On March 7, 2016, the Welcome Wilson Houston History Collaborative and Center for Public Hisotry hosted it’s second Historically Speaking panel, “Wednesdays in Mississippi: Opening Dialogues across Race, Region, and Religion Then and Now” to discuss how the 1964 project was used at the time to combat racism and how similar methods re currently being used in our diverse community. Scroll down to read a more detailed description of the panel and the participants.
As the civil rights movement reached a fevered pitch in the summer of 1964, Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) brought seven interfaith, interracial teams of northern middle-aged, middle- and upper-class women to Jackson, Mississippi, to meet with their southern counterparts, challenge injustice, and open lines of communication where others had failed. By presenting themselves as proper ladies, the Wednesdays women effectively built bridges of understanding across, race, region, and religion, demonstrating women’s power to advance social action by taking a quiet approach to radical change. They did this by opening a dialogue between northern and southern women, and between women in the southern communities they visited.
Sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), WIMS was the only civil rights project organized by women for women as part of a national women’s organization. It offers a new paradigm through which to study civil rights activism and provides a model for use between disparate groups in modern society.
Moderator Dr. Debbie Z. Harwell is a historian at the University of Houston where she teaches Regional History and U.S. History Since 1877 in the Honors College. She has written on WIMS for the last ten years, focusing on unique methods of women’s activism in the civil rights movement, inequality and social policy. Her book Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964 published by University Press of Mississippi in the fall of 2014 is the first in-depth account of the WIMS project and its follow-up program to address poverty, Workshops in Mississippi. The book received the 2015 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize presented by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern women’s history. Harwell is also the managing editor of Houston History magazine published by the Center for Public History at the university.
Marlene McCurtis is the producer/director of the Wednesdays in Mississippi documentary. She has over twenty years of television documentary production experience. She worked as a producer/director at Arnold Shapiro Productions for ten years. There she produced several documentaries including the award winning film Hidden Victims: Children of Domestic Violence and directed the A&E’s critically acclaimed series, Beyond Scared Straight. She is a member of Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media Producer’s Lab. On a more personal level, her family roots are in Mississippi.
Dr. Josie Johnson began her activism on the streets of Houston with her father fighting the poll tax that prevented African Americans from voting. In the early 1960s, she lobbied professionally for passage of bills concerning such issues as fair housing and employment, and she became a community organizer for the Minneapolis Urban League. She was only 34 years old and a young mother when she came to Jackson with WIMS. Josie became the first African-American to serve as a regent at the University of Minnesota, where she later taught in the College of Education. After her retirement, the university created The Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award. She continues to be an advocate for equal rights and social justice.
Susie Stedman was twenty-two years old when she went to Mississippi in 1964 as the white, on-the-ground staff person for WIMS. She continued to work for racial and gender justice at the National Council for Negro Women and the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. She later worked on international issues at the United Nations, with the Ford Foundation in West Africa and New York, and as Executive Director of Refugees International, in Washington, D.C., an advocacy organization for refugee crises around the world. Susie had the privilege of working closely with Dorothy Height in creating Height’s memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. She continues to serve on boards of community and educational organizations as well as to speak on international affairs
Three local women, including an African American woman, a Latina, and an Iranian American woman, represent the current generation of young women activists. These women discuss how we are using similar models today, particularly in the Houston community. They are:
Eureka Gilkey is the executive director of Project Row Houses, established in 1993 in Houston’s third Ward “to be a catalyst for transforming community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture.” A graduate of Howard University who grew up in East Texas, Eureka previously worked in the Obama administration as senior advisor and director of Intergovernmental Affairs, director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Outreach, and a White House liaison for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Natalie Garza is a professor at Houston Community College where she teaches U.S. and Mexican American History. Her research interests include Transnational Migration, Identity Formation, Popular Culture, and Latina/o and Chicana/o studies. Natalie has also conducted numerous oral history interviews of community members for the Welcome Wilson Houston History Collaborative at the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center Women’s History Project. She is currently working on a public history project researching Houston’s Segundo Barrio for a permanent exhibit at the newly renovated Guadalupe Plaza Park.
Kafah Bachari is an Iranian-American writer and attorney. She is the Director of the Transactional Law Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, and a corporate attorney at Looper Goodwine, P.C. Kafah’s writing explores the collective and the personal histories, memories, and myths of Iranians and Iranian-Americans. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Extraordinary Rendition (American) Writers on Palestine, and online. Kafah is also the co-founder of the Pink Iftar at Christ Church Cathedral and sits on the advisory board of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University.
Funding and support from this event is provided by The Center for Public History Lecture Series; African American Studies; Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; and the Honors College.