Deep In Our Hearts

Deep in Our Hearts  

 

Nine White Women Remember Their Days In the Civil Rights Movemen

 

While reading “Deep In Our Hearts: Nine White Women In The Freedom Movement,” I was reminded of a conference I attended in 1966. It was held at Dillard University in New Orleans, and was organized by some elements within SNCC who were interested in moving the organization toward a Black Nationalist position.  The presentations were given by intellectuals and artists who were in the forefront of the black consciousness movement.  Some – such as Sterling Stuckey, John Hendrik Clarke, and Me – would become pioneers in the development of Black Studies in major white universities.  It was an inspirational event with much discussion of African and African American history and some members of The Free Southern Theater gave a rendition of Margaret Walkers epic poem “For My People,” that energized our souls. 

 We were happy and nappy and gloried in our blackness. Some of the SNCC members, like the black and beautiful Carol Rivers, had come in from Loundes county Alabama, where she was working with Stokely Carmichael – who later became Kwame Toure – building the original Black Panther Party.  I cannot remember if Bob Moses was there, but I distinctly remember a Mississippi contingent composed of native folk and SNCC organizers who all spoke of him as if he were a warrior saint.  It was not long after this meeting before all white organizers were purged from the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

 At the time, coming as I did from the big northern city of Philadelphia – after having been driven out of my hometown, St. Augustine Florida, by an intolerable racist social order – I felt no bond with the whites who had come into the deep south as SNCC organizers, risking life and limb to struggle side by side with local blacks against the myriad injustices of the southern caste system which was the foundation of white supremacy. My experiences with whites – in the segregated south, the military, the work place, and Philadelphia CORE – was such that it seemed perfectly reasonable, indeed long past time, for black folks to purge whites from the ranks of their liberation organizations.

Since I didn’t know any of these whites – having left the south in 1960 – I had no empathy for their plight.  In fact, it wasn’t until people began to debate the morality and tactical wisdom of the expulsion of white organizers from SNCC, a decade or so later, that I began to try and imagine what the experience might have been like and wonder what became of those stalwart altruistic whites who risked so much in the Freedom Movement with blacks. 

For anyone who has wondered about these matters, “Deep In Our Hearts” is a must read.  Much has been written about race and gender relations in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and why the whites left.  But this revelatory text sets the record straight and exposes the flaws which, when taken together, proves fatal for the conventional wisdom on this subject by exposing a lot of inaccurate historical speculation. If it had done nothing more than set the record straight about the relations between men and women in the movement, and finally dispel the lingering misunderstanding about the statement attributed to Stokely Carmichael  – “The position of women in the movement is Prone”  – by the women he said it to, and who only speak of him with much love and respect, this book would have made and invaluable contribution to our understanding of how SNCC held together and conducted it’s magnificent work, blacks and whites struggling together in the most dangerous areas of the deep south during a time when rabid redneck racists believed they had a license to kill anybody who challenged white supremacy.

Stolely Carimichael

Stokely Carimichael Stokely

  A Fearless Freedom Fighter and Intrepid Organizer

All nine of these heroic women – Penny Patch, Casey Hayden, Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Theresa Del Pozzo, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Sue Thrasher, Elaine Delott Baker, and Emmie Schrader Adams – were well educated and could surely have lived a comfortable middle class life in white American without ever giving a thought to the black struggle for freedom.  In the book’s preface they tell us “These are our stories of the costly times we wouldn’t have missed for the world.  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?” 

 And they answer: “One of us was expelled from college for going to a black church, and another was the first white woman in a rural SNCC voter registration project.  One of us paid SNCC’s phone bill in the early days with foundation money given for more conservative purposes, and others organized white southern students in support of the freedom movement.  Some of us where there from the beginning, sitting in with our friends and on the Freedom Ride to Albany, Georgia.  We were also there later, canvassing for voter registration and facing the violence it incurred…All of us experienced the joy of lifting our voices to sing freedom songs, and the fellowship and hope of an interracial movement for justice and equality.” 

 Set forth with titles that capture the bittersweet poetry of struggle – “Shiloh Witness,” “Truths Of The Heart,”  “The Feel Of A Blue Note,” “Sweet Tea At Shoneys,”  “Circle Of Trust,”  “Wild Geese To The Past,” etc – the memoirs that comprise this book are amazingly candid. Whether they are talking about their lives before, during or after they joined the movement.  Since these women are of my generation I find the descriptions of their communities and families, as well as the schools they attended and what attracted them to the movement especially fascinating. It evokes a lot of precious memories from my own life, and fills in a lot of blanks about my white contemporaries. 

 These valiant women hailed from all over the country and were motivated by a wide range of beliefs. “We are very different: southern and northern; rural and urban; state university and Ivy League; middle class, working class and poor.  We were 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 in a Kibbutz and by African freedom fighters; and by a deep south upbringing.”

 Theresa Del Pozzo came from an Italian ghetto in the north Bronx, a community that bordered on the neighborhood in which Stokely grew up.  But due the barriers of race their families lived in different worlds.  And when there was a racial conflict between some whites from Del Pozzo’s neighborhood and some nearby blacks, while she was working in the movement down south, she and Stokely observed that those Bronx Italians were as much the enemy of Afro-American aspirations as the whites in Mississippi! 

 This is an important observation because most white northerners now pretend that the race problem in America – whether chattel slavery or de-jure discrimination has been an exclusively southern problem.  But the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace proved that this was not so when he ran for President, and Malcolm X was fond of pointing out: “If you are south of the Canadian border you’re south!” Surely the experience of Emmie Schrader Adams gives abundant support to this view. 

 Emmie tells us how black folks first entered her consciousness when a friend of her mother’s moved to her hometown, St. Paul Minnesota, from St. Louis Missouri and “told a story that stuck in my mind about Negroes, long, long lines of them, trying to integrate a white swimming pool I had this image of those scary long lines of Negroes stretching across wide fields, all walking to the swimming pool, and somehow made the connection that this was what had caused this family, with their three little daughters to immigrate to the north.  It was the mid 1950s.  About St. Paul Negroes I knew nothing. There was a black community somewhere beyond our little old church, but I was not allowed to go there.  Nor where we allowed to go to certain movie theaters because, I later learned, they were near the black neighborhood.” 

 Unlike the uneducated working class Italians that populated Theresa Del Pozzo’s neighborhood, Adam’s German-American father was a lawyer, but he was just the kind of paranoid bigot that would swell the ranks of the far right.  “In the McCarthy era he was convinced that there were twenty thousand communists at the University of Minnesota…My father, with his warped outlook though that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a communist.”  Hence when she became interested in the black freedom struggle, going first to Africa – where she witnessed revolutionary struggles in Kenya and Algeria – then winding up finally in Mississippi, her father became an informer for the FBI. 

 In fact, she was to later learn that it was he who told them that she was “part of a Negro communist spy ring.”  Yet in spite of their Lilly white backgrounds and elite educations – Del Pozzo at the University of Wisconsin and Adams at Harvard-Radcliffe – they both ended up risking their lives in the black Freedom movement and marrying black men.  Adams married a Jamaican and moved to that Island nation where she wrote a definitive book on Jamaican Patois, and Del Pozzo wedded the legendary Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.

While Adams and Del Pozzo were northerners, Casey Hayden and Joan C. Browning were native southerners.  And they were involved with the black Freedom Movement from the very beginning of the sixties.  Browning and Hayden was on the Freedom Ride to Albany Georgia in 1961.  And Browning, a brilliant student of science forfeited a promising career as a scientist in order to participate in the struggle with her black sisters and brothers attempting to build the “beloved community”

 Born and raised in rural Georgia, her family’s farm was just down the road from the farms of “Two of the most powerful and notorious racist politicians in Georgia’s history.” They were Georgia governor Herman Tallmadge and US Senator Eugene Tallmadge, and the Senator’s wife was a cousin of the fire eating white supremacist Senator Strom Thurman of South Carolina, the leader of the reactionary Dixiecrats in the Senate, who opposed Civil Rights legislation and broke the Senate filibuster record by speaking for 21 hours against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which he said “was tantamount to enslaving white people.” Browning’s movement activism not only cost her a career in science but also a loving relationship with her family.  But lost of family and longtime friends is a recurrent theme in these stories of heroism and sacrifice. 

 Yet none of these selfless and incredibly brave women say that they regret their decision to take a stand on the side of freedom, justice and equality for African Americans. Quite the contrary in fact, to a woman they all talk about how much the movement did to liberate them from the stultifying pathology of white racism that infected virtually all white southerners. In Browning’s case especially, the movement provided a unique opportunity to carry out God’s call to Christian believers to come to the aid of the poor and oppressed.  She was practicing “liberation Theology” long before that term became au courant.  And as Dorothy Dawson Burlage – who was cultivated to assume her role as a pampered southern belle but ended up as a disciple of Ella Baker’s then went on to earn a PhD in child psychology – tells us,  the movement liberated them from the hollow role of southern white womanhood.

 Casey Hayden, whose given name is Sandra Cason, was once married to Tom Hayden, who later married Jane Fonda.  Born and raised in Texas, Casey was from an old WASP family that traced its roots to pre-revolutionary Virginia and was one of the first white southerners to join the Freedom Movement.  “The unfolding of my childhood toward the southern Freedom movement commences at the University of Texas in Austin, “says Casey,” which I entered as a junior in 1957,” and her activism began opposing segregation as an undergraduate at the University.  And she tells us, “When the sit-ins broke out across the south in 1960, I was back in Austin in graduate school.  The national president of the student YWCA was a black student at Bishop College in Marshall Texas, where the police had used tear gas to break up a march.  We brought her to speak at the Y just after she had been released from jail…I remember sweating and crying in the packed little auditorium. 

 “After that I went to the meetings of the Austin movement with the black women who lived across the hall from me in the only integrated housing on campus, the Christian Faith and Life community…the third life changing religious organization of my college years…At the CF&LC I experienced the creation of empowering community, and within it an image of myself in which I then lived.  Later, I understood the movement on this model. Our image of ourselves in the Southern Freedom Movement was that of the beloved community, created by the activity, the experience, of non-violent direct action against injustice.” 

Casey remained active with SNCC through 1965; she also worked with the legendary Ella Baker and participated in momentous events like the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Mississippi Congressional Challenge. During this period she exposed herself to many life-threatening experiences and was a pivotal figure in the organization.  All of the stories in this volume are fascinating, and they give us an intimate look into the inner life of an altruistic community of men and women who were committed to a cause for which they were prepared to die. 

 The way these women continue to feel about the Freedom Movement is indicated in the title, ”Deep In Our Hearts,” which is taken from a line in the anthem of the civil rights movement We shall Overcome.  “Deep in my heart I do believe/ we shall overcome some day.”  It is a song that fortified those in struggle and prepared them to go forth unto the shadow of death.  To this day, decades after the southern movement has faded into myth and history, those refrains continue to give me goose pimples whenever I hear it. 

This inspirational and informative book not only provides us a rare and unvarnished look into the internal life of a wide range of white American families in the middle of the twentieth century, and the strange pathological views most held about African Americans, but also manages to recreate some critical episodes in the saga of the Civil Rights Movement which where heretofore unknown.  Finally, these eyewitness reports supply a fascinating inside look at how social movements are born, mature, and fade away.

 These deeply touching and very personal testaments – which paint a series of arresting portraits of the strength, dignity and intelligence of the southern blacks they met and struggled with, images which contradict the racist propaganda of white southern politicians and preachers – will immeasurably enrich the literature on the great black Freedom movement of the 1960’s.  It is essential reading for anyone interested in fully understanding that unique social movement which captured the best and brightest Americans of my generation, and changed the world’s most powerful nation for the better.

The Heroic Actions Of these Women and Their Comrades

  

civil-rights-act-full 

 

Led to the passage of the 1964 Civil rights bill that changed America

 

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Playthell Benjamin

Fall 2000

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