Vivian Leburg Rothstein

COFO/CORE/SNCC, 1965, Mississippi
Current Residence: Santa Monica, CA

In my lifetime, the Southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s has served as the wellspring of justice organizing in the United States. With few material resources, the Southern Freedom Movement was built on the bravery and leadership of disenfranchised African-American people and their allies.

Northern volunteers, of which I was one in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1965, were there to support and amplify the leadership of the local people — to learn from them and respect their understanding of what they needed to be free.

The first thing our group of 100+ summer volunteers were asked to do was demonstrate in Jackson, Mississippi for the right to demonstrate. The city had consistently refused permits for civil rights groups to march in favor of voting rights. On that day over 400 people joined the demonstration, were arrested, and spent 12 days — in the Jackson city jail — for the white women — and on the ground at the county fairgrounds, segregated by race and gender — for everyone else.

To prepare for the action we were taught about nonviolent resistance, the philosophy and the discipline that was foundational to the movement. That included acting in a dignified and peaceful manner, not fighting back or insulting police officers when we were arrested for parading without a permit, and agreeing not to be bailed out until everyone could be freed. We learned that people are not good or bad that they could change and that our dedication and example could help them make that change. And that the wisdom and engagement of the least powerful people at the bottom of a society can overturn an oppressive social order. In fact, that s the only thing that can.

Through this demonstration and my subsequent months organizing in Leake County, I learned about the meaning of People Power — our power to come together in unison for change, to unmask the oppressors, to speak the truth while upholding the dignity and worth of us all.

I went from Mississippi to work as an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society in Uptown Chicago, a desperatly poor neighborhood of southern Appalachians, African Americans and Native Americans. Travelled to North Vietnam on a peace delegation in 1967, and helped to found the Chicago Women's Liberation Union in 1968.

The experiences in the Southern Civil Rights Movement set my life on its course and it has never waivered even though the issues have changed over time. Today I serve on the Board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles, an organization founded by Rev. James Lawson who helped introduce the philosophy of nonviolence to the Freedom Movement.

Postscript: After widespread reporting on the mass arrests of peaceful protestors in 1965 Jackson, Mississippi, the charges against us for parading without a permit were eventually dropped, and the city began granting permits for civil rights demonstrations.


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