mamc/index.htm

http://seesaw.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/wednesdays-in-mississippi.html

 

 


WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI

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."

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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.' "

    packing list for wednesdays in mississippi 1963

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."

  Height_1
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."

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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"

  MembersResponsibilities-1
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
Mary McCloud Bethune, Dorothy Height, Polly Cowan. National Archives for Black Women's History at the Bethune Council House