Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Wednesdays in Mississippi: Uniting Women across Regional and Racial Lines, Summer 1964

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Wednesdays in Mississippi: Uniting Women across Regional and Racial Lines, Summer 1964

Article excerpt

COMING TOGETHER IN THE CENTER OF RACIAL UNREST AT THE PEAK of the civil rights movement, the women of Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) were a study in diversity: black and white; from the North and the South; from the nation's largest cities and smallest towns; privileged and disadvantaged; Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic; those who had earned Ph.D.'s and those who had been denied a formal education. Despite such divergent backgrounds, they shared a common bond as women desiring to bridge the widening racial divide. In the summer of 1964, teams of northern women went to Jackson, Mississippi, under the leadership of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), conducting weekly visits to their southern counterparts, to act as a calming influence in this otherwise volatile time. Participants in this unique program worked woman to woman, encouraging black and white women to communicate their concerns to one another and thereby realize that they shared common goals for their families and their communities. The organizers of WIMS believed that this type of understanding would ultimately lead to an integrated society and that this overarching goal could not be accomplished without support from the white middle-class community. According to the program leaders, no other national group of men or women appeared to be working with the specific goal of opening lines of communication between black and white middle-class women, particularly in Mississippi, to facilitate acceptance of integration and black enfranchisement in the South. (1)

A great deal has been written about high-profile civil rights organizations and their leaders; however, a number of other, often overlooked organizations and support systems--often composed of women--served as a backbone to the larger movement's success. Wednesdays in Mississippi was one such organization. Working outside the traditional power structures of both the broader civil rights movement and Mississippi society, black and white team members employed the intersecting identities of their gender, class, and age to open doors that otherwise would have remained closed to them. In this way, following southern protocol served as both their vehicle and their protection--an approach that was simultaneously unusual among civil rights organizations and quintessentially feminine. (2) Created by the NCNW, WIMS was the only civil rights program organized by women, for women, as part of a national women's organization. (3) Despite this distinction, WIMS is largely absent from the historiography on women in the civil rights movement and on Freedom Summer. This growing body of literature identifies patterns of women's activism within the movement, highlights several individual women who worked primarily in male-led organizations, and chronicles the NCNW and analyzes its leadership, but it does not detail the WIMS project history. Of the works concerning women in the movement, only three contain a brief mention of WIMS: NCNW president Dorothy Irene Height's autobiography, Open Wide the Freedom Gates; Kay Mills's biography, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer; and Deborah Gray White's study of black women's organizations, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994. (4)

The NCNW maintains extensive records on the project. Housed at the National Archives for Black Women's History (NABWH) located at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, D.C., the collection includes drafts of the original mission statement, reports of meetings, personal and official correspondence, individual and organizational reports, and team debriefing audiotapes and transcripts. The debriefings detail the events that transpired and outline the project's successes and failures as identified by the teams, while the reports by individual women add a more introspective assessment. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia serves as the repository for project director Polly Cowan's notebook, staffer Susan Goodwillie's diary, and several oral histories. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.