Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream

David J. Garrow

DEEP IN OUR HEARTS: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement. By Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, and Casey Hayden. Univ. of Georgia Press. 400 pp. $29.95
FREEDOM’S DAUGHTERS: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. By Lynne Olson. Scribner. 460 pp. $30

Read Time:
6m 35sec

DEEP IN OUR HEARTS: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement. By Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, and Casey Hayden. Univ. of Georgia Press. 400 pp. $29.95

FREEDOM’S DAUGHTERS: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. By Lynne Olson. Scribner. 460 pp. $30

For years, historians slighted the contributions of women to the civil rights movement. It was the women of black Montgomery who instigated the famous municipal bus boycott of 1955–56, for instance, but until the late 1980s historians credited the city’s black ministers and other male activists. Although black women have been the most overlooked, scholars have also given short shrift to white women—including the idealistic young white women who worked in the early 1960s for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the most important if not the most heralded of the southern civil rights groups. Now nine of those women, led by Sandra Cason "Casey" Hayden, have joined together to publish thei r i n dividual recollections. Deep in Our Hearts i s a richly emotional and sometimes quite moving document, a tale of optimism, hope, and, ultimately, disillusionment. "Our book," they write, "is about girls growing up in a revolutionary time." Most of them became active in SNCC in their late teens or early twenties. They found themselves in a small, close-knit, and warmly supportive organization, albeit one in which most white women were assigned office work rather than field organizing—in dangerous rural counties, the presence of white female activists would have further inflamed violent segregationists.

That loving and supportive world of interr a cial harmony began to deteriorate in mi d 1964. SNCC and other movement groups recruited hundreds of new college students, mostly northern and primarily white, to help staff the massive Mississippi Summer Project. They organized freedom schools, registered voters, and mounted a powerful challenge to the state’s all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The new volunteers were enthusiastically received by most black Mississippians. Emmie Schrader Adams, in one of the book’s richest chapters, quotes famed Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer as saying that the "big thing about the summer of ’64 was the people learned white folks were human."

As the locals grew more understanding, though, blacks on the SNCC staff seemed to grow more distant from their white colleagues. Adams asks, "So if in [Hamer’s] opinion local people had their first opportunity in the summer of 1964 to rub shoulders with nonracist whites, why is it that the same experience caused the staff not only to resent and dislike the new whites, but even to turn on their old white comrades-in-arms? The local people discovered that some whites are different, just as some staff discovered that all whites are fund a m e n tally alike?" In Adams’s view, the "main problem with whites in the movement was that there were suddenly too many of them."

SNCC’s internal problems reached well beyond racial tensions. To Casey Hayden, staff morale eroded because the organization lacked a clear strategy for the future: " We were at the end of all our current programs. We had no plans for after the summer." The Summer Project ended in disappointment—at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City rejected the movement’s integrated delegation in favor of Mississippi’s traditional all-white delegation—and the atmosphere within SNCC turned even sourer. In November, SNCC activists gathered at Waveland on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to plot a new strategy. The Waveland meeting is best remembered for a single word that future SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael uttered one evening, when a biracial group of men and women were drinking and joking on the Waveland pier. Prompted by a paper anonymously written by Hayden and her friend Mary King, part of the day’s formal discussion had addressed incipiently feminist questions about the position of women in the freedom movement. Carmichael, in a remark that would live in scholarly infamy, joked that the real position of women in the movement was "prone." Defending Carmichael, Theresa Del Pozzo argues in her essay that it "is a funny line today, and it was then, and no one took it any other way. Especially not Stokely, Casey, or me." Casey Hayden concurs: "Stokely sounds like a sexist, pure and simple, to any outsider. But he was quite the opposite." The laughter that greeted his remark expressed "our release and relief at the exposure of sexuality, sexist attitudes, and the paper’s pomposity."

Although no one knew it at the time, Waveland marked an ending. "That night on the pier was my final experience after a SNCC meeting of black and white joining together to laugh, to touch, to bond, and to comfort each other," writes Hayden. The Waveland meeting aimed to restructure SNCC, but, as she notes, "nothing was resolved ." SNCC became a centrally controlled organization that soon fell into decline. At the same time, the organization abandoned its nonviolent, interracial roots in favor of Carmichael’s call for Black Power.

For these white activists, SNCC’s dissolution was as much emotional tragedy as political tragedy. Penny Patch writes of her "anguish" over the growth of black separatist sentiment in the organization. She left in 1965, feeling desolate and betrayed. Hayden writes, "Even now when I give talks about the movement I weep, sometimes breaking down completely. My tears are for that loss and for the innocent girl I was."

Asecond new book, Lynne Olson’s broadly inclusive Freedom’s Daughters, allows one to compare the SNCC women’s first-hand accounts with a sympathetic and experienced journalist’s evaluation of the women’s experiences. Olson, a former reporter for the Associated Press and the Baltimore Sun, provides a valuably comprehensive civil rights history. She emphasizes the contributions of black women, but her extensive treatment of SNCC ensures that most of the contributors to the Hayden volume appear in Freedom’s Daughters too Characterizing SNCC as "unprecedented" among civil rights groups for "the way it welcomed women," Olson stresses that women in the organization "were leaders in all but title and outside recognition," while acknowledging that white women lacked the clout of their black counterparts. The white women who worked with SNCC in the early years, she notes, were mostly southerners, often initially naive about the dangers and obstacles facing them. They weren’t naive about everything, though. Penny Patch forthrightly acknowledges that Carmichael’s "prone" joke had a grain of truth: "We were ready, black and white, to break all the taboos."

Olson’s account, like the essays by the women themselves, describes the emotional devastation that followed SNCC’s decline and implosion. The feeling of loss, of "searching for the kind of meaning and fulfillment" of the early years of the movement, has haunted many alumni, black as well as white, men as well as women. As Casey Hayden confesses to Olson, "It’s hard to sense that you’ve peaked in your twenties and that nothing is going to touch this afterwards"

>David J. Garrow, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University Law School, is the author of Bearing the Cross (1986), a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., which won a Pulitzer Prize, and the editor of The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987).




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