Some Thoughts on African American Women and Jewish American Women in the Civil Rights Struggle
 — Yvonne G. Hilton

Responses to queries posed by a graduate student

Q. How were female activists treated? Did it depend on their race?

A. There was always an unstated patriarchal current running through every aspect of American society from well before the founding of the country, as nearly everyone knows (otherwise there wouldn't have needed to be either a suffragette or a women's movement). The same was true for the Civil Rights Movement.

However, for African Americans, there was also the reality that black men were particularly dangerous, according to white society, and therefore needed the unwavering support of black women. We women frequently assumed leadership positions simply because we were the only ones willing to do the work, menial and otherwise; nonetheless, we would also provide willing back-up to any men willing to step up and lead.

As to the race of the women, there was only one white young woman that I encountered, who was active with the campaign. She and I were both students at Morgan State during the period of 1961 — 64. She became involved in the Movement while we were roommates and she went to jail with me during the Northwood Shopping Center Campaign. Interestingly, when it became clear that we students had filled the Baltimore City jails and were gaining national notoriety, and the press wanted to interview a few of the students while we were in jail, they chose this young woman, even though she wasn't one of the "leaders." I believe this was because she was the only white woman protester there. I won't name her because we've lost touch and I'm not sure she would want her name revealed.

Q. Did African American and Jewish American women form an alliance? Why or why not?

A. In my experience, we formed no alliances with Jewish American women, although there were probably Jewish young women in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) who came to Maryland on busses to demonstrate with us. Once again, it was largely the young men who ran the show, white and black. Remember, we're talking about the South where being identified as Jewish wasn't an advantage, particularly with the local whites who were against integration anyway. Frequently, when we encountered violent groups, they would single out white demonstrators first and beat them worse than black demonstrators.

Q. If they did form alliances, under what circumstances did it break?

A. I can speculate on a couple of reasons. One, based on my experience with white male CORE members, was their (possibly unconscious) bias against following leaders who were black. They seemed to do things that would either endanger the group or generally offend someone. For example, they seemed to want to invite violence by marching right in front or right at the end, thereby making themselves easy targets.

Also, they would want to interact with the black women, which seemed to really upset the black men. I realize now that all of us were immature and filled with personal/socially learned biases.

I would imagine that another reason why any possible alliances might not have survived would have been because of the very temporary nature of participation in the Movement. Few of us were prepared to make demonstrations our life work. Once a victory was won (a law changed/ a voters registration drive ended), we tended to go back to being students on the path to graduation. Once we left school and went back to our lives, we entered a socially segregated world that would remain that way for nearly another generation. Although my roommate wasn't Jewish, this is what happened to us.

Q. When did I leave the Movement and what have I done since?

A. I left the Movement in 1964 when I graduated and moved to New York. This actually coincided with the end of legal segregation in Maryland. Although I was strongly tempted to join the Freedom Riders going to Mississippi, by that time I was engaged and both my fiancee and my parents were absolutely opposed. As it turned out, the dangers they feared became quite real when three Freedom Summer workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman disappeared and their bodies turned up later that summer.

I married a year later, spent some time living in Kansas and then moved back to New York City just in time to become part of the Black Liberation/Cultural Arts Movement and to study communism/socialism. Professionally, I became a teacher, went back to school for a masters in Education, became an English teacher, took a second masters in Educational Supervision and became an Assistant Principal supervising an English department in a high school in Brooklyn, NY. I'm now retired and have published a historical novel. I'm completing a second novel.

Q. Any other opinions?

A. The only additional thing has to do with what I've learned from activists and activism. Activism has to become a mindset. One may not be a joiner of movements; I certainly am not, having rejected the violent extremes of every movement that I joined after the Civil Rights Movement. What is left after all is an understanding that you cannot be a bystander when it comes to witnessing injustice. "When you see a fight, get in it!", as Vernon Johns so eloquently exhorted us. (Vernon Johns was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church before Dr. Martin Luther King came to Montgomery and took over the pulpit.)

Copyright © 2013, Yvonne Hilton


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