Living the Legacy


Community Organizing II: Wednesdays in Mississippi

Unit 2 , Lesson 5

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

Community Organizing II: Wednesdays in Mississippi

Lesson plan:
  1. Introduction: Different Points of View

    1. If you have already taught Lesson 4:
      1. Remind your students that in 1964, approximately 1000 young Northerners, many of them Jews, went south as part of Freedom Summer, a community organizing project.
      2. Ask your students: What did these young people hope to accomplish and what kinds of projects did they take part in?
        (Possible responses might include: Freedom Schools, registering voters, organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, seeing for themselves what was really happening in the South, providing support to southern African Americans, etc.)
    2. OR if you haven't taught Lesson 4, you may want to review the essay for Unit 2 lessons 4 and 5, and/or review Unit 2 lesson 4, and share some of the highlights with your students at this time.
    3. Distribute copies of "Letter from a Parent" Document Study"Letter from a Parent" Document Study"Letter from a Parent" Document Study to your students (either the transcript or copies of the original letter). Explain that this is a letter between a young woman who was part of Freedom Summer and her father. You may want to provide some biographical background on Vivian Rothstein (found at the top of the letter). Have one of your students read the letter out loud. Stop him/her as necessary to explain terms or phrases with which your students might not be familiar.
    4. Discuss the questions from the "Letter from a Parent" Document Study.
    5. Explain that there was some conflict between generations about civil rights activism. Sometimes parents didn't understand their children's ideals. Other times, parents shared the same ideals (often having taught their children their own values), but feared for their children's safety. Some of those in the latter category also chose to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement and organized their own community projects. You may want to read the "Statement by Carolyn Goodman, June 1965" to illustrate the perspective of one parent whose son was murdered because of his civil rights activism but who continued to stand behind his decision to go south.
  2. Different Organizational Models - Part A

    1. Distribute copies of the Community Organizing Chart to your class. Together, fill out the information about Freedom Summer in the middle column of the chart, using what your students learned in the Community Organizing I: Freedom Summer lesson (or filling it in as you again go over the basics of that lesson).
    2. Explain that Freedom Summer represents one type of community organizing project and a model that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement; however, it wasn't the only model. Another (lesser-known) project and model was Wednesdays in Mississippi, also known as WIMS. The project was founded by an African American woman, Dorothy Height, and a white Jewish woman, Polly Cowan. They organized teams of black and white women from the North to meet with and support teams of black and white women in the South. Their trips centered on spending Wednesdays in Mississippi working for civil rights and the education of the black community. Run by the National Council for Negro Women, WIMS also drew participants from faith-based groups such as the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Church Women United. Approximately 25% of the white women who participated in WIMS were Jewish. (See the WIMS essay for further details.)
  3. Film clips from Wednesdays in Mississippi documentary

    1. Watch the three short clips of footage from the Wednesdays in Mississippi documentary film projectWednesdays in Mississippi documentary film projectWednesdays in Mississippi documentary film projectWednesdays in Mississippi documentary film projectWednesdays in Mississippi documentary film project. After each clip, ask students to turn to the person next to them and discuss one or two of the questions on their discussion sheet. Depending on how much time you have and how comfortable your students are with verbal discussion vs. writing, consider having your students fill in information on their chart after each of the film clips rather than waiting until the end.
      1. "Portraits from Wednesdays in Mississippi" (3:42):
        The first clip looks at the different experiences of the Northern and Southern Wednesdays women through interviews with Beatrice "Buddy" Mayer (part of the Chicago team) and Elaine Crystal, who as a member of the Jackson, Mississippi team hosted Mayer when she came down.
      2. "A Journey South" (2:58):
        The second clip describes the danger the Wednesdays women encountered and reveals the dormant racism that existed in even some of the Wednesdays women. Susan Stedman and Doris V. Wilson of the Jackson team describe meeting the Northern women at the airport, with Klu Klux Klan members watching and spitting on the women as they arrived. Edith Savage Jennings, the first black woman to meet with a group of white women in Jackson, tells of how after she (intentionally) removed her glove none of the women were willing to shake her hand.
      3. "WIMS: A Model of Women's Activism and Social Change" (2:20):
        The third clip addresses the significance of organizing women in particular, and the impact of relatively well-off white and black women from the North and South working together for social change. Includes observations by historians Debra Schultz and Deborah Gray White, as well as by Polly Cowan's daughter, Holly Shulman, and her daughter-in-law, Rabbi Rachel Cowan.
    2. Bring the group back together. Ask a few pairs to share a couple examples of what they discussed, perhaps focusing on points of disagreement between them, or on things they found particularly surprising or confusing.
  4. Different Organizational Models - Part B

    1. Ask students to turn back to their copies of the Community Organizing Chart and fill in information about Wednesdays in Mississippi in the right-hand column. Let students know they will have a chance to add more to that column in a little while.
    2. Distribute copies of Wednesdays in Mississippi DocumentsWednesdays in Mississippi DocumentsWednesdays in Mississippi DocumentsWednesdays in Mississippi Documents. Begin by looking at "Wednesdays in Mississippi" – Report from Polly Cowan, Project Coordinator, 1964. Ask students to take turns reading it aloud, or break into small groups. Encourage students to draw connections between the film clips and this document, and discuss any surprises or disparities they notice.
    3. Have three students each read one of the remaining documents out loud. These documents are excerpts from oral history interviews conducted with WIMS participants, in which the women reflect back on their experiences. (If you have students with acting experience or strong voices, invite each of the three readers to come up to the front of the class when it is his/her turn.)
    4. Once again encourage students to draw connections between the film clips and these oral history excerpts, and discuss any surprises or disparities they notice.
    5. Using what they learned from the documents studied, have students finish filling in the Wednesdays in Mississippi section of their charts.
    6. When all of your students have finished their chart, discuss the following questions:
      • Different organizations were involved in these two projects. How were these organizations similar and/or different? How do you think these differences and/or similarities affected the work they were doing?
      • How did the goals and motivations of the participants in the two different projects overlap? What were some differences in the goals and motivations? What role do you think the age of the participants played in their goals and motivations? [Note in particular what Dorothy Height recalls in her interview: that Polly Cowan was motivated to start WIMS because of the ways the Freedom Summer volunteers – including her own children – were being described.] What role do you think gender played in their goals and motivations?
      • Think back to the letter between Vivian and her father that we read at the beginning of class. How do you think each would have felt about the work being done by Wednesdays in Mississippi?
      • What do you think is the significance these two different models had in terms of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole?
      • How does knowing about WIMS impact your image of the Civil Rights Movement, and how Jews were involved?

    For an additional assignment or class activity, interview a woman activist. This can be done in class, by bringing in a speaker and interviewing her in front of the class, or as an outside assignment, in which students choose someone to interview themselves. See JWA's "How-To" section for a downloadable oral history guide and a set of "Twenty Questions" for interviewing American Jewish women. Be sure to ask questions about the role of gender and the role of community in her activism.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Community Organizing II: Wednesdays in Mississippi." (Viewed on April 18, 2014) <>.