Wednesdays in Mississippi: Introductory Essay
Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Civil Rights, Unit 2, Lesson 5
If some parents disapproved of their children's involvement in civil rights activism, others were inspired by their children to take greater action themselves. One such parent was Polly Cowan, mother of Freedom Summer volunteers Paul and Geoff Cowan. Polly was herself a committed civil rights activist, who brought her Jewish social justice sensibilities to her work as a volunteer for the National Council of Negro Women, where she worked closely with its director, Dr. Dorothy Height. She and Height were particularly interested in ways to encourage women's participation in the civil rights movement and to protect female activists who were being mistreated by police and jail officials.
When her sons volunteered to join Freedom Summer, Polly was both concerned with how the media was portraying the student activists and inspired to create a program that would support and build on the foundation they were creating. As Dorothy Height recalled, when Polly Cowan heard about Freedom Summer, she wrote to Height and said, "My children are going, and I know there are other women who'd want to kind of be there to support their children and to let it be known that we are responsible people." She and Height were also concerned that the increased activism of Freedom Summer would intensify the brutal treatment of female civil rights workers. So they developed their own model of community organizing in a project called "Wednesdays in Mississippi" that brought together women across boundaries of race, religion, and geography (though most of the women in their project were more homogenous in terms of class, education, and community position – what Cowan called the "Cadillac crowd") to support and educate one another. They understood that women in southern communities would play important roles in sustaining civil rights work when Freedom Summer 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 brought black and white women from the North to visit with black and white women in the South. The teams of women traveled to Jackson, Mississippi on Tuesdays, traveled across the state on Wednesdays to work with freedom schools, and returned home on Thursdays. For pragmatic reasons of safety, the women worked in single-race groups, but always made sure to have one mixed-race group meeting during each trip. Wednesdays in Mississippi continued in the summer of 1965 with a slightly more professional focus on teachers and social workers, and in 1966 became "Workshops in Mississippi," a program to help black and white women and their families achieve better economic conditions. The National Council of Negro Women continues to work in Mississippi communities today.
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).