- Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi by Tiyi M. Morris
Tiyi M. Morris’s Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi is a significant contribution to the growing body of literature that focuses on the role of African American women in the civil rights movement. Taking what is the familiar narrative of some of the most crucial moments in Mississippi’s civil rights history, including the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer, Morris augments our understanding of women’s grassroots participation by focusing on an understudied group, the mostly middle-class and middle-aged members of Womanpower Unlimited (WU). That organization, which was active between 1961 and 1968, institutionalized and enhanced the informal roles of racial uplift and social justice that women played in the church and in the community. Using the framework of “mothering,” which Morris describes as “central to Black women’s activism as both a form of resistance and the genesis of activism,” she argues that WU constituted a “safe space” where women’s leadership was promoted and where they could use their skills in the civil rights fight, which was often dominated by youth and men (pp. 6, 3). By repositioning the activities of these women to the center of the discussion, Morris transforms our understanding of the breadth and depth of local participation in the fight for racial justice.
Morris crafts a multilayered narrative highlighting the life of Claire Collins Harvey, a businesswoman and the founder of WU, and offering a detailed history of the group. Harvey drew on her professional and personal connections and interests to create not only the organization but also the networks through which women activists could engage with local, national, and international causes. While WU members would in many cases be labeled as traditional or even conservative, Morris’s narrative challenges those notions by examining Harvey’s perspective on social justice, which was both international and pacifist. Morris also highlights the work of several WU activists and their national black and white allies, demonstrating both the motivations for their activism and the challenges they faced as they consciously rebuffed the racial hierarchy. Stepping into a space where they saw a void, WU members used their resources—education, money, networks, and time—to assist with the practical aspects of organizing such as providing food and shelter for civil rights workers. Indeed, WU’s most important contributions lay in neighborhood canvassing, voter registration, educational assistance, community building efforts, and breaking through the color barriers by partnering with white activists in organizations like Women Strike for Peace and in programs like the National Council of Negro Women’s Wednesdays in Mississippi. [End Page 733]
Although not formally labeled civil rights leaders, these women indeed led, invested in the cause, and provided crucial practical support that has often gone unrecognized in the mainstream literature. Morris draws attention to the ways WU members used both formal and informal spaces to launch and lead activist work. In some cases, their homes were used to host meetings and as sites of various campaigns. WU’s “holistic” organizing strategy that tended toward “caretaking” rather than confrontation is reflective of other kinds of approaches that empowered women but also kept many participants out of the spotlight (pp. 77, 6). Morris has done an admirable job in highlighting the achievements of these women and transforming our understanding of the importance of the ways they organized themselves self-consciously to undergird the viability of the civil rights movement’s more visible activists and to inspire the next generation of leaders.