Thursday, January 10, 2013
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
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.
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.
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 did not 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:http://www.nps.gov/mamc/index.htm
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
* This article was originally published on University of Virginia's on-line exhibit web site- Wednesdays in Mississippi: Civil Rights as Women's Work. The site is now being hosted by the University of Houston Center for Public History. The link to exhibit is http://www.history.uh.edu/cph/WIMS/
Postscript: Doris and Susie were the on-ground staff members in Jackson, MS in 1964.
In 2006, the Wednesdays in Mississippi film crew headed to Pittsburgh to interview Doris Wilson. She was the second person we interviewed with our first little bit of grant monies. We spent three wonderful days with Doris. At 85 years old, Doris was vibrant, brilliant, outspoken and embraced all us like a loving and generous auntie. She was very wise, yet extremely contemporary. It was early in our process and we were still formulating the film. Looking back on Doris' interview now we realize that she gave us insights into WIMS that we didn't even know we needed at the time. We are truly grateful for this.
Doris passed away on July 13, 2008. Her shining spirit and her unwavering commitment to social justice lives on in our hearts.
Susie Goodwillie Stedman & Doris Wilson at WIMS Reunion
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI
By Geraldine (Kohlenberg) Zetzel
In the early summer of 1964, Polly Cowan contacted Alice Ryerson, a friend who also summered on Martha’s Vineyard, about the project. Alice’s daughter, Susan, was then working in Mississippi as one of the volunteers, so Alice was eager to go. She recruited me to go with her.
Members of the group:
Laya Wiesner, Ruth Batson, Mrs. Hyams, Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Morris (sisters), Mrs. Willen, and Sister Catherine John. Staff: Susan Goodwillie, Diane Vivell, Doris Wilson.
From my notes:
Beginning with the plane to Jackson, the feeling of being in enemy territory. (N.B. This was shortly after the disappearance of the three young civil rights workers. Everyone was very tense. We had been briefed and instructed not to act as though we were traveling as a group...)
Ruth Batson comments that she didn’t know the trip was to be “segregated.” None of us comfortable about this.
The effort not to notice whether people are noticing us--one beady-eyed lady watching us all, especially Ms. Hyams. Noting that the flight attendants’ sweet Southern expressions of professional solicitousness never varied, but wondering what they say when they go off duty.
Arriving in Birmingham, everything so beautiful from the heights--why can’t it BE that simple? Green round trees, pine-woods, little farms, rust-colored earth plowed and sown, green crops coming up. Neat houses with shade trees and pools. Birmingham airport all pale blue and cream. (Getting off and being met, I remember being painfully conscious of having to split up into Whites and Blacks--it felt awful.)
In the limousine from the airport to the hotel in Jackson, feeling uneasy about the extra passenger we didn’t know--what if he’s a Citizen’s Council spy? When the bellhop brought up our bags, he turned at the door and very pointedly said to us, “If there’s anything you need, ask for Dale...” We were sure he knew who we were and why we were there. We felt protected by an underground, a network.
Day 2. Laya, Alice and I went with a Jackson lady, Ms. Schutt to a meeting of the League of Women Voters at the house of Mrs. Rawls. There were about 12 women present, only two of them Jackson natives--the others had lived there varying lengths of time. After some preliminary socializing, someone asked, “Now tell us why you’re here?” Alice replied it was out of concern for the volunteers. This brought a flood of answers, about inflammatory statements the students were making, letters they’d written, and rumors that they were all “beatniks” and mentally disturbed. Ms. Rawls exploded, saying that we didn’t know anything about race relations, we’d never lived with Negroes, etc.
A very lively discussion ensued, with many differing points of view. The level of intimidation included, we learned, that L.W.V. members’ husbands were told to have their wives withdraw from “that Commie’ organization. Many speculations about the motivation of the civil rights workers--including the question of how any mother could ALLOW her child to live in a Negro family’s house--complete astonishment when Alice said she was proud of her daughter (the group was incredulous, having assumed her child was male!) Suspicion voiced that not all were really legitimate COFO workers, or that they all had been screened and trained before coming.
About the three workers who had disappeared, the women said 75% think they’re hiding, many believe in a conspiracy theory, that they were deliberately killed by CORE & SNCC as a way to enable the federal government (or the U.N.) to “take over” Mississippi.
A moving speech by Ms. Scutt, who hadn’t wanted to believe that Blacks were being intimidated or oppressed, but has come to see that it’s so. Mrs. Moore reported talking it over with her husband and small children, and deciding to go ahead and commit herself to the civil rights cause. Another mother who reported that neighbors wouldn’t let their kids play with hers because they talked about “brotherly love.”The fear of talking to others and finding themselves on different sides of the issue. An Englishwoman who asked what she should say to her son when he said, “I want to sit in the back of the bus.” Discussion of guilt feelings, and of lack of contact with any educated Black people. The sense that Jackson is different, the problems are in the country, in other towns.
We drove to Canton, at that time a town with about twice a many Black as White inhabitants. Our driver tried to follow a little map, but we got lost. The driver explained there were no lights and few street-names in the Negro section of town, and in the white sections “it’s an occupational hazard--we can’t ask directions to the COFO offices--for obvious reasons.” Indeed we got lost, and when we stopped at a store to ask directions--it turned out to be a white-owned store. Right after that we began to be followed by two men in a pick-up truck--the Deputy Sheriff’s. The driver said, “They’re here to protect us,--or so we should make them think...”
In the course of this day we visited Freedom House, two Freedom Schools, a Catholic mission, the Community Center, and met with many COFO workers and community leaders. Here are some of the names:
George Raymond, a young community organizer, from New Orleans originally
Mr. Cameron, Mr. Beech & Mr. Edwards, ministers
Mrs. Robinson, host family for one of the student workers, & adult literacy teacher
Nancy Wright & Mike Piori volunteers
We saw great things going on with the children in the schools and community center. A lot of creative and courageous work was going on with the kids, trying to offset the poor schooling and the messages about inferiority that they’d gotten in their regular schools. We heard many stories of the struggle for voter registration, of harassment and intimidation, of persistence and of small victories. Many attempts to reach out to the white community, and always the effort to conciliate rather than confront. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, scary, and yet hopeful day.
At the end of the day, because of a mix-up, we had to drive back to Jackson in “racially mixed” cars--by then we were so tired that we even got silly--I remember Sister John waving out the window at the Sheriff, still following us around in the pick-up.
That evening, we met at Mrs. Davis’. Also present were;
Mrs. Lunny, Mrs. Pratt, Mrs. Jones (local YWCA), Mrs. Hewitt, Claire Collins Harvey , and Mrs. Schutt.
Unlike the evening with the League of Women Voters, this group were individuals who were committed to the cause of civil rights. The discussion was about the current climate, that the state really is the worst, “occupied Mississippi”, where the governor openly talks of non-compliance. The fear that “a generation will come along with a wrong idea of law.” Experiences of intimidation, but also hopeful that FBI presence is helping, and the glare of publicity. Urged our group to go back and speak out about things we’d seen and heard. Some debate as to whether what we’d seen and experienced that day was genuine--specifically that the volunteers had “dressed up” to make a better impression on “the ladies”. Their usual sloppy dress has been an issue--to them it’s a political statement, i.e. that outsides don’t matter, so Black and White are the same--also a way of showing that they don’t care about the things of this world. To many young people, the Movement is a kind of religion--this is part of what makes others see them like Communists.
Later, in our rooms, we had a sort of pajama party--unwilling to stop talking, reluctant to have the experience come to an end. Sitting on a bed with Sister John, barefooted, talking way into the night. The next day, as we left, a newspaperman from Chicago wanted to interview her. Again there was a sense of paranoia--the desk clerk was unfriendly, my companion. Alice R. quite sure that if as she hopes, her daughter Susan (volunteer in another part of the state) calls , the hotel staff will deliberately not let her know.
For me, the Wednesdays in Mississippi experience made a lasting difference. I was moved, frightened, enlightened--and impressed with how little I had previously understood. The civil rights struggle became a reality, where before it had been an abstraction. I also had a window into the nature of life in the South, not only the conditions under which Blacks were living, but of what it was like for Whites of good conscience to deal with their history. I was again and again overwhelmed by how much courage people of both races and of all ages showed in dealing with the racial--and racist--realities of that time.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
In 1963, a black woman and a Jewish woman formed a political alliance and became like sisters. It was a rare relationship at a time when most black women worked for white women, not with them. But, these weren't ordinary women-one was Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women, the other, was Polly Cowan-- wife, mother and heir to the Spiegel fortune.
It was a time of great turmoil and change. Boycotts, fire hoses, growling dogs, angry mobs and four little girls blown up on a quiet Sunday morning filled our TV screens. Men were in front of the cameras, publicly leading the fight to end racial hatred, but in truth, the women were the backbone of this movement. Yet, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, the men wouldn’t allow any woman to give a speech. It was then that Dorothy realized women must take their fate in their own hands.
Dorothy and Polly decided to create Wednesdays in Mississippi, a civil rights project for women, run by women. Their audacious plan would send interfaith and interracial teams of women into Mississippi--the hardened epicenter of segregation-- to secretly meet with their southern sisters. It was a courageous undertaking. Mississippi was a war zone. Churches and temples were being bombed. Civil rights workers were being jailed, beaten and killed. Meeting with outsiders could have dire consequences.
Dorothy and Polly weren't deterred. They combed through their rolodexes, finding women--"The Cadillac Crowd" --to go behind the cotton curtain, to bring in support, to bear witness, and to commit to continuing the struggle when they returned home.
The first team headed to Mississippi on July 7th, 1964, five days after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Polly and Dorothy were on the team. They traveled to the hinterlands, visited Freedom schools and voter registration projects run by local people and northern college students. They narrowly missed being blown up by a fizzling Molotov cocktail and were confronted by angry patrons when they legally integrated a local restaurant. Wearing white gloves and pearls, "for respectability", they secretly met with a group of southern women. This simple act was revolutionary.
That summer seven teams of Northern women went to Mississippi to meet with more than 200 local women. Along the way, there were challenges, fears, and suspicions, yet hearts and minds were opened. When other civil rights organizations left Mississippi, Polly and Dorothy stayed, working with local women, fighting for quality day care, low-income housing and cooperative farms.
Their friendship endured as the political landscape changed and whites left the movement. They continued to work side by side every day to help women, black and white, northern and southern, until Polly's tragic death in 1976.
Their legacy is reflected in Polly's children, in the lives of Mississippi's women and children, and in the wisdom of 98-year-old Dorothy Height, who says, never underestimate the quiet revolution of women-that, in the long run, it will make the difference.