Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Women on the Verge

In the Jim Crow Memphis of 1963, an integrated group of women—six white and six black, including Maxine Smith, well known to many Memphians as the longtime executive secretary of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP—began to meet for lunch in each other’s houses. Their goal was to promote a dialogue between the races and to see what reforms they could bring about. After several meetings, the group decided to go public by brazenly having lunch in restaurants that refused to serve blacks. Their first target was the Wolf River Society, a members-only, all-white dining club in downtown Memphis. It was perhaps an ideal choice, as two members of the group were also members of the society. In any event, the lunch went off without a hitch, and thus the Saturday Luncheon Group, as the women called themselves, began doing their part to combat segregation in 1960s Memphis. 

The Saturday Luncheon Group is one of several activist groups that feature in Kimberly K. Little’s 2009 book You Must Be from the North: Southern White Women in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement. Little examines a cohort of middle- and upper-class white women in Memphis who worked in the 1960s and early 1970s to bring about social change in the city. For most of the women, the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and especially the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. were the watershed events, after which they “could no longer ignore” the city’s racial problems. The activism of these women was rooted in their volunteer work and the religious teachings of their faiths. Through their involvement in the sanitation workers’ strike and its aftermath, as well as in their efforts on behalf of school integration in the early 1970s, these “wives and mothers” of Memphis worked to ease racial strife in their strife-torn city and coaxed the city’s white elite to at least think about being a bit more progressive-minded.

With the exception of Joan Turner Beifuss, the author of At the River I Stand, an exquisite account of the sanitation workers’ strike, the women who figure prominently in Little’s book, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi, were largely unknown to me. Marjorie Cherry, one of the founders of the Saturday Luncheon Group, moved to Memphis in 1958 from Charlottesville, Virginia, where she had protested segregation by sitting in the back of the town’s buses. Frances Edgar Coe was a Memphis native who was educated at Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls and then Vassar College. She served six terms on the Memphis Board of Education, voting consistently to integrate the schools at an accelerated pace and working to reduce the inequities between black and white children. Myra Dreifus was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1904; in 1936 she followed her husband to Memphis, which, Mr. Dreifus believed, offered the best prospects for his new jewelry business. In the early 1960s Myra Dreifus founded the Fund for Needy Schoolchildren, which sought to provide free meals to poor students in the city’s schools. Anne Whalen Shafer, who was born in Memphis in 1923, played an active role in the Memphis City Beautiful campaign, persuading the city to upgrade the infrastructure of black neighborhoods. As chair of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission from 1964 to 1966, Shafer promoted racial integration in the city.  In 1971 Dorothy “Happy” Jones founded the Memphis Community Relations Commission, whose immediate goal was to help the city through yet another period of heightened racial tensions following the death of a black man in Memphis police custody. The commission eliminated the pro-segregation practice of “blockbusting” and helped slow down white flight by changing the way the city annexed surrounding areas. Jocelyn Wurzburg, Donna Sue Shannon, Jeanne Varnell, Bert Wolff, and Margaret Valiant are among the other white women activists whose civil rights work is described in Little’s book.

The Vassar-educated Coe is perhaps the most interesting of the lot. As a member of the school board, she was an advocate of smaller schools, smaller classrooms, and smaller districts, as well as of art and music programs and services for children with special needs; she also believed that the city and county school systems should be consolidated. She was convinced that the key to improving education was to increase teacher salaries, which could be easily done, she explained, through a very small increase in taxes. While a student at Vassar, Coe worked at a settlement house in Poughkeepsie. In the 1930s she wrote for the society pages of the Commercial Appeal; she quit after the editors refused to allow her to write more substantive pieces on “women’s news.” In 1936 she helped found the Memphis Maternal Health Association, and in her work with the association she stressed the importance of birth control. In the 1940s she convinced the Memphis YWCA to integrate, served as president of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, and was vice president of the Memphis branch of the League of Women Voters. She campaigned in 1948 for Estes Kefauver, whose election to the U.S. Senate that year helped end the political domination of Boss Crump. In the 1960s Coe led the Memphis chapter of the Economic Opportunity Act’s antipoverty program. In short, as Little tells us, Coe was “a mentor to numerous Memphis activists”—especially to Myra Dreifus—“and a central figure within the city’s civil rights community.” The city school system’s administration building is named after her.

Memphis has never had a large liberal white class. It is one of the most conservative cities in the country, certainly in the South, and one must keep in mind that the women who appear in Little’s book were to varying degrees part of the white establishment. It’s a wonder that any of them were sympathetic to black concerns. On the whole, they were a conflicted bunch. We see that, for instance, with regard to the sanitation workers’ strike. It is true that many of them acted in one way or another to support the striking workers. Myra Dreifus, for instance, whose Fund for Needy Schoolchildren had supported Henry Loeb in the 1967 mayoral campaign, now urged Mayor Loeb to “resolve” the strike and, in Ms. Dreifus’s words, “represent all of the people all of the time.” Margaret Valiant participated in the February 23, 1968, march—the “miniriot” that ended when policemen used mace to disperse the crowd; after the march, Valiant spoke to a largely African American audience at Mason Temple, affirming her support of the striking workers. On March 7—a day on which Mayor Loeb held one of his open houses—Joan Turner Beifuss led a group of white women to mayor’s office; the goal was to demonstrate to Loeb that not all whites supported him in his opposition to the strike. Yet some of the other women, such as Gwen Awsumb, who, by the way, was the first woman ever elected to the Memphis city council, and Marjorie Cherry, were decidedly less sympathetic toward the strike and were generally opposed to unions.

Little, of course, is aware of all that, and perhaps that is why she seems to feel a certain ambivalence toward her subject. Although she believes that the story she tells is a story worth telling, she is eager not to claim too much for her protagonists. The Saturday Luncheon Group, for example, “did not intend to turn the world upside down” but “merely” sought to improve communication between the races. Myra Dreifus and Anne Shafer were not interested in “pathbreaking” social movements and had no “radical political consciousness”; instead, their activism was grounded in “less politically charged” programs and organizations. At the end of her book, Little offers this assessment of the group of activists whose work she has documented: “These women do not warrant the term ‘radical,’ because they did not seek an overhaul of the entire system that created a racial hierarchy in which white citizens enjoyed more privilege than their African American counterparts. However, their contributions to Memphis’s race relations proved essential to the easing of racial tensions.” When appraising the activism of elite white women in Memphis, one must keep, it seems, the proper perspective.

1 comment:

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