Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964.
Students and scholars of Northern citizens' participation in the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi will be very familiar with Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) student organizers' commitment and bravery as they lived among, organized, and attempted to register black rural Mississippi residents to vote during the summer of 1964. Until now, little has been known about the network of women allies who channeled resources between Northern supporters and Freedom Summer Projects and who made significant inroads to establishing relationships with segregationist white Southern women in an effort to de-escalate the tensions between the races in Jackson, Mississippi. Harwell deftly recreates, from oral history interviews and a patchwork of archival collections, the previously surreptitious activities of an integrated, interfaith group of mature black and white women who built ties and gained entree into segregated Southern white society by taking advantage of their common ties with national women's associations and their performance of respectable womanhood. Black and white; Northern and Southern; Christian, Jewish, and Catholic women participated in the Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS), organized by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Teams of Northern women flew into Mississippi communities on short weekly missions to research conditions in Freedom Summer projects. Even more significant long-term, WIMS teams made gains in building a base of support from politically moderate and pro-segregation Southern white women in an effort to reduce resistance to the civil rights workers and the Freedom Summer project. In the process, these politically savvy and courageous women created unprecedented spaces for potential future support among white Southern women civic leaders for the emerging revolution in civil rights and welfare rights.
Harwell spotlights the importance of northern Jewish women and African-American women in continuing a progressive political vision for interracial alliances to further human relations after World War II. The 1963 March on Washington's organizers' failure to publicly recognize women's leadership at that historic event sparked YWCA and NCNW leader Dorothy Height to organize women to assert their unique perspectives and talents within the civil rights movement. Harwell illuminates African American women's leadership and commitment to interfaith, cross-class and cross-race organizing that nurtured dialogue and built alliances toward subverting geographic and social segregation. Less familiar is the political partnership and friendship between Height and WIMS co-founder Polly Cowan, a wealthy suburban Chicago resident from a secular Jewish family, who became lifelong friends with Height and found a "spiritual home" in the NCNW, an organization that not only advocated for African American women but also committed to creating an equitable society through interracial dialogue (34). Height, Cowen and other staffers were committed to building a cross-race alliance based on the conviction that white Americans, negatively impacted by the isolation and social control, were important partners in dismantling the "Cotton Curtain," the racial apartheid system. The establishment of interracial spaces and acting interracially were essential to building acceptance for more equitable human relations, initially in the Deep South and later replicated by WIMS veterans in Northern urban communities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Harwell is also sensitive to differences among Southern and Northern Jewish women and how their particular local contexts influenced the perceptions of the potential for social change. Throughout, Harwell cites the prophetic call to heal the world as a basis for Northern Jewish women's leadership in this human relations movement in the Deep South. Harwell's book devotes considerable attention to the double consciousness of Southern Jewish women. Many long-time Jewish residents of the South were reticent to publicly support the civil rights movement, socialized enough into white Southern culture to cling to a protection of whiteness and class privilege, and minority enough to fear anti-Semitic backlash from white supremacists. Harwell argues that white Southerners needed neutral spaces where they could air their evolving ideas about race without being judged or fearing social ostracism or retribution. The YWCA, as a respectable and yet increasingly groundbreaking organization on women's rights and racial justice, created neutral space via WIMS for African American and Jewish "bridge leaders," a phrase coined by historian Belinda Robnett, to describe women's leadership in interpersonal politics and community organizing.
While it is accurate to describe the activists of the Wednesdays in Mississippi campaign as privileged due to their class or race, that characterization does not do this movement justice. I wished for more analysis about the distinction between maternalism and respectability as a political tactic beyond Progressive Era municipal housekeeping. While their class and race gave these women social access, it was their subversive political vision that maintained an interracial coalition was not only possible, but also necessary and effective. Harwell foregrounds the religious motives for their work as a way to mark these women of the South, not outside agitators. And yet, references to politics, particularly socialist or communist, are downplayed (as they were used to discredit Northerners as outsiders in the movement). Height and others, as influenced by Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, marked a continuity of Progressive Party principles, not only Progressive Era reform politics. WIMS's legacy for us today is the importance of creating spaces where political opponents, divided by race, religion, and politics can become acquainted, engage, and disagree in a safe space, and move beyond their differences toward better understanding and possibly social reconciliation and justice.
Amy C. Schneidhorst
University of Michigan
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|Author:||Schneidhorst, Amy C.|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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