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110 Chapter 6 “Be Thankful It Was Only Sand” Community Reaction to White Women in a Movement for Black Civil Rights Histories of the civil rights movement highlight the contributions of white northern women, yet few detail the experiences of white southern women, who, in many instances, faced an enormous amount of resistance from their friends and family members, as well as other activists in the struggle for racial justice. While the backlash experienced by white southern women paled in comparison to that faced by black southern activists, male and female, opposition to their work existed, and the repercussions of their actions continued for years to come. Unlike their northern counterparts, southern workers did not return home after a particular project or action ended; the South was their home. Southern activists felt as though they had much more to lose than northern reformers because of this fact. For many of the subjects of this study, involvement in civil rights work symbolized a shirking of their responsibilities as southern, white, middle- and upper-class wives and mothers. Resistance to their activism varied in its sources and severity, and it grew in intensity throughout the decade of the 1960s. Animosity toward these women peaked in the wake of the sanitation strike. Hostility toward civil rights activists did not emanate solely from segregationist quarters. Many southern natives harbored animosity toward northern activists who “came south” for a period, exacerbated racial tensions in a particular community, then returned home to their lives in the northern United States. Lillian Smith, a long-time activist whose Community Reaction to White Women in the Movement 111 credentials included working with the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Regional Council on Race Relations, the YWCA, and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, noted that with the violence that characterized Selma, including the death of white activists James Reeb and Violet Liuzzo, the movement had turned a dangerous corner, and was “out of hand.” Smith placed the brunt of the blame for this reckless and violent shift in the movement’s tone to the influx of activists, white and black, from the northern U. S.; she argued that northerners lacked the knowledge and experience to effect decisive change since those who lived outside the South returned home upon completion of their project.1 For individuals who transplanted themselves from the North to the South, this bias remained. Joyce Palmer, a Minnesota native who relocated to Memphis in December 1967, immersed herself in Memphis’s civil rights struggle during the sanitation strike of 1968. It was during one of the weekly mass meetings that she encountered a degree of hostility from black leaders of the 28 March meeting that followed a King-led march that had turned violent. While attempting to reach the front of Clayborne Temple to share with the event’s organizer, Reverend James Lawson, her thoughts on how better to organize the meeting, another member of the Community on the Move for Equality (COME) stopped her. Palmer maintained that his reticence in listening to her suggestions came from the fact that she was an outside agitator and could offer no assistance in a southern movement.2 Many northern activists who “came south” to work in the movement for racial reform encountered resistance due to their designation as “outside agitators.” Although on their home turf, southern activists also often erroneously received the same label if they dared to cross the South’s racial line to work for civil rights. Enmity toward the “outside agitator” was not a new phenomenon in southern politics. Dating back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, southerners clung to a belief that the federal government had only nefarious plans for the South, and intended to render the South nothing more than a colony of the North.3 John Dittmer’s work on the civil rights movement in Mississippi articulated the theory that the animosity and violence met by freedom riders and voter registration workers affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961 and 1962 resulted directly from Community Reaction to White Women in the Movement 112 the participants’ hailing from states other than Mississippi.4 When looking at the ways in which Memphians responded to “outside agitators,” one must initially address the reaction to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., upon his arrival in the city in March 1968. Local newspapers saturated their coverage of King’s visit with inflammatory articles about King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC...


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