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"Letters Home" Document Study

Context

In 1964, many young northern white activists participated in a civil rights project called Mississippi Freedom Summer. Some of these activists shared their feelings and experiences in letters they wrote home to families and friends. While the letters below may not have been written by Jewish civil rights activists, they express views shared by many. (Note that the orientation and training program for Freedom Summer was held at Western College in Oxford, OH.)

Letter Home from Lew

Oxford, Ohio

Dear Mom and Jo,

The reception at Western College was not warm. I was surprised at how unfriendly and unextending people were. Small groups formed or had been formed and people seemed concerned with “fitting in.” I went to bed. Later that day (today) I went to register. I still felt uncomfortable but attempted to shake a few hands. (It wasn’t too bad.) Some people were friendly and helpful. Tremendous enthusiasm was generated when we all began singing after dinner. It was the spiritual revival type of singing and you know how I love that. We all must have sung for about 2 hours, and the previous in-grouping of Negroes and reservedness of whites seemed to disappear – but not really…Maybe we’ll be able to at the end of the summer, but right now we don’t know what it is to be a Negro and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. It’s the old case of having to prove ourselves. In their eyes we’re rich middle or upperclass whites who have taken off a summer to help the Negro.

Intellectually, I think many of us whites can understand the Negroes’ resentment but emotionally we want to be “accepted” at face value. We want this acceptance because this is part of our reason for going down south, i.e., the basic worth of the individual. I’ve always thought that my relations with Negroes have been fairly honest. I’ve gone to a predominantly Negro high school and participated in athletics with them. I’ve gotten to know Negroes in college… I haven’t gone out of my way to meet them but those I have met I have gotten along well with, if not intimately. What I mean to say is that I never detected a “difference,” or an inability to communicate with one another… But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…

Love, Lew

Details

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 5. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. What kind of reception did Lew receive at Western College? How might you describe the atmosphere of in-groups and out-groups? Does it remind you of any experiences you've encountered?
  5. What kind of reception do you think Lew wanted/expected?
  6. According to Lew, how did the African American volunteers view the white Northern activists? How do you think Lew and the other white Northern activists viewed themselves? How might the difference between these perceptions cause tension between the two groups?
  7. Lew writes that "right now we don't know what it is to be a Negro." Does he think this is an important thing to know? If so, why? Why do you think this lack of knowledge could be a source of tension among the white and black activists?
  8. At the end of the letter Lew says, "But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…" How is it more honest? What issues divided whites and blacks in the Civil Rights Movement? How did the tensions Lew describes compare to the ideals and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement?

Letter to Peggy from Ellen

Dear Peggy:
… All whites who read [James] Baldwin ask, “Is he right? Do they really hate us?” I have never before talked to a Negro about his feelings towards whites. A wonderful Negro man from Detroit named Joe Harrison told me here at Oxford, “I always feel much more comfortable with Negroes than with whites. But I can become good friends with white people.”

And one SNCC worker – Frank Smith – said, “I grew up hating all white folks. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned that there could be good whites – and even now I sometimes wonder.”

So there is this great reluctance and distrust, born of generations of oppression and slavery… It seems that if more whites understood this – especially white liberals – race relations might be a lot less strained.

I have also discovered a lot about my own feelings about race. I grew up in an upper middle-class Westchester home, where my parents were good liberals, but I never knew any Negroes except the woman who cooked and cleaned for us. I loved her very much and she, me… We all called her “Sarah” while she called me “Ellen” and my parents “Mr. and Mrs.”

Consequently, although my parents told me that Negroes were just as good as whites – I must have seen them in the role of servants. Once, my mother tells me, when I was little, we were driving along a road near our house and passed a Negro woman waiting for a bus. “There’s somebody’s maid,” I said.

To arrive in Ohio, when there were 60 or 70 Negro kids my age – all close friends and rather cliquish at first – was a frightening experience. It was not that I looked down on them at all – quite the contrary: I was awed by them. For the first few days, I mostly hung around with the kids from Harvard. I sat with them at meals or in meetings, walking by the groups of Negro kids who also sat together at the table or under a tree on the grass… But as the week wore on, things began to change.

Ellen

Details

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 6-7. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. According to discussions that Ellen had with a few African American volunteers, how did they view white people? To what does Ellen credit their attitude? What does slavery have to do with it?
  5. What does Ellen mean when she calls her parents "good liberals"? What assumptions does that phrase carry?
  6. As "good liberals," what message do you think Ellen's parents gave her verbally about whites and blacks? What do you think is the difference between the liberalism of her parents and Ellen's own view of race relations?
  7. What kind of contact/relationship did Ellen have with African Americans growing up? What difference in respect/power/dignity are suggested by the ways that her family addressed their black maid and the way their maid addressed Ellen's family?
  8. What message was conveyed by her parents' actions and by the social context in which Ellen grew up? How was this message different from the verbal message her "good liberal" parents gave her?
  9. What are some examples from today of differences between someone's convictions, as expressed by what they say, and their actions?

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. ""Letters Home" Document Study." (Viewed on October 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/documentstudies/letters-home-document-study>.

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