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Wednesdays in Mississippi

Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964

Debbie Z. Harwell
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Wednesdays in Mississippi
    Book Description:

    As tensions mounted before Freedom Summer, one organization tackled the divide by opening lines of communication at the request of local women: Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS). Employing an unusual and deliberately feminine approach, WIMS brought interracial, interfaith teams of northern middle-aged, middle- and upper-class women to Mississippi to meet with their southern counterparts. Sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), WIMS operated on the belief that the northern participants' gender, age, and class would serve as an entrée to southerners who had dismissed other civil rights activists as radicals. The WIMS teams' respectable appearance and quiet approach enabled them to build understanding across race, region, and religion where other overtures had failed.

    The only civil rights program created for women by women as part of a national organization, WIMS offers a new paradigm through which to study civil rights activism, challenging the stereotype of Freedom Summer activists as young student radicals and demonstrating the effectiveness of the subtle approach taken by "proper ladies." The book delves into the motivations for women's civil rights activism and the role religion played in influencing supporters and opponents of the civil rights movement. Lastly, it confirms that the NCNW actively worked for integration and black voting rights while also addressing education, poverty, hunger, housing, and employment as civil rights issues.

    After successful efforts in 1964 and 1965, WIMS became Workshops in Mississippi, which strived to alleviate the specific needs of poor women. Projects that grew from these efforts still operate today.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-055-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Peering Behind the Cotton Curtain
    (pp. 3-30)

    FIVE MIDDLE-AGED, MIDDLE-CLASS WOMEN, THREE OF THEM WHITE AND two black, stepped off an airplane and into the summer heat at the Jackson, Mississippi, airport late Tuesday afternoon, July 7, 1964. They pretended to be strangers even though they knew each other well—this was part of their plan to come into town undetected. By some Mississippians’ standards, these women represented the lowest of the low. They were civil rights workers, but no one would have guessed it based on their appearance. They had joked cavalierly during the flight down that they would not speak again until they returned home...

  6. CHAPTER TWO A Charter of Concern for the Tumultuous South
    (pp. 31-45)

    WITHIN DAYS OF MEDGAR EVERS’S ASSASSINATION, STEPHEN CURRIER, A white philanthropist and president of the Taconic Foundation, sent telegrams inviting one hundred individuals he hoped shared his sense of urgency regarding civil rights to a breakfast meeting at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on June 19, 1963. The ninety people who attended heard moving speeches by the heads of the nation’s leading African American organizations, including Martin Luther King Jr. of the SCLC, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins and Jack Greenberg of the NAACP,...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Plotting Their Course
    (pp. 46-67)

    EVEN THOUGH THE SOUTHERN WOMEN RESPONDED POSITIVELY TO THE WIC meeting, the words of Kathryn Cothran—“We have been betrayed”— still echoed in the minds of Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan. Throughout the planning and execution of Wednesdays in Mississippi, the Selma experience, more than any other factor, determined the approach taken by the NCNW. It served as an example of hownotto proceed with regard to interracial interaction in the South. At the same time, itsetan example for how women could use their gender, class, and age to shield themselves and their civil rights activism from...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Into the Lion’s Den
    (pp. 68-105)

    THE WEDNESDAYS WOMEN—PROPERLY ATTIRED IN DRESSES AND WHITE gloves, handbags on their arms—departed for Jackson, Mississippi, confident that their gentility and quiet approach would open doors that other activists had found closed. Once they got in those doors, however, they needed firsthand knowledge of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi to converse with the women they met there who could not, or refused to, visit the projects themselves. Hence, the teams began their trips by observing the Freedom Summer projects to gain an awareness of the student volunteers and their civil rights activities. Both black and white Wednesdays...

    (pp. 106-139)

    AT 10:00 A.M. ON A BEAUTIFUL SUNNY DAY, WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI team members mingled as guests arrived for coffee at the home of a prominent Jackson woman. The group was “white, all white.” Nevertheless, one woman walked in and immediately went around drawing the curtains on all of the windows. Their surprised hostess asked, “Mary, what are you doing?” She replied, “If anybody sees me here, if my husband sees me here, it’ll be the end of our marriage.”²

    The organizers and staff structured WIMS to conduct its real work for change in the casual setting of similar coffees held...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Beyond Freedom Summer
    (pp. 140-180)

    DRIVING POLLY COWAN AND ELLEN TARRY TO THE AIRPORT IN 1965, JULIAN Tatum, a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi, asked Cowan, “Do you see any progress in the state since last year?” Cowan said Tatum inquired “with such eagerness” that she did not have the heart to tell him no. She contemplated the question, saying she had “seen some change” and yet, “Some people and institutions were impaled on dead center.”² Mississippi had taken its greatest steps forward since the end of Reconstruction almost a century earlier, but it also had a long way to go to catch...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 181-186)

    IN JUST EIGHT WEEKS’ TIME, BETWEEN MAY 1964 WHEN POLLY COWAN AND Shirley Smith traveled to Mississippi to confirm that the NCNW’s help was still welcomed and the arrival of the first WIMS team in July, the organizers of Wednesdays in Mississippi designed and implemented the only civil rights program organized for women, by women, as part of a national organization, and the only program directed at helping Mississippi women during Freedom Summer. Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan shared a belief that the cornerstone of civil rights was the mutual respect and acceptance as equals of people of extreme differences....

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 187-190)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 191-192)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 193-238)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-250)
  16. Index
    (pp. 251-257)