How and Why Did Women in SNCC
(the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)
Author a Pathbreaking Feminist Manifesto, 1964-1965?
Former Swarthmore student, Penny Patch, with a local resident, while canvassing in Batesville, Panola County, Mississippi, March 1965.
Photo by Elayne DeLott, Elaine DeLott Baker Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Patch was the first white woman to integrate a SNCC field project, joining Charles Sherrod in Albany, Georgia in June 1962.
Documents selected by
Kathryn Kish Sklar and Elaine DeLott Baker
Headnotes by Elaine DeLott Baker
Introduction by Kathryn Kish Sklar
Elaine Delott Baker was one of about a thousand northern students (90 percent of them white) who went to Mississippi in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. Organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"), the lead group in the Conference of Federated Organizations (COFO), Freedom Summer deserves its prominent place in American history. In 1994, on the eve of the thirtieth reunion of activists from Freedom Summer, Baker's sister was cleaning out their mother's house in Massachusetts, when she discovered boxes of Elaine's papers--letters, journals, organizational records and political manifestos that she sent home from Mississippi in 1964-65. These boxes lay largely unexplored until DeLott Baker organized their contents for this project. Soon they will be available to researchers at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Those that we have included in this project focus on an important chapter of her year in Mississippi--her co-authorship of the "Waveland Memo," a challenge to their experience of sex discrimination from women in SNCC. We've kept our focus wide, believing that the social movement was an important actor in Elaine DeLott's story.
Elaine DeLott matured from a smart college junior into a seasoned community organizer and young adult while participating in the seismic shift that changed American history by changing Mississippi history in 1964 and 1965. In that process she co-authored one of the signal documents that helped to shape the re-emergence of feminism in the 1960s--"Position Paper 24," which historians have named "the Waveland Memo," anonymously submitted for discussion in November 1964 at a SNCC staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi (See Document 43). Using DeLott Baker's recovered papers and viewing events in Mississippi through her eyes, this document project seeks to clarify the position paper's authorship and by analyzing its text, situate the Waveland document more fully within the larger contours of American history as well as the history of American feminism.
Perhaps because the memo was first presented anonymously, historians have not found it easy to identify its authors. The memo's social origins have remained (until now) something of a mystery. More certain of its authors, this Introduction seeks to expand our understanding of two fundamental aspects of the Waveland Memo: how the "personal" became the "political" for its authors; and why differences between Black women's and white women's gender-consciousness within SNCC led to different forms of protest.
Sara Evans's 1979 book, Personal Politics: the Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, launched historians' interest in the 1964 memo, emphasized the importance of the personal in the SNCC community and the memo, and reprinted both the 1964 and 1965 versions of the memo. Yet this initial look at the origins of "personal" feminism was inevitably incomplete. We add here the significance of "freedom" as a movement goal, the biographical perspectives of the memo's authors, and an analysis of the memo's text.
Winifred Breines's 2006 book, The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement, offers the best study of the relationship between white and Black women staff within SNCC at the time the memo was written. Breines considers the memo a white project, but, more interested in race relations than the memo itself, she does not examine the parallel forms of gendered protest arising at the time when the memo was written. Here we argue that the common ground of sex discrimination experienced by Black women and white women in SNCC led both groups to protest, but in different ways: SNCC culture opened opportunities for Black women to protest directly and channeled white women's protest into what became the Waveland memo.
This Introduction has six parts, each of which brings a different perspective to the assembled documents. Part I acquaints us with SNCC and "freedom" within the Black Freedom Movement. Part II outlines how Black women and white women in SNCC experienced "freedom" differently. Part III charts the intersection of the lives of four white women in Literacy House, Jackson, Mississippi, in the fall of 1964. Part IV analyses the text of the Waveland Memo. Part V explores Elaine DeLott's work with SNCC after the Waveland conference. Part VI reviews the life of the memo in history and memory.
PART I: HOW "FREEDOM" BECAME A PERSONAL AND POLITICAL GOAL FOR SNCC ACTIVISTS IN MISSISSIPPI IN 1964
Historians see SNCC as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Black young people, mostly college students, risked their promising futures and their lives to end racial exploitation and the violence that sustained it in the American South. SNCC began as a coordinating committee for the sit-in movement in 1960, and shifted in 1964 to work on voter registration in local communities, there partnering with local Black leaders in new forms of activism, democratic practice and resistance. "Freedom" became an overarching goal that united the college-educated young people with more experienced community leaders.
How did young white women like Elaine DeLott get involved? Traditional patterns of religious and secular philanthropy drew her and others to Mississippi; she arrived in Mississippi as part of a foundation grant that sent Harvard University students to be supplemental summer school faculty at Tougaloo College, a historically Black institution founded by northern missionaries in 1869, in Tougaloo, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. (see Documents 11A and 11B) Yet DeLott and others in her generation were already launched on a path of personal and social change, and under the pressure of war-like conditions in Mississippi, she and others broke away from those traditional patterns and sought new forms of social action. Her documents assembled here show that SNCC activists--white and Black--confronted danger and violence in ways that fostered their ongoing personal transformation as well as social change. (See headnotes to Documents 22 and 27)
DeLott grew up the youngest of three sisters in a working-class Jewish family in Winthrop, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Three of her four grandparents were from Eastern Europe. Her father left school in the 8th grade to help support his family, working as a plumber's helper. Her maternal grandmother, Esther, lived downstairs and modeled high ethical standards, never gossiping, reading the Bible every day, and always scrupulous in human relationships. Her parents' residence in Georgia before she was born prompted her to write their African-American cook, who responded with a letter that DeLott kept as a link to her family's time in the South. (See Documents 1A and 1B, Images 2 & 3).
Jews were a minority in DeLott's Irish- and Italian-Catholic neighborhood in Winthrop, "and there were very strict separations," she later remembered. "We had our parents' attitude, which is 'Hold your head high that you're Jewish.' But . . . you are very clearly a minority and there was no interfaith dating: very strict, very very strict." Yet Winthrop's Jewish community was no refuge. It relegated her family to second-class status because they were poor, and as a child she developed an early sensitivity to the injustice of judging people by their material wealth.
Elaine excelled at Hebrew School and during high school attended classes at Hebrew Teachers' College in Brookline, Massachusetts, where a mentor encouraged her to apply to Harvard-Radcliffe. She became Vice President of New England Young Judea, and a Zionist. Admitted to Radcliffe, she postponed college to spend a year in Israel and lived on a kibbutz where she witnessed and imitated the example of women's social leadership and sexual autonomy. But, dissatisfied with Zionism as a political project, she ended her affiliation with it upon her return home. (See Images 4 & 5 and Documents 2 and 3).
At Harvard-Radcliffe, Elaine studied social relations, philosophy and race relations. (See Documents 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10). In her third year, Radcliff reprimanded her in the wake of her arrest by the Cambridge police, who had walked into an apartment where she was staying with a Harvard boyfriend over Christmas break, an experience that alienated her from the values of the college administration and prompted her to leave Cambridge in the spring of 1964. (See Documents 6 and 8). She joined a group of recent Harvard graduates and graduate students, in a bi-racial project at Tougaloo College. (See Documents 11A and 11B.) A few weeks after she arrived SNCC activists contacted her there. Hundreds of white northern volunteers were gathering in Oxford, Ohio, to prepare for a summer with SNCC in Mississippi, and SNCC staff in Jackson were determining how best to use their energy. One idea was to ask volunteers to collect data about life among Black Mississippians. Having heard about DeLott's undergraduate work with a survey of Boston's Black community in Roxbury, they asked her to design a survey for the summer volunteers. (See Document 10.) Still working on the survey when the SNCC staff left for the training sessions at Oxford, she joined them on the bus and thereby became a de facto SNCC staff member for the duration of the orientation.
On June 21, in Oxford, DeLott happened to be staffing the movement's WATS line (Wide Area Telephone Service) with Rita Schwerner when the news arrived that Rita's husband, Mickey Schwerner and another white northern volunteer, Andrew Goodman, had gone missing in Meridian, Mississippi along with local Black activist, James Chaney. (See headnote to Document 16.) From that day forward Elaine DeLott and other white northerners knew that their race would not protect them from the brutal violence that defended the white power structure in Mississippi. They also knew that their work in Mississippi was now receiving national attention. Walter Cronkite's CBS newscast broadcast on June 25, 1964, called the disappearances "the focus of the whole country's concern." The men's mutilated bodies were discovered six weeks later.
One measure of the historic dimensions of SNCC's work in the front line of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi--and a gauge of what they and their allies in local Black communities achieved by confronting the violence of the Mississippi racial order--was the enactment in 1964 and 1965 of the most important civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. On July 2, 1964 Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which defended voting rights; prohibited discrimination in public facilities and public education; extended the Commission on Civil Rights "to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs;" prohibited discrimination in employment based on "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;" and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A year later Congress passed the historic Voting Rights Act, signed on August 6, 1965. (See Document 84) Of course these legislative achievements resulted from decades of dedicated effort, but the crisis atmosphere of the summer of 1964 gave advocates new energy and set opponents on the defensive.
These two laws altered American history in fundamental ways. But for those on the ground in Mississippi, whose activism did so much to prompt them, change was hard to measure. Imbedded continuities in race relations were more powerful than any effects of federal legislation. Three aspects of the social movement that Elaine DeLott joined in June 1964 shaped her experience in Mississippi, including her co-authorship of the "Waveland Memo." First, the movement was led by her peers, a generation of college-educated Black men and women, who were engaged in personal transformation as well as the promotion of social change. Second, "freedom" became the movement's defining principle because it linked that personal transformation with wider political goals. Third, expanded activities of Freedom Summer, which were bolstered by an increased number of Black staff and very many more northern white volunteers, created strains in the movement's resources, its interracial communication, and internal decision making, prompting SNCC leaders to reconfigure their strategies in the fall of 1964; "Black Power" was coalescing as a political position, and the ongoing inclusion of white activists was being reassessed.
The founding of SNCC in 1960 marked the entrance into public life for many Black college students, who, joined by a small number of non-Black college students in 1962-63, and larger numbers of whites in 1964, brought talented young people together in what became an autonomous organization that was not run by their elders. SNCC attracted a rising generation of self-motivated college students from historically Black colleges and universities--Stokely Carmichael, Charles Cobb, Jr., and Muriel Tillinghast from Howard, Diane Nash and John Lewis from Fisk, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and Gwendolyn Zohara Robinson Simmons from Spelman, Julian Bond from Morehouse, as well as exceptions like Doris Derby, Hunter College graduate, and Bob Moses, Hamilton College graduate and Harvard MA. Sociologist Doug McAdam argued in Freedom Summer (1988) that protest became normative for this generation of students in Black colleges around 1960. In sit-ins and freedom rides, SNCC was the organization that coordinated actions. SNCC's first full-time paid staff member, Jane Stembridge, a white Southerner just graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York, spent her first weeks "getting out mailings to Negro college campuses across the South."
"Freedom" was not initially SNCC's defining goal, but became so as the group struggled against the brutal racist regime in Mississippi. Initially SNCC's official self-definition emphasized Judaeo-Christian principles of non-violence, justice and love. Its constitution declared:We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence, as it grows from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society. (See Document 12)
SNCC proposed to confront "hostility" and "evil" with love.Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love. (See Document 12)
These religious ideals inspired effective strategies in the sit-in campaigns of 1960, which sought access to public accommodations. But the stakes were higher in SNCC's voter registration campaigns of 1964-1965, and "freedom" became the watchword of the movement, as well as the group's reason for being.
With their voter registration campaign of 1964, SNCC activists entered a war zone. White vigilantes used firearms and other forms of violence to subjugate African Americans and they in turn defended themselves with firearms. Much was at risk. The registration campaign challenged the stability of one of the most powerful political regimes in the United States--white congressional Democrats of the southern "Black Belt." Stronger than any other regional group, they had been able to dictate national policy and reap large rewards for cooperating with national policies. This garnered benefits for their economic and political order, including the continued tolerance of the virtual enslavement of Black labor.
Mississippi was still dominated by plantation agriculture and lacked industrial cities like Birmingham in Alabama and Atlanta in Georgia. Determined to resist the changes underway elsewhere in the South, the state legislature did not respond to the 1954 Brown decision until 1964, when it privatized white public schools. Economic historian Gavin Wright has shown that the southern economy changed due to the civil disobedience of Black southerners and government action spurred by the Civil Rights Movement, not the gradual evolution of economic growth. In the summer of 1964, the police force in Jackson prepared for the arrival of Freedom Summer volunteers and their voting rights campaign with a show of force; a group photo showed them and the city's mayor equipped with an armored tank, motorcycles and horses. (See Document 13B) Change came as the result of a fierce struggle that pitted local Black communities and their SNCC allies against white vigilantes and legal law enforcement.
The addition of hundreds of northern white college students to SNCC's voter registration campaign in the summer of 1964 served multiple purposes. Historian Wesley Hogan pointed to the range of northern assets they brought with them. "Northern students . . . were idealistic and could bring money, human resources, and the national media South." Historian Clayborne Carson noted another important purpose, expressed by SNCC leader Charles Sherrod, who wanted "to free southern blacks from their fear of whites." Sherrod felt that the idea that whites were superior "has eaten into the minds of the people, black and white. We have to break this image. We can only do this if they see white and black working together, side by side."
Gender and sexuality were central to the construction of white supremacy. Intermarriage between whites and Blacks was illegal in all former Confederate states and white juries condoned the presumed preservation of white "blood" lines through brutal repression of anything that could be interpreted as Black men's sexual interest in white women. When Chicago teenager Emmett Till came to visit family in Mississippi in 1955, he was tortured and murdered for reportedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, and an all-white jury acquitted the killers. Till's mother made his murder a national cause but white rule retained a tight grip on the reins of power in Mississippi. Many SNCC activists in Mississippi considered themselves "the Emmett Till generation," having as teenagers absorbed the anguishing details of his death and his mother's passionate protest.
This violent reality explains why SNCC's dedication to justice, love and non-violence led to their adoption of "freedom" as the group's mantra. The term was introduced to the movement in 1961 to describe "Freedom Riders," when SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized mixed racial groups on interstate bus routes to challenged local laws or customs that enforced segregation in seating. Riders of both races were savagely beaten when they arrived at Birmingham, Alabama, as local police looked on. Elsewhere they were sentenced to prison chain gangs. In Jackson, Mississippi, the last stop in the Freedom Rider route, they were routinely jailed after stepping off the bus. At the height of the movement in the summer of 1962, nearby jails were filled with riders and 300 were incarcerated at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary. Freedom Riders became mythic symbols of a changing south, and in Jackson and elsewhere in 1964, Black Mississippians called all SNCC activists "Freedom Riders."
By 1964 SNCC had adopted "freedom" as its brand. "Freedom Schools," which were launched earlier throughout the deep South, became central to SNCC's community work (See Documents 13A, 18A, 18B, 18C and 20). A Freedom Primer carried African American history into those schools. (See Document 19A). SNCC named their plan to bring white northern college students to Mississippi "Freedom Summer." Freedom songs and Freedom Singers expressed the movement's strength and ideals. At the height of the voter registration effort in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and their "Freedom Vote" challenged the white rule of the Mississippi Democratic Party. (See Document 76) Elaine DeLott's documents refer to the "Girls Freedom House" and the "Women's Freedom House" in Jackson. SNCC activists began to call their movement the "Mississippi Freedom Movement." In the fall of 1964, when the movement divided between those who wanted more centralized structure and those who advocated local control, the former called the latter group "Freedom High." A 2010 book that brought together memoirs of SNCC women, Black and white, was titled Hands on the Freedom Plow; Elaine DeLott Baker titled her chapter "The Freedom Struggle Was the Flame." Most historians now refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the part of the Black Freedom Movement, a term that embraces the century before 1964 and continues to the present.
Indeed, one reason "freedom" became a powerful word within SNCC was because it linked their activism with the ongoing struggle for emancipation that began at the end of the Civil War a century earlier. Bringing dignity, power and historical significance to SNCC's activism, the term justified their willingness to die for the movement. Freedom was an objective ideal--the absence of white exploitation. But it was also a subjective condition that could be expressed in song, daily life and human relations. Historian Sara Evans highlighted personal Christian commitments, especially within the YWCA, as the source of "personal politics" in the movement, but "freedom" expressed both religious and secular values: as early as the 1830s religious beliefs inspired anti-slavery activists to call for freedom as an essential component of religious conscience; yet personal, private freedom was also an American value embodied in the secular Bill of Rights. SNCC activists, as young people, were seeking to define their personal place in the world, as well as endeavoring to change it. The combination of subjective and objective aspirations signified by the word "freedom" led to its being a way of life for the activists.
Documents related to Elaine DeLott's year in Mississippi illuminate the possibilities that SNCC opened to women activists. Freedom had a special appeal for SNCC women staff of both races. Raised in the constraints of the 1950s, they found in SNCC meaningful work and the possibility of lives less fettered by convention. Yet the burden of the history of American racism problematized cross-race alliances among SNCC women. And the idea of "freedom" inspired separate paths forward for Black women and white women in SNCC.
The voter registration activities of Freedom Summer brought together three demographic groups. Local Black communities set SNCC's goals and protected activists. Black students--men and women--formed the core of SNCC's leaders. White staff members like Elaine DeLott played a supportive role, and the 900 overwhelmingly white northern volunteers of "Freedom Summer" constituted massive additional support.
SNCC's voter registration campaign began when Amzie Moore, long-time NAACP activist in Jackson, urged it upon SNCC's Bob Moses. (See headnote to Document 37B) Moses set the standard among SNCC activists for following the leadership of local people who had historically carried the Black Freedom Movement forward. In this regard he was tutored by Ella Baker, legendary advisor to the sit-in students who founded SNCC in 1960. That year, when Moses sought work in the movement and visited the Atlanta office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), (recently founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.), Ella Baker, long time NAACP field secretary and now organizational pillar in the SCLC, recognized his potential. Baker "became his political mother," historian Barbara Ransby wrote. "Moses absorbed Baker's message that revolution was an ongoing process intimately bound up with one's vision of the future and with how one interacted with others on a daily basis. Moses also shared Baker's confidence and faith in young people." Bringing young people into local Black communities was an act of faith that, for Moses, became the core of SNCC's reason for being. In these extraordinary circumstances many SNCC activists departed from normative cultural practices associated with race and gender. For example, white college graduates now routinely deferred to the greater experiential authority of local Black people, including women, who often had little formal education.
Charles Cobb, who organized the curriculum and staffing of SNCC's freedom schools (See Documents 18A, 18B, 18C, 19A and 20), described the cultural changes wrought by activists' interactions with local leaders. "Being young, we were . . . not set in our ways, but were open, willing to experiment and . . . take risks. [W]e found in places like Mississippi . . . all these people waiting for something like that to come at them that way--there were the Amzie Moores [and others] waiting. It's not like SNCC came in a vacuum, there had been decades of work going on in these places. These [people] structured the way we functioned in those places, the way we were present . . . the way we thought."
Black communities were used to taking risks and the risks were great. Historians now recognize that most Black Mississippians understood the economic and political system that exploited their labor and terrorized their families. Building on the gains of the Black Freedom Movement since the 1940s and the political momentum generated by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many Black communities were mobilizing to challenge the structures that kept them systemically unfree. Two years before Elaine DeLott arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, the city's NAACP chapter had organized successful demonstrations that forced the city's elected leaders to negotiate with national NAACP leaders. But the drive-by killing of NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, near his home in June 1963, and the lack of prosecution of his killer (until 1994), showed that white vigilante groups continued to get away with murder.
SNCC activists brought the energy of a new generation of college-educated Black youth and (in the summer of 1964) northern white volunteers to this struggle. White SNCC staff and volunteers risked their lives alongside their Black colleagues and the Black communities who sheltered them. Non-violence might have been an imperative strategy on their part, but it was not sufficient to protect their lives. Black families maintained firearms as part of their hunting culture, and as the freedom movement gathered momentum in the 1950s and 60s, guns became part of Black political culture. When DeLott worked in Batesville to help Black farmers gain access to federal programs in 1965, she lived with a Black family that maintained an armed guard on the roof of their house, sundown to sunup. (See Document 81B).
So when Elaine DeLott went to Mississippi in 1964, she entered one of the most volatile regions of the English-speaking world. During much of her year in Mississippi, she lived in Jackson, the state's largest city, with a population of 50,000. One county removed from the Mississippi river to the west, Jackson was just south of the "Delta" that stretched north to the Tennessee border, three counties deep on the flood plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Black share-croppers worked in plantation fields on the Delta that produced abundant cotton and other commercial crops, but lived in shacks reminiscent of slave quarters. In 1960 thirteen of the twenty-four counties in Mississippi's Second Congressional District had less than one percent of voting-age Blacks registered to vote.
Greenwood served as the headquarters for SNCC's voter registration campaign, but SNCC's operations across the state were coordinated in Jackson, historically the metropolis where Black activism was strongest. Bob Moses, director of SNCC's Mississippi activities and co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the managing entity of Freedom Summer, worked in Jackson--his moral and experiential authority guiding all of SNCC's Mississippi projects. SNCC staff who toiled in projects across the state came to Jackson to relax--after checking in with the central operations.
PART II: HOW BLACK WOMEN AND WHITE WOMEN IN SNCC EXPERIENCED "FREEDOM" DIFFERENTLY
In Jackson, Tougaloo College offered an environment in which it was ordinary for whites and Blacks to be seen together and the "police tended to stay away" from the campus. Arriving there in May 1964, Elaine DeLott joined SNCC staff when they trained volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, then returned to finish the summer session at Tougaloo in July.
At first DeLott was not outdoors in "the field" where Black staff members--men and women--led the vanguard of "Freedom Summer." To avoid the risk of igniting white racist rage that might harm the whole community, white women (and to some extent white men) tended to work indoors, disproportionally assigned to office work in communications, research, writing reports and running schools and community centers. Although many whites during Freedom Summer were involved in canvassing for voter registration, Black women and men took the lead in these efforts--walking house-to-house and visiting agricultural workers in the field. These differences in the work assignments of Black and white women might prompt us to wonder whether they contributed to the discontent expressed in the Waveland Memo of November 1964. But white women staff members denied such an effect. Like most white women in SNCC, Casey Hayden thought her office work had dignity and purpose: "I was never a secretary in SNCC and never had one. I worked long hours with no days off, feeling responsible for the staff in the field whose lives were daily at risk."
The differences that channeled Black and white SNCC women into different paths of gendered protest were more subtle than those of their work assignments. Like men in the movement SNCC women activists inhabited a space charged with danger. Unlike men, they had to function in that space while negotiating gender relations that often made their work more difficult. SNCC culture in some ways resembled what historian Sara Evans called "free space"--where participants in social movements could innovate independently of the constraints of the "common sense" status quo maintained outside the movement. There was little institutional support at SNCC and its work required personal initiative and creativity. Yet while SNCC might have be seen as "free" when viewed from the outside, SNCC's undertakings often demanded cooperative action and intense self-control. Lives were at risk and what outsiders might deem inappropriate sexual behavior could compromise the safety of the group as a whole. Routine sexual harassment undercut the political effectiveness of women staff members. In this context some Black women protested directly against gender bias, a strategy that white women did not imitate.
Belinda Robnett's 1997 book, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights, describes the advancement of Black women's leadership within SNCC. Although at its founding SNCC was "primarily a men's organization" and sexist bias was rife at its Atlanta headquarters, by the end of the summer of 1964, Black women were well established in the organization, constituting about a quarter of the staff in Mississippi--twelve of fifty. And seven women were field secretaries in Mississippi--Muriel Tillinghast in Greenville; Mary Lane in Greenwood (though Stokely Carmichael headed Mississippi voter registration there); Willie Ester McGee in Itta Bena; Mary Sue Gellatly in Shaw; Lois Rogers in Cleveland; Cynthia Washington in Bolivar County; and Gwen Robinson in Laurel. Robnett notes that women headed smaller projects, usually with only one other field worker, while the projects headed by men usually had at least three other staff. Like men, women field secretaries worked autonomously and made their own decisions in cooperation with local communities. They worked on canvassing--"finding out what was on people's minds--what kinds of things they would like to see done; getting individuals to register to vote; and recruiting individuals for local demonstrations."
Yet even in the field it was not possible for Black women to escape the complications of gender trouble. One project head, Gwen Robinson (now Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons) described how she coped. As a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, she studied with Staughton Lynd, Howard Zinn and Vincent Harding. Despite strong warnings from college administrators against joining SNCC, by her sophomore year in 1964, she was serving on SNCC's board. Told by her family not to return home if she went with SNCC to Mississippi, she went anyway, and dealing with "the terror of entering Mississippi" by sleeping in the car "almost all the way there." When a Black male project director was forced to leave the state, she agreed to head the SNCC project in Laurel, Mississippi with a staff of two--one a seasoned SNCC worker, one a California college student, both Black. "Because Laurel was such a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan," she remembered, "it was too dangerous for white volunteers!" Courageous local women opened their houses to her staff and volunteers, and the flourishing project created a library and theater.
Her identity as a woman prompted Robinson Simmons to counsel project staff and volunteers about their sexual behavior.As one of the few women project directors in the state, I was particularly sensitive to sexual harassment. One of my few nonnegotiable edicts was to disallow all forms of sexual harassment and to declare all underage local women off-limits to project males. There would be one warning and one warning only. If it happened again, out you went.
Although she didn't welcome that work, she considered it necessary. "Becoming a sexual relations counselor was another one of the tasks that was in my unwritten job description. Often this issue took up an inordinate amount of my time and taxed me the most." Robinson later said that she welcomed the title of "Amazon" because it meant she "had joined the ranks of those known as the Mississippi field staff, considered the baddest, baddest, baddest organizers in SNCC."
Other Black women leaders took a less nurturing approach to gender issues, especially sexual harassment. Hellen O'Neal, a Jackson State College student, began working in the SNCC Jackson project in the summer of 1961 and by the time she graduated in 1964 was a veteran in the Jackson literacy campaign. A native of Clarksdale, where most people "were connected to Chicago by blood ties," her family read the Chicago Defender and on TV "followed the growing national Civil Rights Movement." She did not suffer fools gladly. One Jackson activist remembered that O'Neal "beat the hell out of Dewey Green, Jr.," when he made a sexist remark about her, "she up and slapped the hell out of him--slapped him blind."
No wonder that, when the Waveland Memo appeared in the position papers at the SNCC staff retreat in November 1964, many thought it had been written by Black women--by Ruby Doris Robinson, in particular, Jim Forman's indispensable assistant at the Atlanta office, who in 1963 led a protest in over work-related discrimination in SNCC headquarters. Robinson was known to hurl coke bottles against the wall and then pick up the pieces as a way of relieving tension.
Yet five strong countervailing trends separated Black women from the group who wrote the Waveland Memo.
First, most Black women staff members deferred to the leadership of Black men within SNCC because they regarded the advancement of Black men as a crucial ingredient in their own destiny as Black women. In this regard they resembled the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Black men, mostly clergymen, publicly led the movement throughout the South while talented women like Ella Baker were much less visible; Baker built the infrastructure of the SCLC and worked with young people to create SNCC. Charismatic figures like Fanny Lou Hamer rose from local to national prominence, and women filled the churches at the heart of the movement's protests but the organizational reins of the movement remained in male hands. Not a single woman was among the speakers who addressed the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet in SNCC and in the movement generally, some Black women protested against the discriminatory aspects of Black male leadership. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, 1957-1998, protested against the exclusion of women from the speaker's podium at the Lincoln Memorial. When march organizers told her that women were represented on the podium by virtue of their membership in the organizations of the male speakers, Height promptly organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," an interracial group of middle-class women who met in Jackson and other cities in the summer of 1964. But, like other Black women in the Civil Rights Movement, Dorothy Height was aware of the historical denial to Black men of social privileges accorded to white men, such as wages sufficient to support their families and the ability to protect their families from social violence. As a member of the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1963, Height discussed the problem of "matriarchy" in Black families and suggested that the best way to aid Black women was to aid Black men to gain access to better employment, which would shift some of the burden away from women in Black families.
Black women staff members in SNCC also saw their personal struggle for dignity and emancipation as more closely aligned with Black men than with white women. Supporting the male leaders of SNCC and not demanding to share that leadership equally was one way women staff members could correct the historic bias against Black men in American society. Black women's protest against gender bias in the movement, as expressed by Ruby Doris Robinson, Robinson Simmons and others, occurred in a larger context of their acceptance of male leadership. "Freedom" for them was more aligned with racial justice than gender justice.
Second, sexual relations between white women and Black men undermined cross-racial alliances among women in the movement. SNCC was one of the earliest sites of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. African-American SNCC staffer Jean Wheeler Smith later said, "There was a lot of sex in SNCC . . . we were twenty years old . . . what do you expect?" Penny Patch later wrote, "In retrospect, if I had known how my sexual relationship with a black man could affect black women, I hope I would have acted with greater sensitivity and discretion." Yet, she added, it was "unlikely that I would have changed my behavior significantly. We were young, we were living in wartime conditions. We were always afraid; we never knew whether we would see one another again. We were ready, black and white, to break all taboos. SNCC men were handsome, they were brilliant, they were brave, and I was very much in love." Elaine DeLott Baker later remembered SNCC's social context of sexual relations between white women and Black men. "They needed something and we needed something. It was not okay to trust each other, but the power of the need to be understood, to communicate, and to challenge authority [was very strong.]"
Ruby Doris Robinson viewed such cross-racial sexual relations as a threat to the movement, and most Black women resented Black men's attraction to white women. Gloria Wade Gayles later remembered, "We were especially naïve about the impact that romantic alliances would have on the movement. . . .[W]hen romantic alliances between black men and white women became almost as common as cotton, we lost the harmony with which we had once sung 'We Shall overcome.'" White women, who for the first time in their lives were forming friendships and intimate relationships with Black men, found it difficult if not impossible to discuss those relationships publicly; they were surrounded by a mine field of danger created by the wider white community on the topic of interracial intimacy. And most Black men chose to keep their relationships with white women private, not acknowledging them within the group--behavior that their sexual partners could find demeaning.
Not all sex was equal. Since Black men had historically paid with their lives for intimacy with white women, dating white women in SNCC could be a form of liberation. For Black women, sex with white men did not have the same effect. White men had a three-hundred year history of sexual assault and rape of Black women in the South (and North) without fear of consequences, so the opportunity for intimacy with white men did not manifest as a form of freedom for Black women.
Third, to Black women in SNCC white women inevitably represented the long history of Black oppression by white people. Penny Patch reflected: "It occurs to me that as the nearest and safest white women, some of us became vessels into which black women, if they chose to, could pour their accumulated anger--anger they had borne for hundreds of years." She thought "slavery and oppression . . . created the distance between black women and white women, not the fact that white women slept with black men during the Civil Rights Movement."
Fourth, by the time of the Waveland Memo in November 1964, tensions between white and Black staff--men and women--were strained to the breaking point. Most "Freedom Summer" volunteers had departed by September, but about a third remained, many of whom were added to the SNCC/COFO staff, swelling the organization's ranks at a moment when its programs and structures were in crisis. The desire of hundreds of white volunteers to stay in Mississippi created logistical problems that forced everyone to confront the long-simmering tension between white and Black activists. At stake was the role of whites in an interracial organization, and ultimately, the more fundamental question of whether SNCC should move forward as a Black organization, or as an interracial one. Key Black leaders, including Bob Moses, Jim Forman and Ruby Doris Robinson, went on a six-week tour of Africa sponsored by Harry Belafonte, and their absence was deeply felt. Though Stokely Carmichael had not himself gone to Africa, he was affected by the reports of those who returned, and began to speak the language and ideas of independent Black political organizing.
Fifth, perhaps most importantly, programmatic and organizational issues challenged the group's future. In August the Democratic National Convention had refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, leading many SNCC staff to question their commitment to working within the liberal establishment and even question the efficacy of voter registration. SNCC staff were divided in their views of the group's structure. Some supported James Forman, executive secretary at SNCC's Atlanta headquarters, who argued for the importance of leadership hierarchies, which many saw as an assertion of Black leadership. (See Document 36A) Others, sometimes disparagingly referred to as the "freedom high" group, advocated decentralized control. (See Document 93.)
In this context of alienation along racial and organizational lines, cooperation between Black and white SNCC women staff members reached a low point; friendships among women were increasingly separated across racial lines. Six months after the organization had welcomed hundreds of white volunteers, the position of white staff--men and women--was precarious.
White women staff in this situation had little opportunity to express their frustrations. As Casey Hayden later described the complexity of a white southern woman cooperating with Black leadership: "I considered myself a guest of that community, which required decency and good manners, as every Southerner knows." (See Document 89). Both northern and southern white women consistently repressed their feelings about problematic gender relations. They couldn't "slap the hell out of" Black men. It was unthinkable. Nor could they engage in extensive counseling on sexual matters in the field. Nor could they lead office protests. They could not speak about injuries felt when sexual partners did not acknowledge their intimacy. They could not expect sympathy or support from Black women.
White deference to Black leadership was a fundamental aspect of SNCC culture, but in the fall of 1964 Elaine DeLott exemplified a shift some white staff members began to generate their own work, hers being to tour local SNCC projects in Mississippi and promote their access to federal programs that had previously excluded Blacks. (See Documents 23-32).
The timing of the Waveland conference in November 1964 was such that the group of veteran white staff women from Literacy House, including DeLott, took the opportunity to express themselves as a group. In what became known as 'the Waveland Memo," they spoke as experienced staff members, but knew that the ground was shifting beneath them, requiring them to think and act in new ways. When all staff were invited to critique the organization, they responded with an innovative analogy between race discrimination and sex discrimination.
PART III--HOW DID THE LIVES OF FOUR REMARKABLE WHITE WOMEN CONVERGE IN LITERACY HOUSE, JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, SEPTEMBER 1964?
From the documents that Elaine DeLott brought out of Mississippi in the spring of 1965 and the personal memoirs that she and three others subsequently wrote, we can trace the arcs that brought their lives together in Jackson and the themes that drew them into writing the Waveland Memo.
Drawn into the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi through her work as a teacher at Tougaloo College, Elaine DeLott contributed to one of the most compelling chapters of social change in American history. (See Documents 11A and 11B). Her year in Mississippi was divided into three parts. First, in May, June and July 1964, she was part of the chaotic stream of white northern college students who, allied with young Black leaders, turned the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi into the vanguard of the movement nationally. (See Documents 13A-16) In August she returned to Massachusetts to work as a waitress and earn money to support her ongoing work in Mississippi. (See headnote to Document 21.) Then, from September to December 1964, with Literacy House as her base, she developed her own work within the movement which included working with a farming community in Canton, twenty-six miles north of Jackson. (See Documents 23-32).
That work occurred during the near collapse of SNCC's programs and structures in Mississippi, following the harrowing "Freedom Summer." With other SNCC staff in November, DeLott attended the conference at Waveland, Mississippi, that addressed the organization's programmatic and structural crisis. Staff were invited to submit "position papers" (See Documents 35-51) about the group's problems and with three other white women she co-authored a paper about "women in the movement." ((See Document 43.) After Waveland, from January to May, 1965, DeLott deepened her commitment to farming programs, living and working in Batesville, one-hundred and fifty miles north of Jackson, just downriver from Memphis. There she secured federal support for an agricultural cooperative. (See Documents 74-80).
If these chronological segments were set to music, they might be called presto (very fast), cacophony (discordant), and tenuto (sustaining a single note.) Connecting with SNCC in the summer of 1964 at the height of its development, she then experienced its foundering in the fall of 1964, and the revitalization that some activists achieved by doing their own work, nominally under SNCC's umbrella, but actually sponsored by a local Black community within the larger freedom movement.
DeLott participated in a turning point in American history, but for her as for other SNCC staff, it was also a personal voyage of self-discovery. When that voyage began for her, DeLott had already navigated major challenges in her life, personally and politically. (See Documents 2-10). Her first letters to her parents from Tougaloo College admitted that "there will be a lot of trouble this summer," which turned out to be an understatement. (See Documents 14-15 .) (See Documents 16 & 17.) After her stint in Oxford, Ohio, she returned to Tougaloo and finished the summer session, then earned money in the Catskills in August. When she came back to Jackson in September, she was a paid staff member. (See Document 21).
DeLott's commitment to the movement was inspired by local Black leaders as well as by the SNCC community. (See Document 22.) In September 1964, she began to define her own work by promoting connections between local communities and federal programs from which African Americans had historically been excluded. That work quickly took root in the farming community of Canton, twenty-six miles north of Jackson. (See Document 23.) Until January 1965, she was based at Literacy House in Tougaloo, with SNCC activists Casey Hayden, Emmie Schrader and Mary King. (See Documents 27A & 27B). (SNCC headquarters was ten miles away in the Black section of downtown Jackson, near another historically Black college, Jackson State.)
In Canton DeLott lived with a Black family, visiting Literacy House when she could as a form of recreation. She organized for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the "Cotton Vote." That election determined who would serve on the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) board, which had sole authority over the number of acres of cotton that individual farmers would be allowed to grow. Supported with government subsidies, those allotments shaped the wealth of farming families. Historically Blacks were given small allotments and whites large. (See Documents 26, 33 & 34).
Reporting on her work to the SNCC-COFO office in Jackson, in October 1964, she envisioned an ambitious program designed to change the discriminatory implementation of federal programs: "a large scale welfare type organization staffed by local people, and administered through the political organization of the fdp [Freedom Democratic Party]. Using the blocks as units. I would like to train a staff of about 10 people in the basics of the social security act, disability provisions, and unemployment laws, plus welfare programs like aid to dependent children and old age assistance." She predicted that non-discrimination could be enforced "in the administration of this program once it was set up through the proper channels." (See Document 23.)
A letter to her sister was euphoric. "i adore the farmers most of all, and am learning alot about how to organize people and how to organize a program like this." She was "living in Canton with a negro family and another white girl." Her intellectual life was blossoming. "I am getting practically a master's in agricultural economics in my spare time through reading all the journals on programs and subsidies etc. I also know the name of every official in madison county and every county in the state." (See Document 24.) To her parents she explained, "the main work we are doing here in canton is organizing a farmer's cooperative to have its own supply house and gin. The negro farmers outnumber the white farmers almost four to one here." She and others were "organizing the negro farmers to vote in the election for a county committee of the ascs, which decides how much the cotton allotments are." She thought they could "elect four negroes if we work hard." (See Document 26.)
Local life was good. "I go around to farms and talk to farmers, to the lawyers, to the capitol, speak to the federal men, and write reports, etc." She planned to begin working a couple of hours in the evening "with the local kids in the community center next door." Her office was in "freedom house," where she got three meals a day. Canton was getting cold; she asked her parents to send a jacket, sweaters and wool socks. (See Document 26.) SNCC's methods weren't perfect (see Document 30) and to friends she admitted being in the "glorification of the local people faction," believing that "essentially things must come from them." (See Document 27A.)
Yet as she prepared for Waveland, DeLott was pessimistic about the survival of SNCC. Thoughts in her journal became the basis for Position Paper 27. (See Documents 31 & 32.) Deeply committed to her work in Canton, she realized that she could not do it alone; a staff of ten seemed about right. Where would they come from if not from SNCC?
Responding in October to the Atlanta headquarters' call for papers to be read at the upcoming Waveland conference in November, DeLott wrote what became "Position Paper 27)"--her assessment of the disintegration of SNCC. (See Document 44). At Waveland her paper was anonymous and identified by the title of its first section, "Introduction: Semi-Introspective." There, she wrote, "I have begun to split up." The emotion behind her actions was "no longer enthusiasm, but endurance," and endurance "consists of watching yourself, wondering how long you can keep on functioning." She hesitated to talk about her feelings. "There is still too much outward loyalty for me to talk about doubts." If she left, she said, it would not be with a "grand tirade" or "lashing out," but "with a feeling of personal inadequacy to keep on fighting." Revealingly, she continued, "I must have put a lot of my personal feelings and beliefs at stake to feel so personally defeated. Probably part of the reason that I keep on going is because the alternatives are so grim." She wondered, "Does leaving the South or SNCC mean leaving behind idealism?"
Other sections of Position Paper 27 analyzed SNCC's problems, including the quality of its leadership. "What it ain't" concluded that the problems were not who was deciding but the effective selection and implementation of programs. "We . . . must refrain from making haphazard and bad decisions." In this context she addressed the place of whites in the movement: "And the problem is not that whites want to take over, but simply that whites want to do a job. The question then is do the blacks of SNCC want to do the same job. If not, then tell the whites and let them go." Whites might be kicked out of SNCC, "but we cannot kick them out of the movement. Because the movement is more than SNCC. It happens to be also the work done by CORE, the National Council, the National Sharecroppers Fund, NAACP, everyone and every organization who is trying to promote civil rights and liberties for Negroes or work towards improving the Negro's general condition. . . . They can and will do it for other groups if denied the permission to do it for SNCC."
In a section on "The Problem and Its Cause" she identified "waste, inefficiency, and lack of direction," and urged: "We have to examine where our leadership has failed and why, what our workers didn't do, what is meant that a sense of direction is necessary, what structural changes and basic adjustments are needed." A section on "Lack of Direction" concluded that "today people are concerned with working with people in their communities," and thought that local work was "inevitable for us as an organization to survive." But not enough was being done to support local work. "[W]e had better seriously consider what we can do to get more SNCC people working on programs and organizing people. Because neither are being done now." (See Document 44.)
DeLott's honesty drew on her anger. Her critique was based on the hope she had invested in her work in Canton and her fear that its potential might not be realizable within SNCC. She had made a place for herself in the movement, but the movement was changing.
In her autobiographical essay of 2000, Casey Hayden spoke of "the simple human decency and love I absorbed from the women who raised me," in a woman-dominated home with her mother, her mother's sister and her mother's parents. As an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, she lived in "the only integrated housing on campus, the Christian Faith and Life Community" (CF&LC), which began her affiliation with the "Beloved Community" of social movements. Her work with the YWCA in 1959 included a focus on "The Changing Roles of Men and Women," and there as well as with the CF&LC "all leadership slots were dual, co-chaired by a man and a woman." Invited to Nashville in 1960, she met with a group supporting sit-ins and "understood our movement as southern, a radical response to our region's failings." There she also "first met the folks who would later become Students for a Democratic Society," including Tom Hayden, whom she soon married. She attended the second SNCC conference in Atlanta in October 1960, began a friendship with another white woman, Jane Stembridge, and was influenced by the existential courage of Diane Nash, former student at Howard and Fisk universities, and African-American leader of the Nashville sit-ins.
For Hayden, non-violence was also a form of freedom. "Nonviolence, as I experienced it, was at heart a presentation or demonstration of oneself. It was the acting out of a self-understanding of oneself as essentially free--existentialism carried to the streets." In the fall and winter of 1961-62, she worked closely with Ella Baker, and that spring attended the Port Huron conference where SDS launched its national movement. In the spring of 1963 she separated from Tom Hayden, worked in the SNCC office near Atlanta University, and became SNCC's "northern coordinator." Of her office work, she wrote, "[B]ringing into being a program and a network, I did the head work and the hands-on work." She lived in a Black neighborhood in an apartment with white SNCC staff member Mary King and drew King and other women into discussions of Simone De Beauvoir and Doris Lessing.
In the fall of 1963 Casey Hayden was the first white female staff to go to Mississippi. Bob Moses recruited her "due to my training and professional life in race relations" to work on the literacy project. She lived in what became Literacy House with Black staff members, Hellen O'Neal and Doris Derby, a Hunter College graduate from New York City. Derby described their community.Those of us who worked and lived together in the adult literacy project--Casey Hayden, Hellen O'Neal, and me--lived as a family for a year. People in the Movement, generally, were an extended family of adopted brothers and sisters, cousins and friends who learned from each other and who were committed to each other and to the struggle. The work, commitment, joys, songs, battles, tragedies, strategizing, gains, losses, and the horrors of violence and intimidation glued us together, and the circle kept getting bigger. As in the African American tradition, there was always room for more.
Hayden remembered that one of the local men had "built this house for his mother to live in, but she had died. He fixed it up for us and it was ship shape, a small three bedroom, newly restored and painted when we moved in in the fall of 1963." Proximity to Tougaloo College protected them from police scrutiny. Hayden recalled furnishing the house:Doris and Hellen and I furnished it from the only Black furniture store in Jackson. We bought beds, bureaus, and a chiffarobe for my room, which had no closet, as well as kitchen table and chairs and a white plastic couch for the living room. I'll never forget that couch, cold in the winter and the sweatiest ever in the terrible summer heat. We were the only furnished freedom house in the state, and were used for RNR statewide.
After O'Neal and Derby left Jackson in the early summer of 1964 to work on local projects, Hayden remembers, Elaine DeLott, Jane Stembridge, Emmie Schrader and Theresa del Pozzo and others lived in Literacy House, "either part time or full time or just for the day or rotating in and out." Mary King arrived later in July.
Emmie Schrader, who was "in the Jackson Office doing clerical work preparing for the upcoming Mississippi Summer Project," later worked with King. Schrader remembered, "Our job was communicating with the press, FBI, and the general public, both orally when they appeared in the office or called on the phone, and in writing--press releases, background information, etc." She recalled, "Sometimes I got to go to the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP) precinct meetings around Jackson at night. I remember always Mrs. Hazel Palmer, local Jackson FDP organizer par excellence, tall and wiry, strong and outspoken, funny and friendly and brave."
Born in St. Paul, Emmie Schrader had gone to Africa in 1961 at the end of her sophomore year at Harvard/Radcliffe, with Operation Crossroads Africa, run by an African-American minister from Harlem. She prepared intensively with relevant courses and taught herself Swahili. The Crossroads program took hundreds of young Americans, Black and white, to Africa in the 1950s and 60s, requiring each to give speeches about Africa on their return. By linking young Americans with changes on the African continent, Crossroads created an infrastructure of support for the American civil rights movement. Emmie Schrader stayed on in Kenya for another year, studying the activism of churches and schools in the independence movement, then traveled with another American to Khartoum, reading about Sekou Touré's Pan-Africanisme along the way. Back at Harvard in the fall of 1961, she met Bob Moses, who had just been beaten in McComb, his "head was artificially shaven, exposing a big bandage over some fresh stitches." Because Kenyans had asked her about Mississippi and chided her about her ignorance, she wanted to go there "to find out for myself--if I could be of any use." Bob Moses "looked at me wearily and explained that the presence of white women often endangered other workers." So instead, with an African companion from Harvard's Adams House, Emmie Schrader took a freighter to Spain, then hitchhiked to Morocco, and travelled to Algeria, where the Front de la Libération Nationale (FLN) had just driven out French colonialists.
Ill with hepatitis, discovering that she was pregnant, and unable to obtain an abortion in Algiers, she travelled to Switzerland on a migrant labor ship, ended the pregnancy and returned to Algiers, where her friend said she had "murdered the baby." From here on, she later wrote, "I became an angry, rebellious woman. I started to read Simone de Beauvoir." Returning to Cambridge in 1964, she "saw nothing in America for me except joining the struggle against racism." Going first to SNCC headquarters in Atlanta and then to Mississippi she "was put to work in the Jackson office doing clerical work" with Penny Patch and Casey Hayden. Meanwhile, she didn't know that her German immigrant father was forwarding her letters from Africa and Jackson to the FBI, reporting on her as a communist.
Mary King, a veteran SNCC communications expert, arrived in Jackson from Atlanta in July 1964 to handle press communications about the Freedom Summer volunteers. Raised in New Jersey, she was the daughter of a Methodist clergyman and a Columbian-born teacher mother, as a student at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1962, Mary King traveled with a college group to Nashville and other southern sites of the Civil Rights Movement. Visiting SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, she was attracted by the group's "high energy, self-assurance, impatience, and determination." She met Casey Hayden, who "made an immediate and profound impression."
The communications office impressed her. "I saw how the small headquarters staff of sixteen was coordinating communications among hundreds of campuses and communities where student groups were confronting segregation. I walked gingerly up the stairs into the grimy office wondering what the nerve center of the black sit-in movement would look like." She found papers "strewn across every desk with unstudied abandon. Telephones were ringing, wastebaskets bulged with trash, and the file-cabinet drawers gaped open. A mimeograph machine monotonously whooshed paper through its rollers in the background, and a radio somewhere thumped a heavy beat." She "did not see anyone who was white there among the young black people rushing around that day."
She founded a group called "Student Committee on Race Relations" at Ohio Wesleyan, and upon graduation was invited to replace Casey Hayden (who was going to Ann Arbor, Michigan with husband Tom Hayden) to work for the National Student YWCA in Atlanta. She and Casey Hayden came into the Civil Rights Movement "through a completely female-led organization, one whose purpose was leadership development for women and girls," and "more enlightened and progressive than its male counterpart." King moved to Jackson in July 1964 at the age of twenty-four to manage "the information we gave to the national news corps."
When Elaine DeLott returned to Jackson in September, she re-joined the intense discussions at Literacy House. There, as elsewhere, SNCC members were trying to find a path forward and emerging feminist discussions were framed by SNCC's programmatic crisis. Yet while some SNCC projects were unraveling that fall, Literacy House remained a vital center. In her headnote for a recent photo of the house Elaine Delott described the conversations there among Casey Hayden, Emmie Schrader, Mary King and herself:a hothouse of intellectual thought, moving almost seamlessly from political topics to interpersonal concerns, circling back, time after time, to the issues of women in society, and finally to our lives as women. The political conversations in Literacy House, interspersed with readings in feminist thought (Friedan, DeBeauvoir, Nin, Lessing) and juxtaposed with our work in the movement, created a lightning-charged crucible of thought and emotion in a salon-like setting. All of us had different energies and perspectives, but Casey was the dominant force, constantly weaving together the varying strands of thought with incredible insight and intellect. The feminist consciousness that evolved from these discussions ultimately coalesced into what came to be known as the 1964 "Women's Memo" or the "Waveland Memo." (Headnote to Document 27B.)
In the context of a fragmenting social movement that pulsated between high ideals and dangerous reality, these discussions built solidarity among four white women. Two--Hayden and Schrader--had recently left relationships with political-activist men, and one--DeLott--had been involved with a Black man who declined to acknowledge their relationship. Thus three of the four memo co-authors brought the personal downside of sexual relationships to bear on their discussions about "women in society."
As the heterogeneous SNCC community disintegrated into a collection of specific race and gender identities--Black men, Black women, white men and white women--DeLott, Hayden, Schrader and King forged their own band of like-minded truth seekers. Literacy House was a "free space" for these four. Though originally an integrated space, accidents of residential allocations after Freedom Summer made it a white residence. There, DeLott, Hayden, Schrader and King, along with sometimes-residents Theresa Depozzo and Jane Stembridge, could shed the racial and gendered tensions building in the movement and speak freely.
PART IV: THE WAVELAND MEMO
When Elaine DeLott and other SNCC staff members met at a Methodist retreat center in Waveland, Mississippi, near Gulfport, 6-12 November, 1964, they set to work reviewing the position papers written for that occasion. (See Documents 35-51) Elaine DeLott submitted her paper, which became Position Paper 27. (See Document 44). She marked it "name withheld by request." Their first night at the conference, the four women of Literacy House decided to submit a position paper on women in the movement that summarized many of the issues that wove through their Literacy House discussions. Also marked "name withheld by request," Position Paper 24 was added to the conference list as "women in the movement." (See Document 43.)
The conference exemplified SNCC's culture of decision making. Historically and in theory at least, decisions were made by consensus; actions were not taken unless all involved agreed, the basic premise being that since their work put their lives at risk, no one should be asked to do other than what they consented to do. In practice this promoted a culture of long meetings where diverse voices were heard. Criticism and self-criticism were important; the gap between ideals and reality a constant refrain. The Waveland conference and "Position Paper 24" on "women in the movement" were part of that culture.
SNCC was in crisis before and after the Waveland conference, its scope and vitality waning as staff sought an alternative to reforming the Democratic Party. The women's memo was part of a process designed to air all discontents, the main ones being well- known before the conference. One was structural: Jim Forman and his supporters' wanted to concentrate authority in Atlanta and purchase a building (see Document 36B); others wanted funds to build the strength and relative autonomy of local projects and their engagement with local communities. Underlying many of the issues raised at Waveland was the growing friction between white and Black staff. Anticipating the theme of Black Power, which emerged later, many Black staff members questioned the role of whites in the movement, making white activists unsure of their place in SNCC's future. (See Documents 35-51).
DeLott Baker remembers Casey Hayden, Emmie Schrader, Mary King and herself as the authors of Position Paper 24. (Headnote to Document 43.) In addressing the question of whether the position paper was a joint project of white and Black women, DeLott Baker remembers that the tensions between white and Black women staff and the challenges to Black men inherent in the text of the memo meant that "there was no way that Black women would have joined white women" in authoring such a document. In describing the writers' surreptitious actions, DeLott Baker said she felt "like a naughty schoolgirl, sneaking up to the second floor of the main building with one or two co-conspirators late in the evening, quickly placing the copies of 'The Position of Women in the Movement' on a table alongside the other stacks of position papers, and then turning, laughing, and running hurriedly down the staircase to avoid discovery." (See Document 99.)
Ruby Doris Robinson didn't deny the rumor that identified her as the author--a rumor that reflected her leadership of a women's protest at SNCC headquarters in the spring of 1964, and acknowledged the forceful presence of Black women leaders throughout SNCC. The memo's first page listed work-related discriminations that might well apply to some Black women whose work was under-acknowledged. But the anguished tone of the rest of the document pointed away from Black women's authorship.
Surprisingly, since Evan's 1979 book, Personal Politics, scholars have not analyzed the memo's content beyond the first page of work-related discriminations. Those discriminations were clear and straightforward. The list included examples in SNCC's Atlanta headquarters and patterns in local Mississippi projects. One example that could have been drawn from Elaine DeLott's tour of local projects: "Two organizers were working together to form a farmers league. Without asking any questions, the male organizer immediately assigned the clerical work to the female organizer although both had had equal experience in organizing campaigns." The list concluded: "Capable, responsible, and experienced women who are in leadership positions can expect to have to defer to a man on their project for final decision making." (See Document 43.)
Yet more sustained protest in "Position paper 24," as measured by the proportion of the document devoted to it, went beyond these work-related issues to examine other forms of bias, identified as originating in "the assumption of male superiority." Here the memo took a daring, innovative step and argued that sex discrimination was analogous to race discrimination. That analogy created a powerful theoretical framework for understanding cultural as well as economic, political and social discrimination against women, and for understanding discrimination's subjective effects.
The analogy had historical antecedents as early as the 1830s when women abolitionists called women who were afraid to speak out in public "the white slaves of the North." More recently the analogy was used by Pauli Murray to lobby for the inclusion of sex as a prohibited basis for discrimination in Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Murray's intervention was influential in Washington, D.C. and broke the stalemate between proponents and opponents of the "sex amendment," to the legislation, but may not have been noticed among Civil Rights activists in Mississippi--even though Murray and Ella Baker were close friends. Recent insights by critical race theorists have noted the analogy's usefulness and its limitations, including the situatedness of its users. Pauli Murray's use of the analogy, backed by her decades of work in the Black Freedom Movement, had considerable power. Less powerful was its use by young white women in SNCC.
Subjectivity pervaded the memo's analogy between race and sex discrimination, beginning with an explanation of why the topic of discrimination against women was taboo: "[M]ost women don't talk about these kinds of incidents because the whole subject is [not] discussable--strange to some, petty to others, laughable to most." In that regard it resembled race discrimination. "The average white person finds it difficult to understand why the Negro resents being called 'boy' or being thought of as 'musical' and 'athletic,' because the average white person doesn't realize that he assumes he is superior. And naturally he doesn't understand the problem of paternalism. So too the average SNCC worker finds it difficult to discuss the woman problem because of the assumption of male superiority." The analogy between race and sex made it possible to expose these otherwise-taboo assumptions about personal identity.
The analogy with race also made it possible to consider the subjective, psychological effects of sex discrimination. "Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep rooted and every much as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro," the paper declared. Just as many Negroes "don't understand that they have to give up their souls and stay in their place to be accepted" into white America, "[s]o too, many women in order to be accepted by men, or men's terms, give themselves up to that caricature of what a woman is--unthinking, pliable, an ornament to please the man." Women's "souls" hung in the balance in this argument, which while deeply subjective was also astutely political.
When it came to explaining why the paper had to be anonymous, the authors spoke from a profoundly subjective perspective, but with a strong theoretical foundation. "Think about the kinds of things the author, if made known, would have to suffer because of raising this kind of discussion. Nothing so final as being fired or outright exclusion, but the kinds of things which are killing to the insides--insinuations, ridicule, over-exaggerated compensations."
The analogy also implied solutions--"discussion--amidst the laughter--but still discussion." It created a new context within which to discuss, hear, and consider gender discrimination as a human rights issue. The analogy made it possible to view male supremacy as a "crutch" needed by those who laughed loudest at women's protests. And it gave women a tool with which to recognize "day-to-day discriminations." The position paper concluded with the long-term hope that "sometime in the future the whole of the women in this movement will become so alert as to force the rest of the movement to stop the discrimination and start the slow process of changing values and ideas so that all of us gradually come to understand that this is no more a man's world than it is a white world." Changing values and ideas was a long-term, subjective process and a highly political process.
The idea that sex, like race, was a form of caste that crossed geographic and class lines soon acquired the name "sexism." By using the analogy of race, the memo's authors chose an effective if controversial way to make their grievances understandable to their community, especially given the willingness of strong Black women leaders like Ruby Doris Robinson to be identified as authors, even if only by rumor. The analogy also created a framework that others outside the Civil Rights Movement could use to understand sex discrimination in their own world. It encompassed objective forms of bias in work and public life, as well as subjective injuries like "ridicule."
Historians have ignored one of the memo's most surprising subjective references. Asking "What can be done?" it answered: "Probably nothing right away. Most men in this movement are probably too threatened by the possibility of serious discussion on this subject. Perhaps this is because they have recently broken away from a matriarchal framework under which they may have grown up."
Well, this was not exactly a playground taunt like "Your Mama wears combat boots!" but it served notice that the memo primarily addressed Black men. They were the powers that the memo petitioned. Most Waveland participants would have known that "matriarchal" referred to Black families. The term was part of contemporary debate about the causes of Black poverty, particularly in the urban North; scholars, activists and policy makers used it to highlight the economic burden borne by Black women because occupational discrimination against Black men limited their earning power. But since the term was also used to describe enslaved families before 1865, when fathers were unable to defend their families, "matriarchal" stigmatized the power of women and problematized the power of men in Black families. The term's use in the Waveland Memo ran the risk of belittling men like Stokely Carmichael, who until he joined his parents in New York at the age of eleven, was raised by his grandmother and aunts in Trinidad. Casey Hayden remembers using the term in her YWCA work, and Elaine DeLott would have encountered the expression in her Harvard course that surveyed economic conditions in an African-American neighborhood of Boston. (See headnote to Document 10.) Historians have noted Carmichael's notorious remark at Waveland (and thereafter) that the "position of women in SNCC is prone." His defenders, including some authors of the Waveland Memo, considered the remark part of his appealing and personable wit. Yet when we notice that the memo raised questions about the family structure in which he and other Black men were raised, we might also see a touch of revenge in his witticism.
In a letter from Batesville in March, 1965, Elaine DeLott referred to her relationships, platonic and romantic, with "Black leadership." (See Document 78.) SNCC staff in Mississippi were in the vanguard of the sexual revolution (see Document 97); and in ways that would soon resonate in the Women's Liberation Movement, SNCC women discovered the deficiencies of sex that lacked emotional commitment. Those deficiencies were part of the memo's power when Casey Hayden rewrote it in 1965 and, with Mary King, sent the new version to leaders in the nascent women's movement. (See Part V below).
Another ingredient in the forces shaping the memo was the northern perspective of DeLott and Schrader. Sociologist Francesca Polletta, who has studied the memo more closely than any other scholar, highlighted their importance as relative outsiders who were more willing to speak their minds. Hayden and King were SNCC veterans who joined the movement in 1962. Hayden remembered DeLott and Schrader as "brilliant and well-travelled," and impatient; without them, she probably wouldn't have written the protest. "As a guest in the Black community, I don't know that I would have said anything if I had felt limited. To have done so would not have been mannerly." But loyalty to her friends pulled her in another direction. "I had talked with these women as we thought about parallels between being black and women, so I felt some loyalty to them and the issues." She "handled these conflicts by trying to make the piece more understandable, less offensive." (See Document 89). Having joined the movement in the spring of 1964, DeLott and Schrader had no such long-standing loyalties. Moreover, DeLott was not present during the long and violent month of August. For women who did experience the unrelenting intensity of vigilante and state-sanctioned violence all summer long, gender issues would have been harder to separate out as an essential issue.
DeLott later described her consciousness as an outsider when she co-authored the memo.In my travels across the state working in Federal Programs I had collected examples of sexism (we labeled it "discrimination), which were incorporated into the text of the memo. In the analysis section, I remember my voice as one of the more strident, the voice of an outsider with little to lose. I had been in the state less than six months, a relative newcomer free of the considerations that came from long-standing loyalties, and quick to challenge what I saw as inconsistent intellectual positions. (See Document 96).
DeLott's outsider status sheds new light on the "free spaces" framework often used to analyze innovations within social movements. Polletta suggests that loyalty to the movement could inhibit innovation, turning "free spaces" into structured spaces that allowed some innovations but prohibited others. She argues that the two northerners--DeLott and Schrader--"brought a `northern' aggressiveness that made them able to challenge not only the group loyalty that made criticism difficult, but also the norms of deference that structures White women's relations to the mainly Black men who headed SNCC." DeLott's Position Paper #27 confirms her assertive stance, but also shows its limits since she did not feel comfortable signing either of her memos, a practice found in very few other position papers. (See Document 44.)
Thus we can name (at least) eight reasons why a group of white women in SNCC generated a path-breaking feminist manifesto in 1964. SNCC encouraged its staff to challenge authority in the name of freedom, value personal idealism, but also to confront grim realities; the movement attracted white and Black women who had already stepped beyond the gendered status quo; SNCC encouraged women to take their personal commitment to the movement as seriously as men took theirs; even though the organization remained dominated by men, it gave women--white and Black--unusual opportunities for leadership; it was an early site of the dissatisfactions of the sexual revolution; it offered white women a space where they could live together and create an ad hoc gender-studies seminar; it attracted northern white women who were probably more willing than southern white women to speak out; and it invited self-criticism.
If some of these factors were removed, the forces promoting the women's memo would still be strong, but since all reinforced one another, the emergence of a new feminist expression at this time and place becomes easy to understand.
Those at Waveland who thought the memo was written by Ruby Doris Robinson, were perhaps noticing how well it exemplified SNCC's combination of astute political analysis with personal values of love, justice and freedom. The memo was an appeal for respect from those who felt unfairly treated. Their appeal was nothing like the angry departure of women from the New Left later in 1965 that launched a separate women's movement. At Waveland the memo fit into the capacious tent of papers about SNCC's organizational and programmatic problems. And although Stokely Carmichael often publicly repeated his joke about the position of women in SNCC, the conference discussion of the memo treated it as one of the multitude of well-meaning self-criticisms. (See Document 49A.)
PART V: AFTER WAVELAND
In the tempest of SNCC activism in Mississippi in November 1964, Position Paper 24 linked the personal and the political in women's lives. In doing so it broke new ground in contemporary understanding of "women's issues." Yet all the memo's authors turned their attention to other matters after the Waveland conference.
Elaine DeLott returned to her travels around the state, seeking to create links with federal programs. This gave her a bird-eye view of the reports about local projects written in November in response to a request by the Jackson SNCC-COFO office in October. DeLott obtained fifteen of these reports, nine of which are included here. Writing local project reports was a desk job often given to white women, so many reports show the contributions they were making in clarifying their project's work process. (See Documents 52-60.) These reports highlighted the lack of resources available for local projects, a situation that DeLott knew well, along with the organizational turbulence. On her tour of local programs, she took notes on day-long meetings that went nowhere positive. (See Documents 65 and 70.)
Although Bob Moses stayed on after Waveland, he distanced himself from leadership positions in SNCC and the organization was never the same; by 1968 it had ceased to exist. Elaine DeLott stayed on for six months after Waveland. Her post-conference documents reflected the same blend of personal values and political goals that brought her and others into SNCC in the first place. Although she might have felt like an outsider, before and after Waveland she risked her life to advance the Black Freedom Struggle.
DeLott was briefly jailed in connection with her support of the "cotton vote" in early December, (see Documents 66, 68-70), barely pausing in her work to reflect on the experience. But she thought a lot about her SNCC co-workers. The longer she worked in Canton, the more pessimistic she became, and her feelings were always part of her political equation. In a letter to a friend she described the impact of white volunteers in Freedom Summer who remained in the local projects but were "fucking up the movement and fucking up the staff." She thought they lacked "a real relationship to the community. . . . very few white people I know from the north really want to work with miss. people and think they can learn from them. most would rather live in a freedom house than a farm house or a family." Yet many of these people were now SNCC staff and were challenging the Black leadership in communities and prompting Black SNCC staff to separate from all whites. (See Document 70.)
DeLott's skill at theorizing subjective experience included descriptions of movement status symbols, such as the control of cars. (See Document 68). She wrote her sister about the movement's "funny status symbols. Of course being arrested and beaten many times is one, but not so much any more because it is so common and not really difficult to do." On the other hand, she said, "staying awake for four or five days and working constantly without food are very important." Strange "feats of valor" included "sweeping the floor. in this movement the really top people sweep the floor." (See Document 73).
She also analyzed her own feelings in working with people in Canton, noting that "black kids lie so well," and that middle-class whites who have been "taught to trust, to feel deceived when lied to" are hurt. The kids were poorly organized in community centers. "and the adults. you adore them, you love to work with them, but you are disturbed when you realize why. what pleases you so much is their simplicity, the honest faith, the humility all of which are the inheritances of a century of servitude." She resolved this contradiction by remembering "the really fine people that you are working with, the people that are neither servile nor selfish, who love their own people and have a vision of a better society that is really fine--well, these people become a very important reason for your staying." (See Documents 72 & 73.)
In January 1965 DeLott joined the busloads of MFDP members who headed to Washington for the Congressional Challenge. She later remembered, "Picket lines of black Mississippians moved up and down the avenues in front of the White House and the Capitol, calling attention to the voting violations and segregationist practices of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party and questioning the right of the white congressmen from Mississippi to take seats in the House and Senate." By bringing Mississippi to the United States this way, SNCC and the voting rights movement hastened the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
DeLott organized Black Mississippians to visit federal offices. Before leaving Mississippi, she had "scheduled several meetings between local people and officials from key federal agencies." "With the drama and pain of the summer fresh in public memory, there were still many open doors in Washington," she recalled. "On a cold January afternoon, groups of six to twenty Mississippians, accompanied by SNCC staff, filed through some of those doors into the offices of highly placed officials in agencies like Health, Education, and Welfare; Veteran Affairs; and the Department of Agriculture." (See Document 96.)
Those hallways of federal power were quite distant from Elaine DeLott's work in Mississippi. In February she moved to Batesville, the county seat of Panola County, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, to aid in the creation of an agricultural cooperative. In October she had been deeply moved by a talk by Otha Williams, President of the Madison County Farmers' League (See Document 22). Now she worked with a farming project that intersected with the voting rights campaign. She lived with the Miles family in a house with a bullet hole in the window, "guarded at nite by two local people with shotguns." (See Documents 79 & 81B).
DeLott's friend, Penny Patch, was there too. Patch wrote her parents that Mr. Miles and others "organized the Panola County Voters' League in 1959" and filed a suit against the county registrar. As a result "the house has been shot into, bombed and tear-gassed. Mrs. Miles suffers from a kind of nervous paralysis" brought on by "the emotional trauma of these last years." Ever linking the subjective and the theoretical, DeLott wrote her friend Ted Bayne, "i really don't want to die because I've got a question, how do you free people (not classes, countries, societies) and I have something I want to do in life to find out." (See Document 79.)
Alongside Chris Williams, a white SNCC worker, DeLott helped local Black leaders organize an okra marketing cooperative. DeLott described her work to her parents: "a few hundred farmers have decided not to contract with the man they have been selling their okra to because the price was so low. They decided to try to find their own market." She was able to help them "get a charter to operate in mississippi. then they applied for a government loan which is pending." She "helped them adopt bylaws to run the organization." The crop was not yet sold, but she said, "we have an offer from a chicago broker to handle the crop on the open market in Chicago on consignment." (See Document 80.)
DeLott began to document economic conditions in Batesville through photography. Although Jim Forman discouraged their use of cameras as an unjustified expense, Casey Hayden also took up photography. (See headnote to Document 81A.) Photography allowed DeLott to express her long-term interest in the connections between subjective and objective experience; she was good at it. Her photos featured in Pete Daniel's prize-winning 2013 book, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, are some of the only color slides that document Black sharecroppers' agricultural life and work. (See Documents 81A-O). She followed the example of documentary photographer Francis Mitchell, whose photo of a SNCC staff meeting in Jackson on March 16 captured the planning that led to the march in Selma a week later with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (See Document 81P).
Yet the break in relations between SNCC's leadership in Atlanta and white SNCC staff in the field was excruciating; DeLott and Patch both felt keenly the loss of their former SNCC community. (See Document 78.) As a symptom of that loss and the collapse of SNCC's infrastructure, they and two Black SNCC colleagues in Batesville were cut off from communication with SNCC leadership and angrily protested against their dangerous isolation in a letter to Atlanta headquarters.
Working more independently from SNCC structures allowed Elaine DeLott to interact more closely with a Black community and serve its needs. In the winter and early spring of 1965, she exemplified the hope that Bob Moses expressed at SNCC's beginning for activists to listen to local people and follow their lead. (See Document 37A.) But her ability to continue that project within SNCC had become unsustainable.
Elaine DeLott left Mississippi by way of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, formerly the Highlander Folk School. The legendary institution invited Civil Rights Movement activists to a retreat for poetry and reflection in May 1965. (See Documents 85A-C) Terse and minimalist, DeLott's poems expressed deeply personal feelings of the beauty, pain and intensity of her year in Mississippi.
PART VI: THE WAVELAND MEMO IN HISTORY AND MEMORY
Casey Hayden also left Mississippi--although Black colleagues told her that when they said white people should leave, they didn't mean her! In November 1965, she moved the Waveland Memo forward into history by building her own forceful essay, "Sex and Caste," on its mixture of subjective and objective themes. (See Document 86A). Writing while traveling, she drew on her experience in the Students for a Democratic Society as well as the Civil Rights Movement. Then, with Mary King she polished the new memo and they sent it to women around the country, part of the enduring diaspora of SNCC.
Hayden shifted away from Waveland's presumed audience of Black men and instead addressed women readers. Her first sentence stated women's personal and work-related problems "in trying to live in our personal lives and in our work as independent and creative people." Section headings on "Women and personal relations with men," and "Women and problems of work" expanded these dual concerns. A section on "Sex and caste" commented, "There seem to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society." Women were excluded from "structures of power" and were "placed in the same position of assumed subordination in personal situations too." It was "a caste system which, at its worst, uses and exploits women." A short section on "Institutions" mentioned marriage and "child rearing patterns." A longer paragraph on "Men's reactions to the questions raised here," noted that "The usual response is laughter."
Taking "women in the movement" as her focus, (meaning the New Left as well as the Civil Rights movement), Hayden concluded that women needed "community for discussion." She said, "The reason we want to open up dialogue is mostly subjective," arising from struggles women were having with the men in their personal lives. Most presciently, she anticipated the consciousness-raising groups that would soon change women's lives throughout the country: "Perhaps we can start to talk with each other more openly than in the past and create a community of support for each other so we can deal with ourselves and others with integrity and can therefore keep working."
The two manifestos have much in common, but the differences are important too. The Waveland document is filled with hope that the men to whom it was directed would hear their plea and change their ways. It was a petition, albeit from upstarts. A year later that stance was supplanted by a much more independent posture that urged women to take control of their lives. History had moved on. And so had the Waveland Memo.
Francesca Polletta notes, but does not speculate about, the fact that none of these four co-authors became active in the emerging women's movement. Even Hayden and King did not follow up on their missive sent to activist women. A closing question: What does the short duration of their protest tell us about the relationship between the movement in which it was generated and the new feminist movement in which many of their ideas took root? The question has large implications for the study of social movements, the evaluation of personal experience, and our understanding of feminism.
DeLott Baker explained her choice in "The Freedom Movement was the Flame," her chapter for Hands on the Freedom Plow: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. (See Document 99).
What was it about the Freedom Movement that generated such a fierce feminist protest by those who were not primarily committed to a feminist movement? We hope this document project provides sufficient material for readers to arrive at their own answers to this question.
Historians of the reemergence of feminism in the 1960s have pointed to the almost simultaneous launching of protests by two generations. Many mothers who had spent the 1950s in suburban households felt that Betty Friedan's 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, expressed their discontent and their search for meaningful work. They greatly expanded a stream that originated over a century earlier in the antislavery movement of the 1830s and the women's rights movement of the 1840s, 50s and 60s, which grew into women suffrage movement (1869-1920), and was still represented in American society by organizations like the League of Women Voters (founded 1920), the American Association of University Women (founded 1881); The General Federation of Women's Clubs (founded 1890); The National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (founded 1896); The National Council of Black Women (founded 1935); and the American Birth Control League, founded 1921, which in 1942 evolved into Planned Parenthood. This stream also included women who affiliated with the trade union movement before and after the demise of the Women's Trade Union League (1903-1950). After the 1960 election of John Kennedy as President a coalition of these groups urged him to create a Commission on the Status of Women (chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt), which in 1963 issued a report that called for an end to discrimination against women in the paid labor force, and (reflecting a long struggle between feminists on the political left and right that began in the 1920s), supported the addition of the "sex amendment" to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of "sex" as well as "race" or "country of national origin."
But the "Waveland Memo" written by SNCC staff in 1964 went further than this emphasis on work-related discrimination. By comparing sex discrimination to race discrimination it transformed debates about gender, widening and deepening the space that "women's issues" occupied. Crucially important for its enormous impact, the analogy between sex and race discrimination offered ways to think about the subjective dimensions of gender prejudice as well as objective structures like work-related discrimination.
Thus the idea was born in the Waveland Memo that the personal was the political. That phrase was first expressed in Carol Hanisch's 1970 essay, "The Personal Is Political." Hanisch participated in the Mississippi movement in 1965 when ideas that anticipated "Black Power" were first expressed, and historian Alice Echols thought that this experience helped her see "the need for an autonomous women's liberation movement more quickly than women whose background was primarily in the new left." Yet even before Hanisch's essay, Casey Hayden, who had worked in the New Left as well as the Civil Rights Movement since 1962, called in 1965 for the autonomous mobilization of women in "Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo," and mailed the manifesto to 40 women activists throughout the country. (See Document 86A.)
Hayden's contributions were first chronicled by Sara Evans in Personal Politics (1979), and thereafter historians credited these two memos of 1964 and 1965 with launching the issues for women's liberation and other forms of feminism that took root in the New Left and anti-war movements, then spread rapidly on college campuses. Since 1979 historians have written a cascade of books about women in SNCC many of which touch on the Waveland Memo. Some of these can be found in the bibliography attached to this project.
An iconic focus for a moment of far-reaching change, the Waveland Memo draws us into large questions about the history of personal freedom and unfreedom. Written at a moment of great intensity at the heart of a freedom movement, it reflects the hopes and struggles of a young generation and the mingled destinies of white and Black Americans. Memoirs by participants continue to expand our understanding of the moment and its consequences, notably those collected in Deep in Our Hearts and Hands on the Freedom Plow.
The Waveland Memo continues to live in human memory as well as historical studies. Documents assembled here about memories of the memo have kept the past alive and aided its reconstruction. Drawn from letters, book chapters, reunions, email, and internet websites, they articulate the process by which memories of the Memo have been retrieved and reexamined. (See Documents 87A-100)
A fascinating project in the history of memory awaits its historian. How did the process of oral history and continued discussion among the Waveland participants help clarify an event that occurred in a context of organizational duress and personal stress? What can we learn from the process of remembering, disremembering and misremembering? We offer them here as compelling examples of the importance of history in the construction of our personal stories. And the importance of stories in the construction of history.
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