Black History Month: Wednesdays in Mississippi
You might think that I – a public historian – would love the opportunities on our public calendar to celebrate historical figures and communities. But truth be told, I’m a bit of a skeptic. Women’s History Month, Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. Day – sure, they encourage us to pause in our usual narratives and pay tribute to those whose stories are not always included and might otherwise be forgotten. But they also send the troubling message that these stories can (and maybe even should) be compartmentalized and ghettoized in their own month or day, instead of integrating them into the stories of every day. So while I try to make the most of our special days and months, I do so with some ambivalence.
When Black History Month rolls around each February, I feel extra ambivalence as a Jewish educator, as I witness many well-meaning colleagues use this month as an opportunity to tell the story of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. While I certainly believe that is an important story to tell (I did design a whole curriculum on the subject, after all), it’s a story that foregrounds (mainly white) Jewish history against a backdrop of Black history – and if Black history doesn’t even get to take center stage during Black History Month… well, then I really don’t know what it’s for.
But of course, there are certain stories of the Civil Rights Movement in which Jewish History and Black History go hand in hand in a way that gives Black History Month its proper due. One of my favorite and least known is the story of Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS), a project created in 1964 and the result of collaboration between Dorothy Height, the director of the National Council of Negro Women, and her colleague Polly Cowan, a Jewish civil rights activist. Wednesdays in Mississippi brought together women across boundaries of race, religion, and geography to support and educate one another. Teams of black and white women from the North traveled to Jackson, Mississippi on Tuesdays to visit with black and white women in the South. The women traveled across the state on Wednesdays to work with freedom schools and other civil rights project, and returned home on Thursdays.
Height and Cowan understood that women in southern communities would play important roles in sustaining civil rights work when the student-driven Freedom Summer project (in which Cowan’s sons participated) was over, and that northern women could help report on conditions in the South and perhaps bring some attention to civil rights issues in their own communities. They believed that women working together could overcome some of the differences that divided them. Wednesdays in Mississippi was the only civil rights program led by a national women's organization (the National Council of Negro Women, in partnership with the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, Church Women United, the Young Women's Christian Association, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women).
As a unique women’s interracial and interfaith civil rights project, Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) is a great topic for exploration at a Sisterhood program or a Rosh Hodesh group. The three clips below, prepared for JWA’s Living the Legacy curriculum by the producers of a full-length documentary on WIMS, capture the challenges and innovations of the project, both through the reflections of participants and of historians.
Watch these clips with your friends, and then consider some or all of the following discussion questions:
What do you think motivated each of these women to take part in WIMS? For the Jewish women, what (if any) role does being Jewish seem to play in their work?
How might you reconcile the civil rights activism of the Southern white WIMS women and their fear of/refusal to shake the hand of a black Northern activist?
The WIMS activists worked together across racial, geographic, and class lines, but specifically limited their membership to women. What do the speakers in the film clips see as the significance of women working together? Do you find this aspect of their work significant? Why or Why not?
Rabbi Rachel Cowan says that at the time, she and other activists in SNCC thought that they were more revolutionary than the WIMS women, but that looking back, she sees the WIMS women as just as dangerous, if not more so. How would you evaluate WIMS? What, if anything, do you think was revolutionary and/or dangerous about these women?
So let the story of WIMS bring illuminate your February and inspire you to bridge differences and create unlikely and powerful collaborations to change the world every month of the year. And a happy Black History Month to you all.