Dorothy Height on the Original Goals for WIMS

January 24, 2003: Dorothy Height Interview by Holly Shulman

HS: This is January 24th, 2003. I’m Holly Shulman, and I’m in Dr. Height’s office, interviewing her for this project on Wednesdays in Mississippi. I want to ask Dr. Height what her overall hopes were in the spring and summer of 1964, for Wednesdays in Mississippi. What did she hope could be accomplished by this effort?
DH: Well, if you think about 1964, it was a time that we were working to try to get a Civil Rights Act passed, and when Bob Moses, who was an algebra teacher, decided he was going to go into Mississippi to start Freedom Schools, it really stimulated thinking about, you know, how we could make a difference, particularly in the lives of people.

I think one of the things is that as a women’s organization, we’ve always been concerned about what was happening to people, because even as I went into Mississippi and other parts of the segregated South, there was always this large group of women and large group of children and youth who were involved.

If you notice in our history, we worked on hunger; we worked on those things that were really affecting families. So when Bob Moses made his call for the Freedom Schools, it gave something that you always need when you’re working for social change: you need a handle to take hold of. And I thought he gave us a handle; he gave us a way to get in. You can’t just go down there and say, “We’re down here wanting to help.” You have to have a way to do it, and we had something that was going to be Mississippi-based, that gave us that kind of handle.

HS: So what you’re saying is something I hadn’t heard you say before, which is that one of the reasons you felt you could go into Mississippi was to work with the Freedom Schools.
DH: Yes. Because there was some way to go in to work. You just can’t-and I think that the idea of being able to work through something, that you could make some kind of difference, you can’t do it just going in and protesting on your own.
HS: So when you thought about these groups of women going into these communities, a trip per week from different cities in the North, what was your goals for what you felt those women could achieve?
DH: First of all, we had to get women who would know this was not a “come and see.” It was not a sightseeing visitation. That they had to be women who had something to offer, so that they would feel at home with themselves. We didn’t want to carry in women who’d be more concerned about themselves than they were about anything else.

I think we also felt that we needed women who were open to seeing exactly what the situation was and taking that message back home, because segregation was legal down there, but segregation was a reality across our country. Therefore, we had to see to what extent do you have people who, when they go in, would not only find out what is happening, but they would be willing to come back at home and see to what extent is this at home.

And they had to have a talent, you know. They had to be able to do something, because if they had something they could do, they would be able to relate to the children, you know. We didn’t want them going in and making speeches, but they had to have some kind of skill that they could sit down, even if it’s just talking to them. They had to have some kind of talent that they could bring.

HS: Did you feel that the goals of Wednesdays in Mississippi were more what the women could accomplish in those three days in Mississippi, or their impact in Mississippi, or what they would accomplish when they went back to where they came from?
DH: Well, we always hoped that they would have something when they got back. We had to say to the women, in advance, “You’re not going to go in and change the situation. What you will do is what we called a kind of ministry of presence. It’s reassuring to the people who are in the situation, that there are people like you who are concerned. It is helpful to them that you share some talent, but it also is evidence that there are people working for change, and what you do is that you bring hope, you bring to them a sense of caring and a capacity for helping them feel better about themselves, and feel that they are people who can bring about change. You are not the change agent; you are simply there to reinforce, to stimulate, to encourage.”

That’s one reason why I think, if you notice in all of our work, we always dealt with the question of how useful is it to have a national body come in. It helped people begin to identify with ties. We may be here in Canton, Mississippi, but there are people in Chicago helping to work, because this is a country of laws and not men, and when we want laws passed, they’re going to vote for us. They’re going to be with us. It’s that sense.

And to give people there a sense that they’re not alone. I think that, and especially where people are really poor.

HS: So when you thought about these groups of women going into these communities, a trip per week from different cities in the North, what was your goals for what you felt those women could achieve?
DH: First of all, we had to get women who would know this was not a “come and see.” It was not a sightseeing visitation. That they had to be women who had something to offer, so that they would feel at home with themselves. We didn’t want to carry in women who’d be more concerned about themselves than they were about anything else.

I think we also felt that we needed women who were open to seeing exactly what the situation was and taking that message back home, because segregation was legal down there, but segregation was a reality across our country. Therefore, we had to see to what extent do you have people who, when they go in, would not only find out what is happening, but they would be willing to come back at home and see to what extent is this at home.

And they had to have a talent, you know. They had to be able to do something, because if they had something they could do, they would be able to relate to the children, you know. We didn’t want them going in and making speeches, but they had to have some kind of skill that they could sit down, even if it’s just talking to them. They had to have some kind of talent that they could bring.

HS: Can you go back into the way you felt about this, about this first summer? You’re planning it with Mom; that’s Polly Cowan. Do you remember at all what your emotions about this were, sort of hopes and whatever that you personally felt?
DH: It is almost impossible to communicate the climate of the sixties. I think that we both felt responsible for taking people into this kind of a situation, and that’s why I think we spent so much time planning it, just so much time trying to see what we could get from the Department of Justice, but also what could we get from people in the communities, so that the sense of-we were not so brave that we didn’t recognize there was danger, you know. You don’t just walk in, you know, innocent as a lamb and be slaughtered. We said you have to really have an understanding of what you’re going into and being prepared for it.

That’s why we spent a lot of time, even role-playing. And to ask questions, “What would you say if somebody asked you this? What would you say if somebody-,” and the like. But I always remember Dr. King’s training people that even if you’re in the hands of the police, don’t just stiffen up, because you’ll break your own bones. They’ll have to break them. Just go limp. Things like that. So that I think there was a whole period where we spent literally weeks just talking about it, going over it.

HS: What I hear you saying, in a way, is that in the beginning, as you were planning out WIMS, you felt anxious, you felt worried, you felt, at the same time, committed and hopeful, but-I’m putting words in your mouth, so if you were taking some of the words, what would you put in your own mouth?
DH: I would say that we had a concern, not just for ourselves, but for the women we were taking in. We didn’t feel that we should take women out of Chicago or Detroit or Boston without thinking out what would we do, and that’s why we looked for anchors in Mississippi, like Ann Hewitt, Jane Schutt, and Jessie Mosely, and Patt Derian. But we also helped them, and you have to bear in mind, their families were concerned about their going. They had to convince their families of the importance of it, so that they had to have enough conviction to be willing to go, but also that we had to be prepared to help them get over their fears so that they wouldn’t be so fearful that they would not be effective.

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