What Organizers Can Learn from the Women In Mississippi

The year was 1963. Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, had convened a meeting following the March on Washington in defiance of the March’s organizers. Height, like many others, had been frustrated by the unwillingness of the March’s male organizers to include a woman speaker on the program.

Height also recognized that it was what happened after the march that really mattered—and the task of bringing the ideals espoused on the National Mall to life.

That following summer, hundreds of student volunteers poured into Mississippi for the 1964 Freedom Summer to carry out the difficult and dangerous effort of opening Freedom Schools to help organize communities and register African Americans to vote. For the thousand or so students who participated in this, and countless more civil rights supporters around the country, this was an important example of democracy in action. But for many of those living in Mississippi, this appeared as an invasion.

Considering this point quickly leads to an under-appreciated element of the 1960s civil rights movements: while the attention went to the mass marches, the student protests and sit-ins—spearheaded by the National Council—were aimed squarely at changing the hearts and minds of Southern women. The group deliberately flew beneath the radar, not wanting to attract press attention out of concern that it might undermine their goals and imperil the safety of those sent to do the work.

In the months of the Freedom Summer, the NCNW quietly began sending small teams of women from the North and Upper Midwest—interfaith, interracial, middle-aged—into Mississippi for a few days at a time. The groups would arrive in Jackson on a Tuesday, spend Wednesday driving to smaller towns within the state and connecting with local women and talking to them about the goals of the student activists and the living conditions of African Americans in the state, and then fly back home on Thursday.

One of the main beliefs animating the project was that Southern women might be more receptive to other women who they felt were more similar to them than to the students staffing Freedom Schools. Instead, the Women in Mississippi were largely “upstanding” women in their own communities, wearing dresses, white gloves and pearls. As historian Rebecca Tuuri writes, through this private interpersonal activism women “hoped to transform themselves and their neighbors by sharing meals, meeting for coffee or praying together.”

It was hardly smooth: One of the organizers, Polly Cowan, wrote in the notes for a never-published book that the first team saw a Molotov Cocktail thrown at a church they were visiting outside of Hattiesburg.

The effort did not bring about a full transformation in race relations in the South, but it likely made local women more comfortable in talking about civil rights with their friends and reduced some concern about what was viewed as a student-led communist “invasion.” The effort also likely succeeded in transforming the views of many of the women who traveled South as a part of the program as they peered behind the “cotton curtain” and questioned some of their own beliefs about the region. After learning about the difficult conditions many people—in particular, rural African Americans—lived in, the organization began to hold workshops aimed at improving housing, living and social conditions in rural areas.

As an assistant professor at Northwestern University, I research and teach about social movements and political advocacy groups. I find this moment in time particularly moving both professionally and personally. Citizens of every stripe seem to be passionately engaged in considering the impact of a Trump presidency on basic issues that we often take for granted—like the separation of powers, civil rights and civil liberties. However, having seen how the quickly changing political landscape has moved people into action, I do not wish to see this investment in time and advocacy going to waste.

Concerns already abound that the Trump resistance movement is doomed to failure. For those hoping to bring about electoral change, the problem is both geographic—with the largest rallies occurring in places that Clinton won handily—and partisan—despite record low favorability ratings in the aggregate, Trump voters living in GOP strongholds actually approve of his job by fairly wide margins.

The unavoidable truth is that a more durable success is going to require changing at least a few minds. It is far from clear that all of those who voted for Trump felt strongly about his platform or position. Many made up their minds at the last minute, and may be persuaded.

The Women in Mississippi project is an imperfect analogy for today’s politics, and its reach was limited. Yet those of us interested in capitalizing on the energy of the marches need to take lessons from it—and organize deliberately, strategically and with clear end goals in order to reach across the geographical divide and challenge both one another and ourselves.

Chloe Thurston is an assistant professor in Northwestern University’s political science department and faculty associate at Institute for Policy Research. She is a Public Voices Fellow.

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