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  • Unfinished Agenda
  • Mildred Emory Persinger (bio)

Why am I still working in the campaigns for civil rights and human rights after seventy years? The question has never come up—until now. Yet it is to be expected. Even as a child I was upset by hearing disparaging remarks about cherished black friends. In college I was stunned to learn that others had raised questions about the propriety of my invitation to a young Japanese student to spend the weekend with me. Later I was ashamed and worried for her that in Virginia she might have been rejected because she was not white enough.

Civil Rights

When I moved to New York City with my husband, Dick Persinger, in 1942, a faculty member at Hollins University—who had once been on the professional staff of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) National Board—advised her former associates to "grab" me. With a wartime shortage of young people to serve on boards, they gave me real work. Initially I chose to join the Interracial Committee of the YWCA, which was a subcommittee of the Public Affairs Committee. My "staff partner" was Helen Wilkins, the sister-in-law of Roy Wilkins, founder and president of the NAACP. She assigned me to write a paper on peonage in the turpentine groves of Louisiana. Before I finished, I knew that I was where I belonged.

Being in the company of these women opened up a whole new world to me. Black or white, they did not hesitate to declare their faith as Christians. Guided by what was called the "social gospel," the YWCA Board retained consultants in international, political, economic, religious, and racial affairs to support the organization's program of action on civil rights. Without power except in numbers, we took on entrenched institutions. We wrote letters; we visited congressmen; we testified; we boycotted; we held seminars; we demonstrated; we raised bail for jailed students. Most importantly, we turned out the vote for justice in employment, education, public services, immigration law, the armed forces, and in our own organization. We bought hotels, camps, and conference centers so that we could hold interracial meetings. Meeting on private property, however, did not prevent harassment, police raids, and even arrests. We invited women of all races, religions, and classes to join us. "Christian and open" was our mantra, justice our goal, and friendship our motivation.

In 1963 I saw the pull of justice and friendship, tinged with politics, played out at the pinnacle of power. One morning in early summer a telegram [End Page 186] signed "John F. Kennedy" came to our house in suburban New York. The message was a request for me to report to the White House East Gate by ten o'clock a day or two later. When I arrived a large crowd was waiting for the uniformed Marine guard to open the wrought iron gate. I saw seventy or more members of the national public policy committee that I then chaired for the YWCA.

The President had charged Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to discuss civil rights with us. He asked us to increase our efforts on five fronts: education, human rights committees, leadership training, and intergroup cooperation. Above all, we were urged to open our organizations to women of all races and support all or part of the proposed Civil Rights Act—"where conviction and programs permit."

Kennedy's reference to the pending Civil Rights Act was cautious and oblique, possibly because he was not sure of his audience. He said that civil rights for Negro Americans was a national concern and the administration sought to secure them in an orderly way. He did not urge us to press our representatives to pass his bill; the bill was last on his list of legislative priorities.

Whereas Kennedy's statement seemed to come from the head, I thought Vice President Johnson's remarks that day came from the heart. His empathy with black friends he loved in Texas and elsewhere was real. It was that quality that prompted the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Dorothy Height, after serving...


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pp. 186-192
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