Document 99: Elaine DeLott Baker, "The Freedom Struggle Was the Flame," in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, Faith S. Holsaert, et al., eds. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), pp. 409-16.

Introduction

   This publication grew, in part, out of the realization that the stories of black and white women in the movement, so much an integral part of movement history, were not available to the community of civil rights scholars and the broader community of women. It felt wonderful then and still feels wonderful now to be included in a collection of movement stories from both Black and white women. The account of my movement work in Hands on the Freedom Plow was essentially the same as the one I wrote for Deep In Our Hearts. The difference is that in this chapter I was less interested in telling the story of my life before the movement and more interested in exploring the circumstances that surrounded the writing of the Waveland Memo. It was also the first time that I felt ready to talk about how the experience of being in interracial relationships impacted my contribution to that document.

[p. 409]

The Freedom Straggle Was the Flame

Elaine DeLott Baker

A sociology student finds herself in rural
Mississippi organizing an okra co-op
.

Joining the Movement

    There was no single moment when I decided to join the Movement. Mine was not a deliberate decision to enter the struggle for social justice. It was a confluence of events that began one day in May 1964 when SNCC field secretary Jesse Morris came to see me at Tougaloo College on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi. I had arrived there a week earlier with a group of

[p. 410]

Harvard students who had volunteered to teach Tougaloo summer school classes. We were part of a Field Foundation project that provided regular Tougaloo College faculty with the opportunity to work on their postgraduate studies at northern colleges over summer term.

    Jesse Morris was an enigmatic character of the times, his complex and thoughtful intellect struggling with what he saw as the unfolding economic future of the state's black population. Jesse remained in Mississippi working on economic initiatives for the next several decades, but that summer the focus on economic issues was overshadowed by the more immediate issues of voter registration and direct action. When Jesse heard I had worked with Harvard sociologist Tom Pettigrew on a survey of Boston's African American neighborhoods, he asked me to help him develop a survey that could be administered by volunteers during the summer. I enlisted Pettigrew's support by mail and began work on the design. In a few weeks I found myself, still working on the survey, at the Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio. A week later, when the bus returned to Jackson, I had become part of the swirling energy and moral purpose that was the Movement.

Opening the Door to Federal Programs

    In the chaotic aftermath of Freedom Summer, an effort that joined more than five hundred volunteers, mostly white, with veteran SNCC staff, I found a place to work that suited my skills--as a technical resource for the Federal Programs Initiative of the Council of Federated Organizations.

    Federal Programs was an umbrella for a broad group of organizing efforts that included leveraging federal funds for local initiatives as well as forcing the federal government to pay attention to the institutionalized racism that characterized the administration of Mississippi's federal programs. Using federal programs as a platform for organizing was not a dramatic tactic, like demonstrations or voter registration, but it was a powerful way of connecting with people's everyday struggles for equal treatment under the law. That fall, Jesse handed me an advance copy of the poverty bill and asked me to come up with a proposal that the nearby community of Canton could submit. I was understandably skeptical about any effort whose success was dependent on the cooperation of local agencies. In my weekly report to Jesse I proposed a more activist strategy, which would later be termed "welfare rights."

OCTOBER 11, 1964

After a review of these types of programs it is my personal feeling that little can be done directly through the community and the federal

[p. 411]

agencies sponsoring these programs . . . Our job is to put pressure on local agencies to cooperate with federal men . . . As to how to apply this pressure, I have a few ideas. One is to organize a large-scale welfare-type organization, staffed by local people and administered through the political organization of the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP). Using the blocks as units, I would like to train about ten people in the basics of the Social Security Act, disability provisions, plus unemployment laws, plus welfare programs like Aid to Dependent Children and Old Age Assistance. They could get around to all the families in the Negro communities and . . . advise the people [on] what programs they are eligible for, and help them apply and appeal denials. If we do not win our just appeals, we have a legal leverage in Washington.

    I began at the State House in Jackson, where I made copies of state regulations for different federal programs. In the fall and early winter I visited projects around the state, answering questions on eligibility and documenting incidents of systematic discrimination. I often traveled alone, borrowing vehicles from other civil rights workers and appearing at projects on an as-needed basis. In the summer we had taken care to travel in pairs, in daylight, and to stay in close communication with base operations. But the summer was behind us, discipline in the field was unraveling, and my impatience outweighed good sense.

    As the evidence of systematic discrimination in federally funded state programs continued to mount, I started thinking about how I could get the attention of the Washington agencies that oversaw these programs. An opening appeared with an upcoming trip to Washington that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organizing. It was an opportunity to bring disenfranchised Mississippians to Washington to challenge the legitimacy of seating the all-white Mississippi congressional delegation. Visits to federal agencies weren't part of the MFDP's original plans, but the MFDP recognized the value of such visits and gave me the approval to begin setting up meetings at Washington agencies, like the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; Veterans Affairs; the Department of Agriculture; and others.

    Along with several busloads of MFDP members, in January 1965 I headed to Washington for the congressional challenge. Scores of MFDP delegates moved up and down the avenues in front of Capitol Hill, picketing the seating of the Mississippi delegation, while others, accompanied by staff escorts, filed into the offices of highly placed federal officials. With the national conscience sensitized by the violence of Freedom Summer, it had not been difficult for me to arrange these visits. Once inside these

[p. 412]

offices, people stood up and told their stories--a veteran's pension denied, an application for old-age assistance ignored, aid to the blind cut after an individual was seen participating in a demonstration. With each story I felt the fear that was woven into the fabric of segregation begin to unravel.

    During those few days I found time to locate the Division of Cooperatives, a small office tucked away in the Department of Agriculture. I had spoken to the director of the division by phone earlier while I was doing my initial research on the poverty program. As we talked, he seemed intrigued by the idea of a Mississippi co-op and encouraged me to go forward with a poverty program application. I knew a little about co-ops from the time I had spent on an Israeli kibbutz, or collective, in the year between high school and college. It was not a great deal to go on, but coupled with the awareness that the farmers in Batesville were struggling to find a new market for their okra crop, it was enough for me to move forward.

The Batesville Co-op

    In northwestern Mississippi, Batesville's black farmers had been asking the Jackson COFO office for help in organizing a farm cooperative. The local white agent, who had been buying their okra for seven cents a pound, lowered the price without cause. When the agent refused to negotiate, the farmers began investigating ways to market the crops themselves.

    By the time I arrived in Batesville, the groundwork for the co-op had been laid and leadership was in place. As odd as it was for a white woman with no understanding of farming to be advising the prospective co-op, the community somehow found a way to incorporate me as an adviser, as if it made perfect sense. When it came time to introduce me at meetings, the pastor would begin, "We've been calling down to Jackson and asking for someone to help with starting a co-op up here in Batesville, but they've been real busy down there with voter registration and all, so in the meantime they sent us this white girl."

    I visited different farms, sometimes with Chris Williams, a white COFO worker with some understanding of farming; sometimes with the part-time pastor and full-time okra farmer, who had taken on the co-op as a personal mission; and sometimes alone. The community formed an organization, elected officers, and pooled resources to buy seed. The meetings grew larger. Our contact in the Washington co-op office helped us secure a seventy-eight- thousand-dollar poverty program loan for the purchase of farm equipment. The farmers bought and distributed seed, planted, and trucked their crops to Memphis. The co-op was operational.

[p. 413]

    Being out in the field, without a communications office, many of us took on the job of photographing as a way of documenting local project events. Armed with my 35mm camera, I began to photograph the different stages of the co-op's development. When I left Batesville, I turned over my photos to Maria Varela, a SNCC field secretary who had visited the project earlier and had a similar view of using photography as an organizing tool. Maria continued taking photographs and eventually incorporated them into a slide show called "How to Organize a Farm Co-op," which she distributed to other activists. Other black-run co-ops were formed across the South in the next decade. The Federation of Southern Co-ops was formed, and the Batesville co-op itself lasted for well over fifteen years.

    One of the reasons I left Jackson for Batesville was to avoid the politics and the escalating negativity of black/white relationships that was particularly pronounced in Jackson. In the field, tensions were less pronounced. If an individual was an effective field worker, black or white, male or female, he or she was likely to be given a certain degree of respect. In Batesville I was able to work without the major distractions of movement politics, but I couldn't avoid the disintegration of working relationships between blacks and whites. As the co-op moved forward, I began to reassess. I was an organizer who knew little about farming or marketing crops. I no longer felt that local farmers were peering anxiously down the road, waiting for the appearance of a male, preferably black, but as organizing gave way to the day-to-day reality of crops and markets, I felt less and less connected.

    In May my Harvard colleague Johnny Mudd, who had remained in Mississippi after the Tougaloo Summer Project, arrived in Batesville to keep things moving while I investigated outlets for the co-op's okra in New York. It soon became clear that Johnny and the local farmers were comfortable with each other and that Johnny had the skills to move the co-op forward. The farmers finally had their man.

    I left Mississippi in May 1965. I never felt unwelcome in the Batesville community, but the rising nationalist sentiment among the movement leadership and rank and file was unavoidable and emotionally devastating to me. I believed passionately in the civil rights struggle as a human struggle that was mine to share, but I couldn't reconcile my continued presence with what I heard and felt from my movement brothers and sisters. It was time for me to leave.

    I left the South, but the experiences of that year have had a profound effect on my life. My political values and core values became the same--a respect for the integrity of ordinary people and a belief in the ultimate redemptive nature of principled action.

[p. 414]

Race and Gender

    Being a white woman in that time and in that context posed unusual challenges. The ideals of social justice and racial equality that were central to the Movement did not extend to the issue of gender equality, an issue that was buried deep within the heavy sexism of the times. Strong black women played pivotal leadership roles, but as a white woman in a black movement, the scope of my work was always constrained by race and gender. It would have been naive to think a white woman could simply be another worker in the freedom struggle when the sanctity of white women played so heavily in the violence and intimidation that surrounded the convoluted logic of segregation. Yet, even within this context, I was given tremendous latitude to contribute to the work. The strength to continue, in the midst of violence and in the midst of doubt, came from my work in the field, where I was generously embraced and genuinely appreciated by the local people in whose homes I lived and whose lives I shared.

    My awareness of gender issues began well before I arrived in Mississippi. In the year between high school and college I had lived in Israel, where I saw women driving tractors, serving in the army, and working as equals beside men. Having seen Israeli women successfully take on these nontraditional roles gave me the confidence to challenge the stereotypes of my own culture. At the same time, challenging these cultural norms in the context of the Movement showed me the depth of sexism in our country--that even within the struggle for equality, sexism would remain a second-tier issue.

    Mississippi provided me with a time and place to exchange ideas with other women and to read and reflect on the writings of the feminist authors of the day--Anais Nin, Doris Lessing, Betty Friedan, and Simone de Beauvoir. Living down the road from the Tougaloo Literacy House placed me in contact with a remarkable group of women and helped bring me to a greater understanding of gender issues. During the day, we worked at the Jackson office, and at night we talked and read and laughed. Literacy House was a cross between boardinghouse, salon, revolutionary outpost, and commune, a place of intellectual exchange where women spoke freely, argued, and laughed together. Our conversations were a lively blend of our personal experiences, friendships, and frustrations, stimulated and provoked by the movement tradition of questioning and challenging the status quo.

The Waveland Memo

    In the fall of 1964, at a SNCC staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, I stood with several of these women, huddled around a mimeograph machine in the

[p. 415]

middle of the night, crafting a position paper titled "The Position of Women in the Movement." The document, which became known as the Waveland Memo in feminist discourse, and which was widely viewed as an early expression of second-wave feminism, was one of more than thirty position papers presented at the November SNCC retreat. As authors we were challenging what we saw as sexism in the Movement, objecting to the "assumption of male superiority," to women being called "girls," to women being left out of key decisions, to women's talents and skills being underutilized, and other realities that were emblematic of sexism in the Movement.

    In my travels across the state working in federal programs, I had collected examples of sexism (at the time, we called it "discrimination") that were incorporated into the text of the memo. In the analysis section, my voice was one of the more strident. We spoke in different voices and tones, but together we formulated a passionate statement, challenging the sexist assumptions and practices of a male-dominated political organization whose basis was in the struggle for racial justice.

    We did not list our names as authors. Instead we typed "Name Withheld by Request" in the upper right-hand corner. It was a notation I had used to hide my identity on a position paper that I had submitted as an individual. That position paper, which I had titled "Semi-Introspective," was a way for me to express my thoughts and feelings on issues of movement policies, strategies, and leadership, because the prospect of speaking publicly as a white woman was emotionally risky. As the Waveland Memo said, "Think about the kinds of things the author, if made known, would have to suffer because of raising this kind of discussion. . . the kinds of things which are killing to the insides--insinuations, ridicule, over-exaggerated compensations." As an individual author and as one of the co-authors of the Waveland Memo, I struggled to balance the need to speak my mind along with the awareness of the backlash that would surely follow.

    These were the days when emotions bled into politics. Looking back at my participation in authoring the Waveland Memo, I can see the blend of thought and feeling. The words and logic came from my mind; the belief that I had the right to speak came from the SNCC climate of challenge; but the raw emotion that drove me to speak came from my experiences as a white woman in a climate where interracial relationships were disdainfully termed "backsliding," where these relationships were viewed as an affront to black women and black culture, where the relationship between myself and a black staff member had to be kept secret from his colleagues in accordance with the political/social conventions of the day. As a woman, I looked around at the work that women and men performed in the Movement and saw pervasive gender discrimination; but it was the sense of

[p. 416]

betrayal emanating from my personal relationships that ignited the logic, transforming it from an intellectual argument into an emotional assault on the attitudes and practices of sexism. Privately, it was easy for my friends and me to identify the sexism we experienced and witnessed as workers in the struggle, but we seldom talked of the other, the emotional rejection we felt from the brilliant and courageous black men we admired and adored.

    Feminist historians have sometimes asked why more of us "early feminists" did not go on to be leaders in the women's movement. I can only speak for myself. Despite the intellectual clarity and the anger I felt when confronting sexism, it was the freedom struggle that held me. It was unthinkable for me to shift my identity, commitment, and energy from the freedom struggle to the struggle for women's rights at a time when I was still grieving over my separation from the Movement. The freedom struggle was the flame. All else was shadow.

    I left the South with two powerful realizations. The first was a deep appreciation for ordinary people and how they understand the world. Mississippi taught me to listen with my heart and to speak with my actions. My teachers were the people whose faith, intelligence, and willingness to risk everything were the heart of the black freedom struggle. The second realization was a frightening, gut-level understanding of racism and a terrible awareness of its corrosive and pervasive legacy. As a civil rights worker, I underestimated the lengths to which our society would go to preserve its privilege. In the midst of the struggle for racial justice, I found that I and my movement brothers and sisters had lost the ability to move beyond race in our personal relationships. There were moments when race and gender did not separate us. I know that to be true. For me, Mississippi was a state of grace, one that remains with me in memory--and in the work that I do in honor of that memory.

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