Terre Gorham 0000-00-00 00:00:00
ONe black, one white. Both women. Interracial, interfaith teams secretly fanned out across the nation each week during the violent early ’60s to bring supplies and support to Southern rural communities. Over tea and cookies — with curtains drawn — “Wednesdays Women” from the North met with black and white women in the South to discuss fears and suspicions arising from the explosive Civil Rights Movement that surrounded them. This quiet revolution — the only civil rights project run by a national women’s organization — began in October 1963 with Dorothy Height, a black woman, and her close friend and associate Polly Cowan, a white woman. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in Washington DC, received a disturbing phone call from Selma, AL, about horrific police brutality and the arrests of hundreds of students campaigning to register black voters. Three days later, Height and Cowen flew to Alabama with two female associates — one black, one white — who were also involved with civil rights. Surrounded by violent undercurrents, threats, and danger, the foursome made their way around Selma, speaking and listening — and spending nights in secret, racially segregated accommodations on opposite ends of town. The Selma trip brought the four Northern women face to ugly face with the deadly realities of what the Civil Rights Movement meant in the South. Back home, Height and Cowen’s mission immediately flew into one of reaction, as they reported their experiences and the atrocities they had witnessed to influential organizations that could help them help their Southern counterparts. In 1964 — after months of meetings, conferences, and discussions — Cowan conceived the idea of bringing interracial, interfaith teams of women from the “Cadillac Crowd” to Mississippi after a prominent black woman from Jackson asked the NCNW to come to her community and act as a “ministry of presence.” Height implemented the idea in cooperation with the YWCA, National Council of Jewish Women, National Council of Catholic Women, Church Women United, American Association of University Women, and League of Women Voters. At about the same time that Height and Cowan were navigating the treacherous waters of Selma, longtime black civil rights activist Edith Johnson Savage-Jennings of Trenton, NJ, received a disturbing phone call of her own — from President John F. Kennedy. Nearly half a century after that phone call, Savage-Jennings — with more accomplishments, awards, and honors than can be listed here — traveled to Memphis in early 2009 to take part in a symposium at the National Civil Rights Museum. Prior to joining the other panelists, she agreed to share what transpired during that phone call, as well as share some of her personal experiences as one of Wednesdays Women, Height and Cowan’s revolutionary movement that became known as Wednesdays in Mississippi. It started in 1963 for me. Our President Kennedy and his attorney general brother, Robert Kennedy, called me. I thought it was a joke. Why would the president call me? The president said, “There is a lot of unrest in Mississippi, and we would like some people to go there. I have asked Helen Meyner [wife of New Jersey Governor Bob Meyner] to travel with you. I understand you are friends.” I said we were. Helen was white. The president went on: “It’s going to be dangerous. Very dangerous. But we’re concerned about the violence next fall when they integrate first-graders into public schools. Also, there are students currently involved in black voter registration who are being thrown in jail. These students can’t get letters out to their parents. We’d like you to go into Hattiesburg and see whether you could be of help in both matters — and help get some letters out.” Robert said, “We’re trying to figure out a plan. But if you’re going, let us know who you want for a mortician.” I said, “That’s one reason I think I’d better discuss it with my husband. But I will think about it.” When I told my husband, he said, “Oh, the president called you? Well, Edith, this is what you do. You are an activist. I will ease your mind by staying home and taking care of Stephen while you’re gone.” I didn’t hear any more until 1964. That’s when I found out about Wednesdays in Mississippi. I’ll tell you the truth. I was a little nervous once we got to Jackson, Mississippi. I was fine up until that point. When we arrived on a Wednesday, it was around noon. Once we got off the plane, ten white men were there, spitting on the floor in front of us. See, it was uncommon at that time in Mississippi for a black woman and a white woman to be together socially. That’s what made the Wednesdays so unusual. But we had brought four marshals with us. It was me and Helen Meyner. Our first thing was to meet with white society women in Mississippi. The purpose was to try to get them to get their husbands, uncles, nephews — everyone — to just quiet down so it wouldn’t be bad when the children started integrating. I wore gloves. Everybody had on gloves. Of course the women were very comfortable with Helen — not so comfortable with me. But it went well. I just said that children don’t need to be traumatized at that early age, with all of the riot gear and that sort of thing. At that age, they’re not harmful to anybody. I said, “Just put your children in place of those black children. Even though yours are white, and you know it’s never going to happen, just think about if things were the opposite.” I think we spent about an hour and a half with them. They said, “We’ll do what we can do.” It was a nice departing, and then we moved on. The marshals took us to the jail where the students were imprisoned. The purpose of going was to get the letters out, talk to the students, and see how they were being treated. The worst jails in the world were in Mississippi at that time. I was trying to figure out how to get those letters from the jailed students out. Some of them were written on toilet paper, some on scraps of paper. I am well-endowed, thank God, and I lined tissues inside my clothes, all across my chest, to hide the letters. I didn’t read any of the letters. When I got them all out, I gave them right to the marshal so he could send them to Robert Kennedy. Helen and I left on Friday for home. We had been in Mississippi for two and a half days. After two weeks, I began to organize a committee of 100 women to assist me in raising funds for the children in Mississippi because of the deplorable conditions that we witnessed in the classrooms in Hattiesburg. Sometimes I think about how people are ordained to do different things. And maybe that’s what happened to me in being an activist. When I was 12, David Dinkins, who was my childhood friend and neighbor and would later become mayor of New York City — we were in the NAACP Youth Council. I spoke up and said, “I think we ought to try to integrate the theaters.” So we went one Saturday, and we sat downstairs. The usher came and said, “You don’t belong here; you belong in the balcony.” I spoke up and said, “We’re not moving.” And we didn’t move. We sat there until the movie was over. I thought they were going to put us in jail or send for the cops. They didn’t. So we went back the next Saturday, and we did the same thing. From then on, we were able to sit downstairs in the theater. It takes a lot of bravery; it really does. I always felt like I was on the verge of going to jail [laughs]. That’s what always stayed in my mind. I was raised on a street where there were whites and blacks. One of my best friends growing up was a white girl. She would spend nights at my house; I would spend nights at her house. After high school, she got a job with Metropolitan Insurance. One day I went to pay the insurance bill for my mother, and Virginia was at the window. She took my money but would not speak to me — acted like she didn’t know me! I couldn’t believe it! We had known each other all our young lives. I couldn’t get over it. I called her that evening. She said, “Oh, no! If I had talked to you, I would have lost my job. They told us we could not fraternize with blacks.” That gave me more reason to work toward integration, inclusion. I just couldn’t believe that you couldn’t talk to someone because they’re black! And that was in New Jersey! My first job was in the sheriff’s office. That was my first job of really facing racism. I went on to work at Mercer County Youth Detention Center, where I was for 34 years. I was the first black employee. You talk about children being treated differently! The black children were separated from the white children, and the black children wore the raggedy clothing that was issued. Here again, I couldn’t believe it. I said, “I cannot work in this environment.” The other employees — all white — said, “Well, this is the way it is.” I said, “It may be the way it is, but I don’t have to accept it.” I started talking to the county execs, and things began to change. I met Dr. King through a friend of mine, Rev. S. Howard Woodson Jr., New Jersey’s first black speaker of the house. He was also president of the NAACP chapter in Trenton, and I was his program director. Rev. Woodson called me and said, “Sister Edith, a friend of mine Wants to come up, and he needs money — Rev. King, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Can you raise some money for his visit?” I don’t remember if I had even heard of Dr. King until that point. This was 1957. I said, “Invite him, and we’ll have a rally.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And I became very close. I was like Martin: No matter how bad things were, he’d never let anger bother him. His wife, Coretta, and I were close, close friends for 46 years until the time of her death. I was the family friend who spoke at her funeral service. Martin was different. I felt the same way about him as I do about President Obama. He was a man with a mission, a great orator, and compelling speaker. He was warm, very warm. We became friends. His children called me “aunt,” and my child called them “aunt and uncle.” My last memory of him really pains me. The Wednesday morning he was leaving for Memphis to go support the sanitation workers’ strike, I was on the phone with Coretta, and she said, “Martin wants to speak with you. He’s getting ready to catch his plane.” I said, “Tell Martin to go on. He’s always late. Get the plane, and I’ll see him in Newark next week when he comes back.” But Martin insisted on talking to me. He said, “I want you to promise me something.” I said, “Martin, I’ll see you in Newark next week, okay?” He said, “No, I definitely want you to promise me something: that you will stay close to Coretta and the children if something happens to me.” That is the main thing that remains with me because I think he knew. He had a premonition. And, of course, he was assassinated during that trip in Memphis. It’s been a long journey, but I just kept going because of him — after he paid the ultimate price. We can’t give up. I went back to Mississippi one more time for Wednesdays in Mississippi. I haven’t been back since, and I have no desire to go. But my involvement with Wednesdays in Mississippi has never really ended. We’ve always been in contact with one another, always some kind of connection. As an activist, I’ve always felt that you can’t give up, because freedom is not free. You have to continue. Wednesdays in Mississippi, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/WIMS/, wimsfilmproject. Com. Special thanks to Debbie Harwell, managing editor of Houston History, for help with this article.
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