It all began with reports of police brutality against women and children in Mississippi. It ended up with teams of women making weekly trips to Mississippi to bring about a calming influence and to ease the transition from serration to integration.
The Call for Justice
Wednesdays in Mississippi: October 1963
In October 1963, less than two months after the March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech, Dorothy Height and the NCNW were asked to come to Selma, Alabama, to investigate police brutality against young people arrested for taking part in a voter registration drive. She assembled an interracial team of three women who went with her to witness the appalling ways in which the Selma police were treating young women and children working for equal rights.
The Call for Action
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: March 1964
In the spring of 1964, Height brought representatives from other national women’s organizations to Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss what they could do to stop the abuse of women and children civil rights workers. Fearing that local authorities would become more violent in the face of Freedom Summer in 1964, Clarie Collins Harvey and other representatives from Jackson, Mississippi, asked for help. Come, they said, and bear witness.
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: The Start
Polly Cowan wrote a report summarizing the impact of the Selma and Atlanta meetings on the NCNW and women working for civil rights.
The Call to Mississippi
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: The Cadillac Crowd
A few weeks after the Atlanta meeting, Cowan wrote a short note to Height suggesting a weekly program of visits by northern women to Mississippi. Height in turn contacted Clarie Harvey, in Jackson, who signaled her approval. Cowan took over the role of project coordinator.
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: Meeting the Women in Mississippi
Cowan and Height began to talk over the idea of sending teams to Mississippi. They soon realized that they had to have a reason to go there; they needed a way to meet the local women.
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: The Teams
The team members were all well-educated, middle-class, middle-aged, and well-connected. Women of different races and faiths were encouraged to participate, and the black and white women who took part represented a variety of religious beliefs and organizational affiliations
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: May 1964
By late May of 1964, Cowan and her staff were well on their way. They had considered the necessary procedures for selecting team members, how to fund the costs of the trips, how the women would prepare for the trips, and had even put together a preliminary schedule.
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: The Staff for Jackson
Cowan and her colleagues pulled together an interracial staff to live in Jackson over the summer of 1964 and take care of all the local work and planning.
- Wednesdays in Mississippi: A Family Member’s Reaction
Height recruited Susie Goodwillie as the white staff member in Jackson. Fresh out of Stanford University, Goodwillie had spent the past year working for civil rights in Washington, D.C. as the first white employee of the National Council of Negro Women. They recruited her college roommate, Diane Vivell to join her. Height enlisted Doris Wilson to be the black staff member in Jackson. Wilson was older and more experienced, having been a colleague of Height’s at the YWCA. Wilson’s family accepted her assignment; Goodwillie’s family worried.