Life Questions: Memories of Women Civil Rights Leaders
Rogers, Kim Lacy, The Journal of African American History
On the cover of the program brochure for the Public Forum "Louisiana Women in the Civil Rights Era: From Memory to Education" are photographs of two very different and important community activists in the New Orleans struggle for black freedom. On the right is Mrs. Oretha Castle Haley, the determined African American leader of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and a veteran of many local directaction demonstrations in the city. Mrs. Haley continued her political efforts after the peak movement years by becoming involved in local politics, and in early childhood education. On the left side of the brochure is a photograph of Mrs. Rosa Freeman Keller, an heiress of the local Coca-Cola fortune and an Urban League stalwart in the 1950s, years when leadership in a bi-racial organization could be dangerous and personally traumatic. Mrs. Keller used her considerable influence, charm, and political capital to push for library desegregation in New Orleans in the 1950s, to campaign to kee p public schools open during the 1960-61 school crisis, and to promote African American voting rights and political participation. She also funded the lawsuit that resulted in the integration of Tulane University.
I had the privilege of interviewing both women between 1978 and 1988 when I worked on a Ph.D. dissertation which later became a book on New Orleans' civil rights leadership. (1) Although I was able to interview Mrs. Haley only once, I was able to spend a number of hours with Mrs. Keller during several interviews between 1978 and 1988. At the time of my interviews, Mrs. Haley was a large, commanding presence, and the force of her personality permeated her interview narrative. Mrs. Keller, although thin and slow-moving due to several strokes, possessed a keen and analytical mind, great warmth, and a melodic, gracious voice that seemed to soften the gravity of her most difficult experiences.
In 1989, I also interviewed Doris Jean Castle-Scott, Oretha Castle Haley's younger sister and a veteran of local demonstrations, the Freedom Rides of 1961, and other community actions. She had entered the local CORE chapter because she was "following my big sister." At the time of our interview, Castle-Scott was a slender, intense woman, who, in 1989, still very much mourned the recent deaths of her sister Oretha and her brother-in-law Richard Haley. She spoke of her sister's strength and vulnerability, and of her great hope that the lives of ordinary African Americans would be much improved by political change.
These three very different women shared with me their memories of childhood and youth, their awareness and feelings about racial segregation and oppression, and their own experiences in trying to change the political and social system of New Orleans and the United States. They voiced their sense of pride in what they saw as real achievements, and their disappointment about changes that appeared only slowly and inadequately. While their stories were infused with the hopes that had guided their activism, all three voiced disappointment that the movement years seemed to have been replaced by the Age of Reagan and George Bush the First.
In the years since I interviewed New Orleans civil rights leadership, I have had the privilege of talking with many other African American community leaders in four counties in the Mississippi Delta. (2) These experiences have made me aware of the complexities of personal moral development and social movement leadership among women who were also wives, mothers, schoolteachers, businesswomen, farmers, and Head Start workers in their most politically active years. The complexities of these women leaders' experiences and their perceptions of major social change are topics I would like to examine.
At the Public Forum we were in the presence of women who experienced the injustices of the age of segregation in Louisiana. And we had the opportunity to hear their stories about how they worked to change the situation of African Americans in the state and nation. It was a privilege to be in the presence of so many women leaders who have so much to teach us. Their stories relate each woman's experience, her reflections on and analysis of that experience, and the wisdom of her years as an individual who has been embedded in community life.
It is important that these women are more than 50 years of age. Psychologists and researchers of memory tell us that we begin to reflect more thoroughly on our lives, and on the history we have lived, after we reach that half-century mark. It is in mid- and late-life that we seek to see the meaning in the patterns of our actions and in the struggles of those around us. In these years, Erik Erikson suggested, we focus more on generational issues rather than personal ambition and achievement; we become concerned with what we can pass on to future generations, and on what we can give back to our communities. At 50, we have lived long enough to accept certain experiences as defeats, and others as victories; we have also lived long enough to see that those two kinds of experiences are in fact connected, and that each could not exist without the other. We can see our experiences as a continuum in which life has presented us with contradictions and challenges, and has allowed us to learn (or to refuse to learn) from the difficult lessons of failure and great fortune. (3)
If we ask questions thoughtfully, and listen carefully, we can learn a great deal from the women leaders among us. We can learn about the texture of life in segregated communities, and about the ways in which that life has and has not changed since the Civil Rights Movement. We can also learn about the experience of activism for each woman, whether that participation included sitting-in at a dime store lunch counter, organizing a local voter-registration drive, or becoming a plaintiff in a lawsuit that granted African American public school teachers salaries that equaled those of their white counterparts. We can learn how it felt to be one of the first African American children in an all-white New Orleans public school in 1960-1961, or how it felt to desegregate Tulane University. We can also learn about church-based activism from women who variously tried to change the practices of their religious organizations. We need, however, to ask appropriate questions.
When I thought about what I might discuss at this forum, I wondered what might be of some use to the activists, the audience, and the interviewers who will talk to the Louisiana leaders in the future. It seemed very important …
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Publication information: Article title: Life Questions: Memories of Women Civil Rights Leaders. Contributors: Rogers, Kim Lacy - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Publication date: Summer 2002. Page number: 355+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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