MAXWELL:  The white women who risked it all for civil rights

3/3/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A dear friend telephoned a few days ago and reminded me that I was letting another Black History Month pass without writing about one of the unsung groups of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. My friend is white. Although born financially well off, she has taught journalism at the same traditionally black college in Mississippi since 1972.

I met her during the summer of 1965 in Meadville, Miss., when I was a 19-year-old college student from Texas, and she a 19-year-old college student from Georgia. She was a pretty, petite member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was a journalism intern for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Her job was more important than mine, and her life was in much more danger than mine. I merely had to observe, report and write stories and shoot photographs. She put her life on the line.

She was one of thousands of white women who joined the black-led civil rights movement, who came of age during the era of the nation’s greatest social, intellectual and political discontent and renewal. She is right: Hers is an unsung group of freedom fighters. She easily could have suffered the fate of Viola Gregg Luizzo, a mother of five, who traveled from her comfortable home in Michigan to the South to help us. On March 25, 1965, an Alabama Klansman fired a .38-caliber pistol through the window of her car, killing her instantly.

We knew the dangers of working in Meadville. A few months before our arrival, two black men, Henry Dee, 19, and Charles Moore, 20, had been murdered by Klansmen and their bodies dumped in the Mississippi River. Dee had been decapitated, and a piece of wire encircled his torso. Divers found only the lower half of Moore’s body. His ankles were tied with a rope.

Yes, we knew that cops, Klansmen and ordinary racists were especially brutal when white women and black men _ suggesting sexual intimacy _ were caught together.

My friend lived in a shack with three other women in an all-black, remote section of the county. During the day, she taught in what we called the Freedom School, places where thousands of black children _ underserved by the South’s separate-but-equal school system _ learned to read and write. During evening hours, she joined other activists in registering illiterate and near-illiterate blacks to vote.

One night, while accompanying her and three black workers to a home where they would help an old black couple complete a Social Security application, I asked her this question: “You’re the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. Why’re you risking your life for niggers?”

I remember her answer well (I wrote it in my journal): “Don’t use that word in my presence. Racism is a sin. As a Christian, I’ve got to work _ even die _ to get rid of this sin.”

“But you’re white.”

“Which makes me even more responsible.”

I swore that night I would write about her and other white women who risked their lives for the cause of civil rights. Alas, I am just now getting around to it _ nearly 40 years later.

To make my job easier, my friend sent me a copy of Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement. Published in 2000 by the University of Georgia Press, it is a volume that anthologizes the memoirs of Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, Casey Hayden.

I read it a few days ago, and all of the memories, the fears and the euphoria mostly, returned. I remember the late-night rides on deep-rutted roads through pine forests; steamy wooden churches in the middle of nowhere; white girls curled up under quilts on the floors of cars and the beds of pickups so that redneck cops would not spot them with niggers; black dudes scared they would be blamed if a white cop shoots a white woman; dank and stinking jail cells in towns with very long names; “doing your business” in bushes and behind trees; hastily written picket signs with misspelled words; delicious meals cooked by fat black women wearing feed-sack dresses and colorful aprons.

In their preface, the women list the questions they answer in the memoirs: “These are our stories of the costly times we wouldn’t have missed for the world, and of the people and places and events that filled them. We speak to several questions: Why us? Why did we, of all the white women growing up in our hometowns, cross the color line in the days of segregation and join the Southern Freedom Movement of the sixties? How did we find our way? What happened to us there? How did we leave, and what did we take with us? And, especially, what was it like?”

The thing I admire most about these women, along with those I knew personally, was their selflessness, the devotion to doing right because right is right. I especially respected those like my friend, whose families openly treated African-Americans as inferiors. More than one were disinherited by their parents because of their involvement with the movement.

But these women _ mere teenagers _ persevered at our side, holding to their heart-deep commitment to social justice. In their special way, they helped this nation at least acknowledge its promise of equality to all citizens. They showed white people that racism not only disfigures its black victims, it also disfigures white people. It turns some whites into grotesque creatures who don sheets and hoods, who burn crosses and murder in the name of God and their race.

Deep in Our Hearts dispels the myth that whites in the civil rights movement were a monolith _ rich, East Coast, Ivy League brats with too much time on their hands.

Here is the truth, in the nine women’s own words: “We are all different: Southern and northern; rural and urban; state university and Ivy League; middle class, working class, and poor. We moved to our radical activities in various ways: by Marxism, Christian existentialism, and immigrant folk wisdom; by our grandmothers and the Constitution; by Thoreau and Dumas; by living on a kibbutz; by African freedom fighters; and a Deep South upbringing.”

These nine white women, along with thousands of others, made our country a better place. The movement did not end in these women’s personal lives after they went home for the last time.

Penny Patch speaks for her co-writers, and she speaks for me: “The experience remains at the core of who I am.”