Taking a Stand
One woman’s memories of “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a project that bridged gaps of region and race.
At the age of 22 in the summer of 1964, Susan Goodwillie Stedman embarked on an adventure that shaped her life. She joined a courageous group known as Wednesdays Women, who quietly did their part to end segregation. In the journal she kept that summer, while working in Jackson, Mississippi, Stedman wrote these words about one of her first meetings with a civil rights supporter who’d been threatened with crosses burned in her yard:
It was almost midnight when we left and we were exhausted and exhilarated. We had learned a lot, been encouraged and warned. We felt anxious and exalted, hopeful and concerned that we might not be able to fulfill our promise. But we had made a new friend, and looked forward to the relationship that might grow and become one we’d never forget.
Indeed Stedman never forgot anything about that experience and the women with whom she linked arms for a cause. On October 20th, she and another member of Wednesdays Women — as well as two filmmakers who are making the story into a documentary titled Wednesdays in Mississippi — will participate in a panel discussion at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 7 to 9 p.m. The panel discussion is part of the multimedia exhibition, “Choosing to Participate,” showing at the Benjamin Hooks Central Library through November 30th. Demonstrating with vivid stories the responsibilities of citizenship, the exhibition is on a five-city national tour and is presented by the educational organization Facing History and Ourselves.
Raised in the New York suburbs, in what she calls a “lily-white community,” Stedman was drawn to the civil rights movement during her senior year at Stanford University. A black minister named Jim Robinson took students to visit Africa, and after Stedman’s graduation, she traveled with one of his groups to the Ivory Coast. Not only did she fall in love with Africa, she discovered her calling. That summer of 1963, she came across a dog-eared copy of a Time magazine that was all about the March on Washington held in August. Says Stedman, “I knew I had to be a part of that movement.”
That same year, President John F. Kennedy had formed the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. Stedman called the committee’s executive director, Shirley B. Smith, and asked if she needed help. “Do I ever!” Smith replied. “Come on over.” That connection led Stedman to a job as executive assistant to Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). “It took guts for her to hire a white girl,” says Stedman, who wound up working for both organizations. And it started Stedman on a mission from which she never turned back.
In the fall of 1963, Height heard reports from Selma, Alabama, of police brutality against young people campaigning to get their parents to vote. She traveled there with several women, including Polly Cowan of the New York Citizens Committee for Children, who was also a white volunteer with the NCNW. Disturbed by what was taking place, Height and Cowan later contacted their counterparts at other women’s organizations and asked them to visit their local courts and jails and see how laws were being enforced. In March 1964, the leaders of five national women’s organizations met in Atlanta to discuss the treatment of women who’d been arrested for civil rights work in the seven most troubled Southern cities – among them Jackson.
“At the last day of the meeting,” says Stedman, “Dorothy had everyone sit together by cities and raised the question, ‘Do you, as local leaders, see any value in belonging to a national organization that is concerned and committed to the civil rights struggle?’”
The spokesperson for the Jackson table, at which Stedman was sitting, was Clarie Harvey of the NCNW. She rose and gestured at the white women sitting around her, saying, “Yes, there is value to each of us . . . because you can help us. You can be the long-handled spoon, reaching down and stirring us up, bringing us together in ways that we could never do by ourselves. And if the Northern women could visit us regularly during the summer, to act as a quieting influence . . . to build bridges of communication . . . it would be a tremendous help to us.”
Over the next few months, plans for what came to be known as “Freedom Summer” were heating up as several civil rights groups recruited young people to work as volunteers in Mississippi. Just as heated was the response: In Jackson, the mayor had an armed tank disguised as an ice cream truck and police and sheriffs were on the alert for anything “subversive.” Meanwhile, Height and Cowan sought more Northern women to help the Jackson delegation. Dubbed as the “Cadillac Crowd” by Cowan — whose husband was the president of CBS — these women were professionals, community leaders active in national organizations, and, in many cases, married to powerful men. Above all they were chosen for their ability to communicate rather than alienate.
By late June several “Wednesdays in Mississippi” teams were formed, and on July 2nd — with tensions heightened by the news that three civil rights workers had disappeared in Neshoba County just days earlier — the first team of black and white women from New York arrived in Jackson. Stedman and her black counterpart, Doris Wilson, met that group and others that summer at the Jackson airport. “But Doris and I stood apart,” Stedman recalls. “We couldn’t be seen together. I would pinch myself and think, ‘This can’t be the United States of America.’ But it was. The black women went with Doris, the white women with me.”
During their two-day visits, the teams of women would travel in separate cars to small towns like Canton, Vicksburg, or Hattiesburg, taking supplies and support to workers involved with Freedom Schools or voter registration campaigns. The women would also meet in homes — again, the blacks and whites separately — and bare their fears, suspicions, and hopes about the revolution sweeping across the nation, especially right there in Jackson. Three local white women — whom Stedman praises for their courage and vision — opened their homes to host these coffee-and-cookie gatherings. The Northern women had been briefed to “listen, listen, listen, no self-righteous finger-waving Yankees,” recalls Stedman. They frightened some Jackson women, she adds. Even in their pearls, hats, and gloves, they could spark fear and distrust.
“That’s how paralyzed people were by fear. It’s hard to explain, but in some ways it was like a war zone.”
As far as most Jackson women knew, “the civil rights workers were all one word: “communistbeatnikprevertjews,” says Stedman. But as that extraordinary summer wound down, minds were opened and change took place. Some local women who had originally been horrified at the idea of what was happening in outlying towns actually traveled with the Wednesdays Women to help the cause.
Through it all, Stedman had been working undercover. Because her colleagues — including Shirley Smith in Washington and her own parents in New York — feared for her life, she established herself as a “good, churchgoing, white person” who was there writing a cookbook. “I did love to cook and I had all these gourmet magazines. I also had shelf paper for drawers,” she says. That paper wound up being rolled into her Olivetti typewriter on which she faithfully recorded her journal entries. “I poured my heart into that,” she says. By the end of that summer, the “Mississippi Scrolls” as she called it, was 94 pages long, single-spaced.
One journal entry from August 1964 tells of a luncheon discussion at the home of a leader in the League of Women Voters with six neighbors who had not been involved with the project. Stedman wrote: “We covered a lot of ground and much had been said on both sides. It was amazing to see how the drift of the whole conversation could shift from everybody backing us and telling each other how horrible the situation was to everybody suddenly defending the state against our ‘invasion.’ One could choreograph a marvelous modern dance with the movement expressed in that dialogue.”
Even so, that “invasion” — and the vision and determination of Wednesdays Women in Jackson and other Southern cities over the next two years — resulted in economic, health, and educational programs, including a daycare center that still operates today. In Jackson alone, more than 100 white women committed themselves to ending segregation.
In August 1964, the wife of a prominent Jackson doctor hosted an interracial luncheon at the Sun N Sand Hotel. “The Civil Rights Act had been passed by then,” says Stedman, “and they had to serve everybody.” In September, The New York Times ran a front-page story about Wednesdays in Mississippi; it was headlined “Women Tear Down Cotton Curtain.”
Stedman herself became a seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement, working on the staffs of the United Nations, the Ford Foundation, and as executive director of Refugee International. She collaborated with Dorothy Height in writing Height’s memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates. In 2000, Stedman helped organize a reunion of Wednesdays Women and was able to reconnect with Doris Wilson, her black counterpart in Jackson whom Stedman recalls as “wise as well as smart . . . with fire in her eyes and a broad grin.” Wilson died in 2008.
Of that memorable “Freedom Summer” and her role in a groundbreaking project, Stedman says, “It was all a life-changing experience I’m so grateful to have had.”
And it’s a story that caught the interest of Debbie Harwell, a graduate student at the University of Houston who is writing her dissertation on Wednesdays Women. She’d learned of it while reading Open Wide the Freedom Gates and explains its attraction for her: “I had no idea middle-class women had been involved in that sort of activism in 1964; it was totally opposite to anything the white women in my family in Houston during that era would have done.” Harwell was also impressed, when reading Stedman’s diary, by the lack of fear the women showed. Instead Harwell sensed “caution and realism. They worried about being discovered and having the project cut off. Their focus was on getting the teams in and out safely and making the visits productive.”
The story also struck a chord with Marlene McCurtis, a filmmaker who has produced several award-winning documentaries and has directed and written for the Discovery Channel and PBS. “I first read about Wednesdays Women in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine,” she says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “My mother was from Mississippi and I had traveled there as a child. It really captured my interest.” McCurtis and her partners with the nonprofit organization, Women Make Movies, are 70 percent finished filming Wednesdays in Mississippi and hope, as they seek additional funding, to have it complete by 2014, the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer.” A clip from the documentary will be shown at the panel discussion on October 20th.
“It’s a good fit with the exhibit ‘Choosing to Participate,’” says McCurtis.
Some background information for this article came from Wednesdays in Mississippi: The Story, published by the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information on the panel discussion, visit www.choosingtoparticipate.org/events/community.