Front of book

            One may wonder what there is new to say about the civil rights movement.  In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s first election it seemed to some as though the entire movement completed its mission and could be summed up like the ubiquitous tee shirt seen after the votes were counted: Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Jesse could stand so Barack could win so our children can fly.  Oh yeah, and as Julian Bond, long time freedom fighter and a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), would add “and the white kids came down and saved the day.” The truth of the matter is, however, that the many, many books about the 1960s freedom movement have barely scratched the surface.  Arguably there are as many stories as there were participants. 

            Some of those stories are about or written by whites who worked in the movement.    My students, black and white, are always shocked by this.  They have never even heard of so many of the black freedom fighters who were lost to history because they toiled in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr.–Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore, C. T. Vivian to name a few.  It is no surprise that they are equally ignorant about the whites who ignored the prejudice, racism and social strictures of the day and joined the fight to save the soul of America–people such as Jessie Daniel Ames, Virginia Durr, Robert Moore, Anne Braden, and Ed King.

            Wednesdays in Mississippi is the story of a relatively quiet but determined group of mostly middle-class and middle-aged black and white women of various faiths, levels of education, and areas of the country who worked to bring about change in the white south.  Started by Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and Polly Cowan, a volunteer with the NCNW, they hoped that their friendship and women working quietly together could bear witness to the goals of the freedom movement and impact positive change. 

            Nineteen sixty four was a pivotal year in the freedom movement.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, it was a national election year and Freedom Summer was in full swing.  There had been tremendous violence, including murders, and scores of arrests of black and white activists.  Nerves were raw and tension was high.  Height and Cowan hoped that by reaching across the country and building interracial relationships, they might be able to offer an alternative to marches and demonstrations and reach the thousands of women of both races who dared not openly show their support for civil rights. 

            The women working through Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) were risking their marriages, family obligations and social standing by working together. But according to Harwell, their low-key plan was a great antidote to the more public face of the freedom movement.   “Working outside the power structures of the national civil rights organizations and of Mississippi’s political elites, black and white team members employed the intersecting identities of their of gender, race, class and age to open doors that remained closed to younger and more    “radical”  protestors”.  Harwell also noted that the women used “the rules of southern protocol for black and white middle class women as both their vehicle and their protection in the South.”  Their ultra correct appearance–heels, white gloves, hats and pearls–allowed them the opportunity to work under the radar, yet still have a major impact.

            Like the SNCC, Women in Mississippi (WIMS) worked at the grassroots level and sometimes one-on-one; they encouraged the women to talk about their differences and share their hopes, dreams and fears.  In this way black and white women would see how much they had in common.  WIMS also hope that engaging in this kind of dialogue would also remove the stigma against interracial cooperation and dispel the myths each group had about the other.

            WIMS also worked as the leader of a coalition of public and private women’s organizations that were trying to get black and white women to change one hundred years of racial oppression that had kept blacks subservient, convinced whites that they were superior, and passed that belief down to subsequent generations.

            As the racial situation in the south changed, so too did WIMS.  The group played a role in, among other projects, garnering financial support for freedom schools and the implementation of Head Start in Mississippi.

            Like Throwing Off the Cloak of Privilege: White Southern Women Activists in the Civil Rights Era, by Gail S. Murray; There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945 - 1975, by Jason Sokol; and This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.–which you will see in this column soon–Wednesdays in Mississippi is another book that broadens our collective understanding of the twentieth century freedom movement.  It also gives credit where credit is long overdue.