Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Women's Interracial Teams - Wenesdays in Mississippi

BOND: Let's talk a bit about Wednesdays in Mississippi. The idea comes from Polly Cowan.


BOND: How did it come about?

HEIGHT: Well, you know, in the summer of '64, Bob Moses set up the Freedom Schools, and when the word got out that he would be having volunteers from all the major Ivy League and other colleges, the word was also out that these were communists going there. And Polly Cowan, whose husband had been in television and the like, was accompanying her husband to England, and she wrote back to me a card on which she said, "Hearing all these mixed messages about the Freedom Schools. I think it would be very good if we had the Cadillac crowd of interracial teams go into Mississippi, on what we could call Wednesdays in Mississippi, and do some service, carry our message, and the like, and see how we could be helpful and support all these young people who'll be down there working."

Well, we developed that idea, and Polly Cowan and I together set up the whole plan. We trained our staff. We had to have an interracial staff. But the idea was that we would have interracial teams of women, all of whom had to have some talent. It was not to be a come-and-see, it was not to be a visit. They were to go in to do something. They had to contribute something in the schools. They also had to commit themselves to preparing on Tuesday, going in on Wednesday. We met separately in our racial groups in the daytime, and then we ate together in the evening as an interracial group, and left on Thursdays. But in the course of all of this, they had to agree that they would go back home and work on civil rights in their own communities.

BOND: So they are engaged not only in Mississippi, but have to pledge to do something --

HEIGHT: Back home.

BOND: -- when they return home. Now, I imagine many of these women probably were already active.

HEIGHT: Many were very active, but it was really not only to be active, but to carry the true story what was happening in Mississippi back to their communities. Because, you know, all during that time it was very hard to get the truth out about what young people were doing, what the whole Freedom Movement was about. And it was a support system to that group of young people in that movement, but also a base for making connections for people to say, "In Minnesota you may not have exactly the same problem, but there is some aspect of civil rights you could be working on. In your particular community, you could be helpful." But you also have to be able to say what young people are doing to try to bring freedom and how they were --

BOND: Now, was it difficult to recruit the white women who went?

HEIGHT: Well, we were very selective. We started with some we knew. And then after a while it was interesting -- women began to call and said they would be interested. In the end, 114 women went down during the summers. They took the risks. I remember some white women said -- I remember one saying, "Well, if my husband knew that I was in this meeting, he would give me a divorce." She said, "But I have to think of my children and my grandchildren." And other women, black women, who when they came together said, "We have never met together before, but we're never going to separate again." So that we were able to make connections and bring women together.

BOND: Now, if it's difficult to recruit the northern white women who went, how difficult was it to recruit the southern Mississippi white women with whom they met?

HEIGHT: Yeah, we were -- we -- that was very hard, but we were very fortunate. We had Ann Hewitt, and Pat [M.] Derian, who later became, in the Carter administration, responsible for human rights. Women -- those -- we called them our anchors, and those women helped us to be in touch with other women. Jane Scott, who was very active in the Church Women's Movement, she drew in others who were there. But it was very interesting how that circle grew and it widened so that you had white women as well as black women, and when they came together, it was an experience that would be even hard to describe. What it meant when those women came together and shared what they had been doing during the day, it created a new sense of determination. And The New York Times called saying that the women had gone behind the "cotton curtain." And it was true, because we did it quietly, there was no publicity. But there was an earnestness.

And I think the thing that Polly Cowan and I felt all the time was that when we sat down to do our debriefing, that so many of those women would say even they had not seen exactly what was happening. The way in which Mississippi law enforcement was treating people -- they had never witnessed that before.

When she and I were traveling and went into Hattiesburg, for example, we were followed by a car. We looked, and as we got into the church, a cocktail, a Molotov cocktail, came through the window, and naturally it fizzled. We were glad it did. But a student from Oberlin ran to the organ and played the "Hallelujah Chorus," and everybody stood and sang it as if we all had been a chorus. You'd have thought we had all been trained together. But there was that sense of relief. So that it was not an easy thing that people were doing. They took risks. But there was a sense that we may not be achieving everything, but we felt that there's a nucleus of people there who went on working.

BOND: It strikes me this is one of those things you can’t measure

HEIGHT:  no...

BOND:  You don’t know what kind of ripple effect it has, and because it was so undercover, there are not many records of remembrances about this

HEIGHT:  no...

BOND:  I know Polly Cowan’s daughter, Holly Shulman, is trying to recreate some of this but it’s a difficult job.

HEIGHT:  And I think it’s fairly important because one of the missing elements is the story of women in the civil rights movement.  Because people often talk about me working with these great men –Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and all – that’s true.  That was the leadership strategy kind of group.  But behind that, the marches were predominantly women and youth and children.  So many of things that the women were doing that had not come to notice.  So that’s why I think it is going to be very significant to have this story now lifted up so that people can be able to see it and hear it and know more about what women were doing.