Black Women in the Struggle and Wednesdays in Mississippi
One day near the beginning of the 1964 school year, Robert Williams called me into his office to tell me that he had received a call from Dr. Christiansen, the principal of Lincoln Junior High School in North Minneapolis. Christiansen was a keenly observant man who cared about his students, and he shared with us a pattern that was concerning him. His records showed that over a number of years the outcomes for Black girls who were high achieving when they entered eighth grade had decreased significantly by midyear. He thought it may have been due to the difficulty most students experience when transitioning from elementary school to junior high, but he did not want to risk taking that for granted. Because he wanted those students to succeed, he asked the Urban League for help.
I recruited a group of college-trained professional Black women—teachers, social workers, administrators, researchers—all mothers themselves. We met with Dr. Christiansen and after learning about and appreciating his long history with the students of Lincoln Junior High, we accepted the challenge to mentor the eight girls whom he had selected based in part on their elementary grades and behavior.
The women and I then met to discuss what our role would be in mentoring the girls. Like Dr. Christiansen, we too understood the difficulties inherent in the transition from elementary to junior high school. But in meeting with him, we also learned about something else: Black students who were not doing well often accused their peers who were achieving highly in school of “acting white.” Not knowing the emphasis that Black people historically placed on education, some Black students associated academic success with being white. It was very possible that the eight girls were trying to avoid having to face that problem. If they didn’t do well in school, they could be like the majority of students who were not acting white.
The natural African culture of caring for our students was and is very strong—holding children close, protecting them from any signs of harm, and telling them stories of their ancestors. We wanted those girls to learn about their history and their ancestral connection to education. We named our program the Junior Service League, and our goal was to keep the girls interested and motivated toward academic success, from then until they graduated high school, preparing them along the way for college acceptance. As mentors, we knew that the parents would have a strong influence on their daughters, so we invited them to meet and discuss our approach to mentoring the girls. Each mentor would meet with her mentee and her family and would develop a plan to attend events and programs. The parents were warm, accepting, and pleased with our plans.
Once we received parental permission, each Junior Service League member selected the young lady she would mentor. In addition, we agreed to meet with the girls’ parents monthly to keep them apprised of what we were doing and to get their feedback. Our mothers also spent time with their families observing our method of interacting with their children, so they could approve of what we were doing. There was a feeling of familiarity reflective of African American culture in which people were used to family, relatives, and close friends helping in the development of children.
We all understood that the role of a mentor went beyond academic tutoring. The mentor models positive behavior. We understood that we were to be dependable, engaged in the needs of our student, and authentic. It was also critical that each mentee understood her role. She had to build trust in her mentor. She had to follow through on commitments we made to each other. She had to be open and honest and give us feedback on the goals we agreed to. It took time but we met our goals. Our students graduated.
The first summer of our program, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, also known as the Federal War on Poverty. And in the following year, the Upward Bound program was launched as a part of that act. Stan Salett, a civil rights organizer, national education policy adviser, and one of the creators of the Head Start program, founded Upward Bound to provide low-income high school students with opportunities to prepare them for college.
I applied and the Junior Service League was accepted. Our girls were the first group of Black students to enroll in Upward Bound. Participants received instruction in literature, mathematics, and science on college campuses after school and on Saturdays, and during the summer at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The program provided transportation to and from the colleges.
I was blessed with two mentees, Pamela Blackamoore and Cheryl Jones. Later, Cheryl’s mother went back to college and completed her undergraduate degree and her social work degree, becoming an awarding-winning social worker in our community. Cheryl became an outstanding administrator in the Minneapolis public schools and a supporter of many community programs focused on young people. Her family was a part of one of the old Minneapolis families. Her uncle, Richard Green, became the Minneapolis School Superintendent in the 1980s.
Pamela became my family’s fourth daughter. She spent weekends, holidays, and family events with us. My daughters loved her and treated her like family. We spent time in parks, looking at sunsets, and studying flowers and rocks. Pamela completed her college and advanced studies and became the director of the engineering and transportation department for the Minneapolis Public Schools.
I was thrilled when many years later, on March 18, 2008, several of the Upward Bound alumni gave me an award at Olson Junior High in North Minneapolis. My brother, Jim, was visiting from Houston and went with me. He was proud when he heard their tribute to me:
We honor you today for your humanitarian spirit,
your love for your people and mankind everywhere, your determined spirit to uplift, and your dynamic smile.
Josie, you are exceptional in every way, unforgettable to all who come in contact with you. We were blessed and empowered by your mentoring of Lincoln Junior High’s little black girls with big dreams.
The afternoon ended with Cheryl Jones reading a lovely statement from her mother, Gladys Randle. Gladys was not only the mother of a Junior Service League member; she would also participate in other important efforts of ours in the coming years. From there, she went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota and eventually won several prestigious awards for her work in the field. In the statement Cheryl read, her mother praised me and my colleague Millie Roberts, saying, “I will always feel indebted to these two strong women who provided the courage and push I needed to complete my dreams.”
By 1964, I had been a member of Delta Sigma Theta for fourteen years, having been initiated in 1950, the year before I graduated from Fisk. Delta Sigma Theta is the largest African American sorority and the fourth oldest, having been founded in 1913 at Howard University. Its mission and purpose are public service with a primary focus on the Black community.
Dorothy Height, who had been initiated in 1939 when I was nine years old, had been elected the sorority’s president in 1951. Her history of civil rights work was already legendary when I entered Fisk, and she was a strong influence on my desperate desire to be accepted as a pledgee and become a Delta before graduating.
Until her death in 2010 at ninety-eight years of age, Dr. Height held many prestigious positions and was a formidable figure in political circles. She was the first Black staff member of the National YWCA and was president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for four decades. She followed the leadership and distinguished career of the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black college/university in Daytona, Florida. Dr. Bethune was appointed special adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was friends with the president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She also founded the NCNW in 1935. Like Dr. Bethune, Dorothy Height also served as a consultant to five U.S. presidents on the issue of civil rights and as such invited and accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting of the council.
Dorothy was friends with people who were important to civil rights such as author/historian/sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois; the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, instrumental in the success of Brown v. Board of Education; journalist and publisher Daisy Bates, who played a major role in the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957; civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who cofounded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and Rosa Parks, known today as “the First Lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.”
Dorothy also knew Dr. Kenneth Clark, author of the now-famous Doll Test, which he and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, devised in the 1940s to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Their subjects, children between the ages of three and seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they preferred. A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that prejudice, discrimination, and segregation created a feeling of inferiority among African American children and damaged their self-esteem. Kenneth Clark was the first Black psychologist to earn a doctorate at Columbia University, to hold a permanent professorship at City College of New York, and to become president of the American Psychological Association. The doll test was part of his testimony in Brown v. Board of Education. In 2010, nearly two years after the election of Barack Obama, our first Black president—and nearly seventy years after Drs. Clark devised the doll test—CNN commissioned renowned child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development, to reinstitute it. Some would say that the Clarks would turn over in their graves if they saw that the results were the same as when they first developed it in the 1940s.
Dorothy Height was also among the women on the Lincoln Memorial stage with Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. And in 1967, she involved our sorority in a housing project that became known as the Sweat Equity Project. Following conversations with poor Black women in Mississippi, she along with Dorothy Dukes—the NCNW’s housing expert—and Unita Blackwell, who would later become the first Black woman mayor in Mississippi, convinced officials at the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department, the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), and a host of Mississippi housing experts to allow families who qualified for public housing to purchase HUD-held properties without a cash down payment. Instead, they were required to do $200 worth of maintenance work—sweat equity—as their down payment. The NCNW organized a homebuyers’ association that trained members to repair, maintain, and occupy their homes for five years on a cooperative basis.
I was blessed to know Dr. Height well. I served with her on the National Board of Delta Sigma Theta and on the National Council of Negro Women when I became president of the Twin Cities Council in the early 1960s. She requested my involvement in many projects in which I was unable to participate because of time constraints. However, a call I received from her in the spring of 1964 was an invitation to participate in a project that I could not turn down. She told me that she and several of her peers (the leaders of other women’s organizations—the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, and United Church Women) had convened a three-day summit in Atlanta to address the treatment of women and girls who were jailed for their civil rights activities. She said that the women had heard firsthand accounts of brutalities inflicted on civil rights workers. And just as the session was about to end, Claire Harvey, the spokeswoman for the Jackson, Mississippi, group, issued a plea for northern women to visit regularly that summer and try to build bridges of communication between Jackson’s Black and white communities.
She went on to tell me that she and her dear friend, Polly Cowan, of the National Council of Jewish Women, had decided to answer the call. They had heard that there was a lot of abuse of women and girls in their efforts to register and vote. They were organizing a project that they were calling Wednesdays in Mississippi. Every week that summer, small teams of Black and white women from Northern cities would travel to Mississippi in an effort to reach across the chasms of race, class, geography, and religion to help end segregation in America.
In the summer of 1964, there were many voter registration efforts taking place in the South. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) were planning the Mississippi Project, also known as Freedom Summer, a voter registration project. Approximately one hundred white college students had helped COFO register voters in November 1963, and now several hundred more Black and white students were invited back for Freedom Summer. SNCC organizer Robert Moses had made a call for white Ivy League students to volunteer, and Polly Cowan thought this would be a perfect time for Northern women from what she called the “Cadillac crowd”—women of stature, both Black and white, of various faiths and interests, who appeared beyond reproach—to follow suit. Every week in June and July 1964, a new group of women would go to Mississippi from Tuesday through Thursday.
I was deeply honored by Dorothy’s invitation to participate in this—the only civil rights project organized by and for women. Wednesdays in Mississippi would be a project that would consist of seven interracial and interfaith teams of five to seven women tasked with secretly bringing supplies and much-needed support to small rural Mississippi communities where local Black citizens and Black and white civil rights workers from the North were facing daily violence and constant harassment as they worked side by side to end legalized segregation. Because the attorney general ordered that we couldn’t talk about the project to others, it would later be classified as a “quiet project” of courage, danger, and transformation.
Chuck and I had a lengthy discussion about the wisdom of accepting Dorothy’s invitation and going on this trip. He had been incredibly patient and supportive of my many late-night meetings, our late dinners, and so many other inconveniences. But there were very real dangers associated with voter registration in the South, and in particular in Mississippi. Civil rights workers faced constant abuse and harassment from Mississippi’s white population. The KKK, police, and even state and local authorities carried out a systematic series of violent attacks including arson, beatings, false arrests, and murder. Three young college student activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, had recently gone missing and were feared dead, which caused some of the white Northerners who had been interested in Wednesdays in Mississippi to change their minds. Chuck and I had three little girls ages ten, eight, and six. We had to consider how he would care for them if I was jailed or badly injured, or worse, if I did not return. Was it worth it? We decided that the opportunity to be a part of such a creative and new effort to help the civil rights cause and to gather information about the struggle and courage of Black citizens in Mississippi was worth the risks. So we decided to have faith that the group would be protected and that I would return to him and our children safe and sound.
Polly Cowan became the director of the project and the National Council of Negro Women backed it financially. She organized volunteers with the help of the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women. An impressive group of women were recruited to go, including the wife of the governor of New Jersey and the wife of the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Minneapolis team was identified as Team 4 and was composed of two Black women, myself and Mary Kyle, publisher of the Twin Cities Courier, and two white women, Maxine Nathanson of the National Council of Jewish Women, and Barbara Cunningham, chair of the Brooklyn Center Human Relations Committee.
I was very impressed with the way the project was organized: every detail was meticulously coordinated, including travel and safety precautions, how we would interact with one another while in Mississippi, and how we would dress. Many of the women had never been to the South. For them, this would be a lesson in the Southern way of life. For instance, the Black and white women could not be seen speaking to each other publicly and could not lodge together. We were told of police traps such as handmade stop signs or extremely low speed limits. And so that we wouldn’t stand out, we were advised to dress like the women of the South. The white women were advised to wear white gloves and we Black women were advised to dress in the manner of the people we were relating to so as to meld into the Black community. It was Dorothy’s contention, and rightly so, that “we could not bring about change if we went down there and tried to upset it.” We all had to agree to use our own specific talents to help the Black residents of Mississippi and commit to work on civil rights in our own communities once we returned to them.
Virginia Bourne, vice president of the Southern region of the YWCA, came to Minneapolis to give us a thorough orientation. We would fly to Chicago together and then have to separate and not be allowed to speak to one another in public again until we returned home, for fear that our Northern accents could cause us harm. In fact, we were forbidden to speak aloud in public at all, for the same reason. Chuck and I had been away from our home state of Texas for nearly ten years and had acquired enough of a Northern accent that it could have been detected by a listening ear, so I knew it was important to comply. In addition, we were given strict instructions by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the brother of our late president, that because we were helping to effect massive change in an environment known for horrific violence against Black people and civil rights workers, we must tell no one that we were going except his office and our immediate families.
The Minneapolis team was scheduled to go to Mississippi on July 28–30 in 1964. We would fly into Jackson on Tuesday, visit a freedom school in Vicksburg on Wednesday, and return home on Thursday. My poor little girls’ tears on the day I left were heart wrenching. Chuck and I had been candid with our children. They knew where I was going and why, and they knew of the danger, even the possibility that they may not see their mother again. Yet we all knew that I had to do this, though they may not have understood fully because of their young ages.
Our team met at the Minneapolis airport and flew to Chicago. When we reached Chicago, Virginia made sure that the two Black women and the two white women would be separated for the remainder of the trip. Our four team members had bonded over the months of planning, and it was very difficult for us to suddenly have to act like we didn’t know each other. Maxine was particularly shocked and upset when we were told to separate. We’d had two orientations, but she missed the one where this information was shared, and unfortunately none of us had remembered to tell her.
We couldn’t help being a little afraid. We didn’t know what we were going to face in Mississippi. But there were times when I had to ask myself why I was so scared. I grew up in the segregated South, in Houston, where my family and I were denied the right to drink from certain water fountains, dine in certain restaurants, and were relegated to use the “colored” restrooms when we were out in public. But Mississippi was different—it presented far more danger than I had ever felt in Texas. I felt more afraid in Mississippi, very unsafe. I didn’t know how our people survived the attitude and behavior I was seeing and feeling.
When our plane landed in Jackson, Maxine and Barbara were greeted by their host family and immediately whisked off, leaving Mary and me standing there waiting for our host family, who was late. I was unnerved, convinced that the Klan had done something evil to them and was lying in wait for us. I looked around the airport, frantically imagining Klansmen everywhere and trying to identify which of the people moving around the airport might be KKK, sure that they would not wear their white robes and hoods in such a public place. The ten minutes Mary and I had to wait for our host family seemed like hours. We were so relieved when they arrived. It turned out that the wife, who was a teacher, had been delayed at a meeting she had to attend at her school. Later, Maxine would tell us that she was taken aback when she and Barbara entered their family’s home. The hostess rushed to close the drapes in her fine home in a well-kept neighborhood, fearing that her neighbors would see strange guests and cause harm to her family.
The activities of our two teams on Tuesday were very different. Maxine and Barbara met with local ladies in one of their living rooms over tea and cookies. The Southern white women openly discussed their fears and suspicions about the civil rights movement and many, for the first time, voiced their support for change. At that time in Mississippi, mixing with outsiders had dire consequences, yet the women came and listened, and their hearts and minds began to open. Those clandestine meetings became the catalyst for great change.
When Mary and I left the airport, our hosts took us to a meeting in a Black Baptist church where people were receiving orientation and instruction on voter registration activities. When we drove up to the church, I was surprised to see two men with shotguns guarding the church during the meeting. I noticed that they took turns: one would walk around the perimeter of the church while the other stood guard. Inside, we were greeted warmly and learned much about the procedures that were being used to help Black citizens get registered to vote. At the end of the meeting we were taken to a café. I couldn’t help cringing when the owner, a kindly, concerned man, warned us to watch our every step.
We were then taken to our host family’s home to settle in and sleep. Before going to bed, our wonderful host invited us into her living room where we had a serious and deep conversation. Hearing her share her experiences of living in Jackson during that volatile time coupled with seeing the courage of the people at the church helped us settle in to prepare for the activities that would take place on Wednesday. Both the white and Black host families were instructed to give us another briefing on our trip and a packet that contained our itinerary, schedules, a copy of The Northside Reporter (a weekly newspaper published in Jackson and edited by Pulitzer Prize–winner Hazel Brannon Smith), a pamphlet on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, The Student Voice (published weekly in Atlanta), a sheet explaining the Mississippi Summer Project, a two-page piece on incidents that had taken place in Mississippi on July 17–20, and another pamphlet distributed by the Citizens Council. I believe each team was given updated incident reports for the week they were there.
Wednesday was the day the quiet revolution took place. The day was packed with activities, beginning with a visit to Jackson State University, a historically black university, where we met with teachers-in-training. The teachers told us that Negro schools were given outdated and dilapidated books that had been passed down after white students finished with them. Some of the books were filled with brainwashing information that espoused segregation, such as “God did not intend for people to be equal or integrated. He made black birds, red birds, robins, etc., and you never see them mixing.” They told us that the children in both Black and white schools were brainwashed from the cradle throughout their educational experiences. We were saddened to learn that Black students were discouraged from affiliating with the movement, told that it would interfere with their education.
Immediately following our time at Jackson State, the four members of our team met at a hotel where we were given the supplies we would take to the freedom school in Vicksburg and were picked up by the friendly young Black man who would drive us there. Once we were in the car heading for the highway, he told us the drive would be about forty-five minutes. Under other circumstances, we would have enjoyed a relaxing drive, but there we were, two Black women and two white women in a car being driven by a Black man, with a car full of white people following close behind quietly but threateningly, trying to intimidate us by their presence. We knew that anything could happen in the time it would take to get to the freedom school. It was the longest forty-five minutes I have ever spent.
As we drove along, the stunning beauty of the landscape surprised me. Mississippi is a beautiful state. The countryside is full of lush green grass and fragrant magnolia, cypress, and evergreen trees under an endless sky. It was a beauty marred by the state’s terrible history of Klansmen burning crosses in front of the homes of my people, sometimes burning their houses down because of perceived or made-up crimes, a beauty marred by lynchings echoed in the lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” the song made famous by Billie Holiday: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” It was hard to reconcile that beauty with the evil and ugliness, the horrible abuse of people that was going on down there. As in our Twin Cities, the Mississippi River flows along Vicksburg. Down there, though, it is as wide as the ocean. As we drove over the marshlands stretching out on both sides of the highway, I couldn’t help wondering if the bodies of the missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner might be found there.
The organized freedom schools were established in 1964 during Freedom Summer. By then it was undeniable that the Brown v. Board of Education ruling wasn’t working, as the South continued its pattern of segregation. Mississippi closed all of its public schools and white children were sent to “academies.” Black children had no place left to learn. The freedom schools were intended to be temporary alternative schools for Black elementary through high school students to achieve social, political, and economic equality. Volunteer teachers taught them. Some of the schools were held in parks, kitchens, residential homes, or outside under trees, but most were held in churches or church basements. We had been told that the freedom school in Vicksburg was one of the worst, if not the worst, in Mississippi. When we arrived, I saw why. The school was in a dilapidated old house in an isolated area high on a hill. A widow named Mrs. Brown lived there with her eight children. Behind the house was a barn that had been converted to a library, where we observed college students sorting boxes of books sent from the North and placing them on newly configured library shelves. Those Black and white college students served as both teachers and librarians. When we toured the school and talked with the children and the teacher/librarians, we witnessed the hope and promise of change that was engendered there even as we experienced firsthand the devastating results of racial injustice. We were saddened to learn from our host family and again from the workers at the freedom school that there was a hush in the Black community. People in certain positions were afraid of losing their jobs. Further, they feared worse things could be done to them, so they tended to be very guarded, unsure of how much they could say.
When we left the school, our driver took us to see Vicksburg’s Black community. First we drove through a relatively nice district with homes that appeared secure. But then, just one block later, we went through a community of poorly constructed, weather-beaten row houses and shacks built on stilts, some without windows, others with broken windows. I was immediately reminded of the houses near my childhood home on Rusk Street in Houston—a community with poorly designed, shotgun-style houses like the ones I saw here in Mississippi. My heart broke as I remembered the fire that destroyed the Mills family’s home, and I wondered if there were any families in the nicer neighborhood who, like my parents, would take in families left homeless if there were to be a fire. Yet I was also struck by the friendliness of the people who lived in those ramshackle homes. Many were sitting on the steps of those old houses and waved as we drove by. There is one woman whose image is still with me to this day. We had stopped to get a closer view of the area that our driver said was patterned after the plantations from slavery times. The woman was thin and was wearing a tattered blue work dress. And she looked tired, since she had probably been working all day. Yet she was so pleasant to us, bearing out the Southern way of showing kindness to strangers.
Before leaving Vicksburg, we attended an underground meeting at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, where an interfaith group of priests, pastors, and rabbis were meeting together: Father John Kist, the church’s priest; a Methodist clergy; two Episcopal clergymen; a rabbi; a young married woman; a young couple; and a COFO student named John Ferguson. Except for Mary and me, the group was all white. We learned that those clerics wanted to do something but felt as though their hands were tied. They told us that attempts had been made throughout the state of Mississippi to get interracial groups together to discuss the problem, but there was one stumbling block after another. They were reluctant to speak out to their congregations, unsure of which, if any, of their members were KKK or police who were supposed to enforce the law but refused to do so, reporting them to the authorities if they spoke favorably about voter registration.
Following the meeting, we returned to Jackson. We quickly ate box lunches at the YWCA and then were rushed to the Federal Court House for a hearing of the State Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission, where we would hear Black people testify to a judge about ill treatment they had received from police and employers. We were about an hour late because our morning activities in Vicksburg were of such great interest that it was hard to break away. We were told that only a few people agreed to sit on the committee, which was composed of four Blacks and five whites who had volunteered to counsel the people who were testifying on the most effective ways to ensure that they would be heard.
We sat in the back of the courtroom and listened as adults and children testified about treatment they had suffered at the hands of police officers. We heard story after story of false arrests and of people losing their jobs because they had gone to a voter rights meeting. Horrible stories. Mother after mother pleaded with the judge to release their children from jail, mostly teenage boys, who had been beaten by policemen and arrested for no reason; we heard from fathers and teachers who had been fired from their jobs, and from people telling of their cars being set on fire. Except for one young COFO boy, everyone who presented evidence was Black.
Maxine said she could not believe that the horrible incidents we heard in the courtroom that day could happen in America. The treatment described was worse than the way animals were treated, and protection was completely absent. Mary and I, the two Blacks on our team, were unfortunately not surprised. We were all too aware of the crimes committed by people and agencies enlisted to protect and to serve. Nor were we surprised to hear that laws were often made up at the time a so-called crime was committed. However, we were all dismayed that no matter how much the people who testified cried and pleaded, the judge was unmoved. He did not release anyone from jail; he showed no mercy whatsoever.
Wednesday night ended with a delightful dinner at Tougaloo College with the president, Dr. Adam Beittel, his wife, and faculty members. Dinner was served by students, who spoke of Tougaloo as the “oasis of the South.” It was such a wonderful climax for our Minnesota team’s trip to Mississippi. After dinner, Dr. Beittel essentially confirmed all that we had seen and experienced in the two days we were there. However, hearing it from a man of his stature reassured us, at least the two white members of our team, that the conditions we saw were not simply a way to sell newspapers. In addition, he helped us to better understand that the fear of white citizens who felt the need for change was not being dramatized to attract attention: it was very real.
We left early Thursday morning, boarding the plane separately, with the good wishes of Virginia Bourne, who had come to Minneapolis to train us. But when we arrived back in Minneapolis, we received devastating news: the Vicksburg freedom school we visited had been bombed Wednesday night. Thankfully no one was at the school at the time, but I was crushed with feelings of guilt, wondering if it was our fault. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if we had stayed home or not visited the school.
I didn’t have much time to stay immersed in those guilty feelings. It was back to family life. Chuck and the girls couldn’t stop hugging me, they were so relieved that I returned home safely. And the team had much more work to do. Part of our commission was that all the members of each of the seven Wednesdays in Mississippi teams from across the country were to work on civil rights in their respective communities once they returned home. The idea was to persuade Congress to act on the need for voter rights, voter registration, and the protection of our people.
Participating in Wednesdays in Mississippi and witnessing what we saw and heard in Jackson had a lasting effect on me. It showed me just how mean people can be—the human-to-human level of meanness. It made me aware of the depths of the teachings of white supremacy and racism, and the legacy of the teaching of slave owners who justified their treatment of our ancestors and created laws to support that teaching. I have concluded that although the struggle takes on different forms and requires different strategies, the basic struggle is the same.
The Wednesdays in Mississippi quiet revolution worked. It contributed greatly to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, and enacted by the 89th Congress. We were only then allowed to talk more freely about our experience. However, only Maxine Nathanson and I were able by then—Mary Kyle had passed away, and we had lost contact with Barbara Cunningham. Maxine and I were invited to talk about Wednesdays in Mississippi in Twin Cities Black communities, and we received invitations to speak in suburban communities as well.
Once our trip was made public through newspaper articles, Maxine and her husband received several very frightening anti-Semitic phone calls. Her husband thought they should ignore the calls, but after having seen firsthand the evil that racist and anti-Semitic individuals are capable of, Maxine believed they needed to take those calls very seriously. But that didn’t stop her from continuing with the work.
I am so excited that there has been a renewed interest in Wednesdays in Mississippi. In 2011, I was invited by a young Black filmmaker, Marlene McCurtis, to participate in a panel discussion in Memphis. She has been developing a documentary about the program and arranged several appearances and presentations with the program’s participants. There we were, presented in a public forum in a beautiful new library, to the city of Memphis, along with the Little Rock Nine and their surviving Central High classmates. At the time of this writing, Marlene McCurtis is still working on the film, and we all hope she will be able to raise enough funds to complete it.
In June 2014, during the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, an intergenerational conference was held in Jackson to commemorate it and to continue the encouragement of our youth. I participated in a panel discussion about Wednesdays in Mississippi, along with women who served on teams from several other communities and staff member Susan Goodwillie. Also in 2014, Debbie Harwell published a book, Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964. The book had begun as her dissertation, and she invited me and other Wednesday in Mississippi participants to an event in my hometown at the University of Houston for an event to celebrate its publication.
In 1965, the Office of Economic Development created an experimental project that brought Twin Cities private agency social workers and the federal government together in a partnership to assist parents in low-income communities in developing better parenting skills. Called Project ENABLE (Education and Neighborhood Action for Better Living Environment), it was the first project in the nation to bring a federal government agency together with private social service agencies to share their practices and knowledge of working with communities in order to support the strengthening of family life in a disadvantaged community.
The project established partnerships among the Urban League, the Jewish Family Children’s Service, the Minneapolis Family and Children’s Service, and the federal government. I was the director of the Minneapolis project, assisted by my colleague Millie Roberts, a seasoned social worker who worked with the Minneapolis Family and Children’s Service. Willie Mae Wilson, president of the St. Paul Urban League, directed the project in St. Paul.
The objective of Project ENABLE was to help poor parents identify their most troubling parenting issues and to engage existing community resources to help them improve their child rearing practices. We developed a list of respected individuals in each community. We shared contacts and began having neighborhood discussion groups, working together to plan the methods we would use to engage with and help our families to share their concerns. The concerns turned out to be more than child rearing issues: they were also about the effects of poverty and racism on both parents and children.
A curriculum evolved from the discussions. We began training professional staff on effective ways of listening to parents, which proved helpful in addressing their concerns. During this phase, we were able to help some of our parents recognize the connection between negative responses to their children’s behavior and their fear for their children’s safety and well-being. For Black parents, this fear originated in slavery when there was an urgency to protect children from the very real threats their actions could have on their lives. Too often our parents believe that they need to employ harsh parenting tactics in order to help their children, especially boys. Our task was to help parents understand this negative association and to teach them ways to begin responding differently.
I recall one day when I was walking down a busy street with a Minneapolis ENABLE parent and her child. The child moved too close to the street and the mother grabbed him, screamed at him, and called him unflattering names. I took the opportunity to talk with the mother about her reaction and helped her think about the effect her screaming and name-calling could have on him. I then showed her a better way that such an incident could be handled in the future. There were many such examples, and fortunately our parents welcomed the discussions about more positive parental reactions.
The Project ENABLE team believed there was much value in the teamwork and information sharing we engaged in, and the recruitment of helpers from the neighborhoods was very effective in helping us develop an appreciation of untapped resources. Working with people who are known and respected in their communities was ultimately very helpful in accomplishing our mission.
Unfortunately, there was only a two-year budget, andthe funding was not renewed. This was frustrating because two years was not enough time for us to model the methodology and value of methods we were testing. However, some of the agencies, including the Minneapolis Urban League, continued with the model. As with so many initiatives in Black communities, I have often wondered what would have happened if the program or a facsimile of it had been funded so that we could have continued with proper staffing and resources.
The parents and community enjoyed their time together. At the end of the program, the members of the Minneapolis ENABLE Mothers’ Club spent time creating a book of recipes, which one of the mothers requested so she could vary her family menus. The book was a gift each member gave one another at the end of the project. It also served as a reminder of our group.
Millie Roberts reported her observations about the impact she believed the project made on her work. As I have thought more about the possibilities of Project ENABLE—a program funded for listening to parents, appreciating the deep fear most Black parents had about the safety of their children, engaging social workers mindful of the public view of African American people, and collaborative methods to improve parenting skills—I felt that it could have responded to community and family needs in meaningful ways in the mid-1960s, when Black families were experiencing various forms of personal and collective stress.
The National Urban League is credited with developing the first organized social work course of study for African Americans at Fisk University. The influences of African American sociologist and first Black president of Fisk, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, as well as the research of Fisk graduate W. E. B. Du Bois on social services within the African American communities, caused me to switch my college major from medicine to sociology. If Project ENABLE had continued, I may have been able to continue employing my specialization, responding to family and community needs in productive ways.
Today, we Black people are once again talking about “saving our children.” We are returning to the trust in pioneer social workers such as Iris Carlton-LaNey and other African American social workers who are working as a collective group. We were aware of the early history written in 1898–1916 by those early social workers. They lived in the Black community, and as African Americans themselves, they shared many of the issues that affected their clients. They were determined to link the needs of the families they worked with to the resources they saw and felt would help. They were also aware of race issues—the historical experiences the community faced. The issues of self-help, understanding their behavior, and race pride were important to Black pioneers of social work practice.