I got to know Polly and Lou Cowan by marriage. That is, Lou was my wife’s godfather, and a very devoted one at that. Polly was the perfect godmother-in-law-once-removed, or whatever the genealogists would call it.
The relationship was made all the dearer by the fact that I was a reporter, a Southern white who was covering the civil rights movement (first for the Atlanta Journal, then for The New York Times). We moved from Atlanta to New York in the summer of 1963, at about the time many Northern white liberals were realizing that the Movement was not just a Deep South phenomenon.
I was amazed at how naïve my new Northern neighbors were about race relations. They had sent money south to the Movement, expressed outrage at the evils of George Wallace and Jim Clark and Ross Barnett, “marched with Martin Luther King” (as so many would recall, endlessly, even to this day), and yet here were their black friends, raising hell at the Downstate Medical Center construction site because they were getting shafted on jobs, and in Harlem, Jersey City, Newark, Rochester, and a dozen other places. And, for God’s sake, sometimes calling them racists. The white liberals expressed hurt, which in some cases grew into anger and resentment and their departure from involvement in the Movement.
The temptation was for me scorn Northern white liberals—including some of my editors at The Times—as hypocrites who were unwilling to invest the mental and emotional effort in trying to decipher the complexities of American white racism—its bases in fear, ignorance, the legacy of slavery, and, above all, economics. It was disturbingly easy to give in to that temptation (especially when one of the white liberals would whine, “What do these people want?”). But the Cowans made it impossible for me to subscribe to a blanket indictment.
Even though they lived in that beautiful apartment on New York’s East Side and would be prize catches at the dinner tables of any of New York’s glamorous people, they used their time and knowledge wisely. They set about understanding racism—Northern racism as well as the Southern variety—and then got busy doing something about it. In the meantime, they brought up a family that was every bit as committed as they were. It surprised me not at all to learn that there was a sizeable Cowan contingent in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964. When I heard, I felt pride in the knowledge that I knew the entire Cowan family.
Polly walked her talk on Wednesdays in Mississippi, and on the other days of the week, too. Lou was constantly seeking out, forging, and using connections with influential white Northerners, cajoling and recruiting them for the cause. His deep voice and equally intense eyes overflowed with a conviction that must have been difficult for a fence-straddler to ignore. And whenever we would get together, usually around the December holidays, both Lou and Polly would flatter me with questions about my knowledge of the Movement and the direction it was taking, though I suspect they knew at least as much about the subject as I did—and were willing and eager to put their knowledge to good use.
For Holly Cowan Shulman
November 1, 2007