“Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence”

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

Three white women sat undisturbed for five hours on an isolated bench in a roadside park off the Natchez Trace. One talked virtually non-stop, spilling out the anguish and frustration and anger pent up for maybe 20 years, telling the two strangers how wrong the dual society was, how she couldn’t understand the degradation or the injustice or the violence done to black people. These were things she couldn’t talk about to anybody else. Certainly not to her husband or her son or the neighbors. Certainly not in the “Mississippi Summer” of 1964. 

She had insisted on the clandestine park meeting, in fact, because eyebrows would raise if strangers in a car with a city tag drove up to her rural Leake County home. What if anyone found out she was meeting with people working for school desegregation? She spent five hours of a lifetime unburdening her passion to the strangers, composed herself, and then parted as the summer sun began to draw back its angry heat. And that was all. The two city women never again saw their kindred soul from the country, but they will never forget her. 

"I can still see her face," Winifred Green says nearly 15 years later. "I remember feeling that if we did nothing else, we still provided support for some people in horribly oppressive situations." Connie Curry describes it as "breaking down the conspiracy of silence, that deadening silence."

White middle- and upper-class Southern women who worked for school integration, like Green and Curry, count such meetings as small but significant steps that helped change the climate of fear surrounding race relations in the early 1960s. In Mississippi and throughout the South, this relative handful of women talked to PT As or church groups, traveled the dirt roads of farm communities or the black-topped avenues of silk-stocking suburbs, looking for anyone who would listen to their words of reason and caution. 

They worked through religious groups, YWCAs, Leagues of Women Voters, human relations councils, or started their own independent organizations of "concerned women." They issued pleas that their fellow Southerners eschew violence, abide by the law, and act rationally to keep the federal bayonets from baring in their schools. They appeared on television and radio shows, and put full-page ads in the local newspapers, making it clear that, yes, these were white women, often from families that were pillars of the old society, saying a new society was inevitable so let's make it happen with as little hurt as possible.

"We'd go in our nice linen dresses, sit on the porch and drink tea. And we'd talk in very grave tones about what would happen if the schools closed," said Green, who was a moving force behind Mississippians for Public Education. "What we said we wanted to do was help the schools open without violence. We didn't talk about the moral necessity of desegregation, although it was believed very strongly. ... Some said they'd like to help, but they couldn't because of their husbands. A lot said, 'You're right and we'll help you.' And some said, 'You're crazy. The races were meant to be separate."

So, Ms. Green, what was the ultimate effect of Mississippians for Public Education?

"I don't think you can say we alone prevented violence on the opening day of school in Jackson or Biloxi or Leake County, although opening day was peaceful. But we did supply that kind of support. We did help create an atmosphere that made white violence and unofficial resistance less permissible, and a peaceful transition to desegregated schools more acceptable. While COFO [ the Council of Federated Organizations] and the kids were cracking open society on one level - challenging, confronting segregation head-on - I think we made a crack on another level in that state. Some so-called nice, white women were trying, to borrow a phrase from the Quakers, to 'speak truth to power.' Whether Mississippi wanted to hear it or not, the law was clear: it was time to integrate the schools. It just hadn't been polite to say that before. But these women said it and helped set the stage for other things to happen."

"It wasn't just a moral thing anymore," said Curry looking back to 1964. "There had been white Southern women earlier, back in the '30s fighting lynching, but among whites they were really all alone. They were considered crazy because they took their religious commitment to brotherhood so seriously. In the '50s and into the '60s, Miss Tilly with the Southern Regional Council was talking to church groups around the South. If she could get a group of black and white church women to just sit down together, that was a real triumph. Just to sit down and talk together. 

"By 1964 the mood was changing. People had seen the violence when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. The March on Washington happened, and the Civil Rights bill was being discussed in Washington. Work was going on all over the South, especially in Mississippi, and it seemed clear that change was going to come. Everyone knew they were being watched. The political realities were different, so we had not only church ladies, but women who knew something about hardnosed politics or who were just angry at the way Mississippi's politicians and leaders were handling things. Some of those women eventually got involved with Democratic party politics, like Marge Curette who organized the Biloxi area for Mississippians for Public Education. They would go visit businessmen and tell them that it would hurt the state economically if there was violence. We got some of those men to speak out, but, you know, there was still this incredible hostility and fear in the air about what integration would mean. It was unreal."


In helping change the limits of Southern society, these women in Mississippi and Georgia and elsewhere sometimes broadly expanded the limits of their own lives, stepping out on radically different paths than they—or their families—ever would have dreamed possible. Others did not go through such monumental personal changes. Similarly, the reasons leading to their initial involvement differed, with some profoundly affected by the brutality happening in the streets and their cities, others seeing in segregation an inexplicable contradiction of their religious training, and others moved by a complex of experiences. Here are a few of the women:

Eileen Walbert, now 59, moved to Birmingham in 1947 from a small town in Virginia. Her parents were from the North initially; they didn’t give her what she called the “plantation background” of many Southerners, with a segregation mentality and black domestics as household fixtures. In fact, there were no black in her village and few signs of the de jure segregation apparent in other towns. 

“My first impression of Birmingham was that this must be what it was like in Nazi Germany,” she recalled. “People weren’t wearing armbands, the color of their skin was enough to separate them out. I hadn’t known about anything like that. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t realize that people were kept down by the system, that there were laws to do that… Those huge signs in the streetcars and over the drinking fountains. It was such a shock.

“In 1954 somehow we thought everything would be wonderful. We thought it was a time to celebrate, that all children would go to school together and everything would be okay.”

Everything was not okay, because nothing changed for years. In the early ‘60s, when people tried to carry out that mandate of 1954, Birmingham literally exploded. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a black minister, had tried to enroll his children in a white school in the late ‘50s and had organized community civil rights efforts. He was beaten and his home was bombed.

“Actually, my daughter was saying, ‘You’ve got to do something,’” Mrs. Walbert said. “When the Shuttlesworth home was bombed, she wrote a letter to him saying how much she admired his courage and looked forward to meeting him and his children….I remember driving down the street with my daughter and seeing a group of demonstrators. I guess they were mostly from Miles College. There was this tall, gray-haired man, a man I had met somewhere before…and he was so quiet and refined and so dignified. He was the only white person I saw among them. I had thought that nice, middle-class white people didn’t get involved in demonstrations. Then I looked around and saw that most of the people who were doing that probably would rather be home reading a book or something. That was a major breakthrough in my thinking.

“When I first started going to the Human Relations Council [at the encouragement of a friend], it was because of the brutality going on….It just seemed to me that you could hardly pick up the paper without finding out that some black man was shot and killed by a policeman….I can’t tell you how terrible it was here. It was so oppressive, if you didn’t do something, you felt like you’d explode.” 

What Walbert did was help chronicle deficiencies in the black schools, work with the lawyers seeking relief for those conditions, and help recruit black children to integrate the white schools. She worked with black ministers in the area, and then with the parents of student-age children willing to take the risks involved in having their child desegregate a school. "These meetings were always extremely emotional times for me," Walbert recalled. "I was constantly torn between rage and tears that they had been denied an education. There were counties then that didn't even have high schools for blacks."

She also worked to gather white support for integration and wrote letters to the newspaper, abhorring the insanity of the· day. "Every time I wrote a letter I got a few telephone calls and letters, but they were not threatening. They'd argue, and I would argue back. I don't think I changed anybody's opinion, but they didn't change mine either .... My husband, who teaches piano, would lose a few students when I'd write a letter .... Birmingham had the usual little scandal sheet saying we were communists ... and that was rather unpleasant, to have your character maligned. Your picture would be right on the front page.

"In a way I thought it was so much easier for me than even for people, like my husband, who still had to keep teaching and seeing people who didn't believe the way we did. It must have been harder for people who had to keep working in that hostile environment every day. I spent most of my time in the movement. ... Actually, when I started getting involved in these meetings, I just sort of cut myself off from anyone who wouldn't approve. Once someone burned a little cross in our yard, but I don't think the Klan did it. It was too small for that. 

"I really just sort of turned off to everybody who wasn't involved .... I felt more at home in the black community at that time, and safer .... I developed sort of a fear or apprehension of white people whom I didn't know, or didn't know how they thought. But I was with the right people and the people I cared about. It resulted in lasting friendships. They're the people I still see today."

After school integration, the push moved to voting rights and voter registration. Walbert joined with others to comb the black community for people to register, joined other whites in the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, who staged a small march in Selma the day before the big march of 1965 to show that not all white people in Alabama were resisters. Her activism carried Walbert into Birmingham's small anti-war movement later. But the Birmingham Human Relations Council "sort of fell apart" after the Selma march, and Walbert's civil rights activities followed suit in 1967 or '68.

"It seemed to me maybe we stopped too soon after Selma. I don't know why. Maybe everyone thought so much had been accomplished. The Voting Rights Act passed .... Then along came the black power movement, and I was a little sensitive about that .... Maybe I regret some that I stopped as early as I did."

Now Walbert has bowed out of the arena of social activism, finding most of her energy consumed by her personal life. She still supports the causes and principles of her earlier activism, but is glad to see the severity of the racism in Birmingham diminished from the intensity of the mid-'60s. "There is still a tremendous amount of prejudice and discrimination here still, but it's much better than it was."



In the 1950s and early '60s, Eleanor "Lea" Bockman lived for her Catholic faith, her husband and her children (they ultimately numbered seven). She came from one of Atlanta's prominent families, her father being a senior partner in the prestigious law firm of King & Spaulding, the professional home of presidential confidant Charles Kirbo and Attorney General Griffin Bell. "As a child we had three live-in black servants. I spent as much time with them as with my parents. Not that my parents neglected me. I think I had one of the healthiest upbringings possible in a bourgeois setting .... My parents expected me to think and to go to college, but I was programmed to be a wife and mother. And I fulfilled all the expectations. I married at 21, had my first baby nine months later and another the next year."

Between having babies, Bockman also did some crucial reading. She was living in Carrollton, a small town about 50 miles west of Atlanta, and the closest Catholic church was 20 miles away. She read partly to keep in touch with her religion. She discovered Jesuit writings on social injustice and actions to relieve them. When Bockman and her husband and kids moved back to Atlanta, she began to act.

“I knew the racial situation was wrong, that I had to do something about it…About this time [around 1962] there was a conference at Atlanta University [a black university complex] that a friend was going to and she said I should come along. I had never been there—can you imagine?—though I’d lived in Atlanta all my life. It was the first time I saw an articulate black woman. It opened a whole new vista to me about my prejudices.” That combination of influences—the university meeting, the Jesuit works and the values instilled by her parents, helped bring her into the movement. 

The Catholic Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan, a force in changing Southern race relations, actively promoted interracial discussion groups in the homes of local parishioners. The Bockmans took part. Her husband’s interest in the discussion groups soon waned, but Bockman remained involved, continuing social contacts with Atlanta blacks and helping find sleeping places for freedom riders or other Northern support troops. “I couldn’t have them in my home. That wasn’t accepted. I was still having babies.”

What was accepted was being the Catholic person on a racially and religiously mixed panel of mothers put together by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The black mother was Coretta King. Each was told to think about ways to raise children free from racial prejudice. Then they met for brainstorming on how to get the necessity of that across to people who weren’t at all sure they wanted children who didn’t discriminate. They solicited invitations to speak at PTAs and civic groups and appeared on radio and television talk shows.

The fear of violence surrounding school integration was not so great in Atlanta as in many other Southern cities, partly because the city’s white business moguls had counted the dollar losses—both in property and image—suffered in places like Little Rock and New Orleans when fighting bloodied their streets. The Chamber of Commerce was laying the groundwork for "the city too busy to hate," and it was working. Women like Bockman were more concerned with making integration succeed than with defusing those set on making it fail.

"The idea was to stimulate discussion .... If it didn't change people's minds, it made them rethink their values. At least it made them think. And the teachers and others felt supported when they had to go into these situations of explaining desegregation to angry parents. 1 'm convinced we made a very good impact .... My husband's attitude was 'Don't push things.' Doing it through the church was okay, as long as I met my other responsibilities as a mother and wife. And I could do even this, remember, only because of money. I had black women to take care of the kids or clean the house .... The route I had chosen [activism through the church) was bad enough. But as long as I didn't do anything to gain notoriety, it was okay .... I did feel the responsibility to my children. I couldn't break from my family. I was always careful not to do things that would land me in jail. It wasn't fear. But it was just not right for me to do that. ... I wasn't an individual. I was still a wife and a mother and a daughter to all these other people. I never saw myself as a civil rights activist."

Because she did have that commitment to family, and to what her family thought was proper, Bockman didn't put up freedom riders or march in Selma or do the other, more activist things she wanted to do. The quiet yearnings were there, but for years she was able to gain sufficient satisfaction from actions spinning off the church. Within those limits, however, she met Unitarians and Quakers and persons of. other faiths, whose religions had led them, too, into the civil rights movement. She added the ecumenical movement to her list of concerns, which perhaps had an effect opposite that intended. "In the middle of that, I saw each faith still said it was the best, it still had the real line to God, or its people were the chosen ones. That really made me question the hypocrisy of religion. Plus there was the problem of birth control. I was 38 and had just had another kid."

Over the years one question led to another, just as civil rights work led to anti-war work led to women's rights work. The social circle that had been almost exclusively Catholic opened wider and wider, with expanding friendships bringing expanding thoughts about the states of world affairs as well as human affairs, about the roles of governments and of individuals in relating to each other. Black people, Bockman discovered, were not the only oppressed people. The women's movement had a profound effect.

Today, Bockman is almost another person, so far removed is she from the lady who tentatively walked into Atlanta University less than 20 years ago and found that black women can think and express themselves. At the age of 56 she is a socialist - an active member of the Socialist Workers Party. She is divorced, maintaining what she considers truly good relations with only three of her seven children. She lives alone in an apartment and works as a legal secretary, supplementing her salary with a closely controlled inheritance (her father put it in a trust when he got inklings she was a socialist), and with alimony payments that Bockman considers fully justified for 30 years of service.

The coming of age of school integration also weaned Winifred Green from the Old South. Reared quite properly in a Jackson, Mississippi, family headed by a father who practiced law in a fine corporate firm, Green followed the expected course leading her through church and school and marriage and nice groups like the Junior League. But the course was interrupted by a drastic detour that never led her back to the old road.

"Like most middle-class people, it was the church for me. It got me out of Mississippi. When I was 15, I went to Boston for a youth convention. I don’t know if it was actually religion or the exposure to a larger world that made the impact. In Boston, first of all, I discovered that there were black Episcopalians. That really blew my mind…Plus, people were talking about ideas. To learn as early as I did not only that blacks are human beings, but they’re very, very smart—that was an incredible thing…That church wasn’t talking about civil rights in Boston. I didn’t come back burning to integrat the schools or restaurants.”

But Boston supplied some fodder for a curious mind. Another helping and another break from her comfortable Jackson life came when Green went with her husband—she dropped out of college to marry at 21—to a bleak military assignment in Augusta, Georgia in 1960. “Service wives are discriminated against, so I couldn’t get a job. We didn’t have any spare cash. I was looking for things to do. The big high was walking around an air-conditioned supermarket…While I still had those nice little linen dresses from Nieman’s and my grandmother’s pearls, I didn’t have much else. I also had time to decide I didn’t like the way things were in Jackson. I didn’t like the idea that if I had a black person over, my life might be in danger.”

Rather than go back to the Junior League and other socially proper activities when they returned to Jackson, Green went back to school. She did that partly out of intuition that her marriage would end soon, and believed that she would need a degree to make it alone. At Millsaps College, a small Methodist school in Jackson, Green met Patt Derian, wife of a prominent doctor. Now she is Jimmy Carter’s voice for human rights in the U.S. State Department, but in the early 60’s Derian was just another older student who, like Green, had some real concern about events unfolding in Mississippi. 

“She [Derian] told me there was a group of white women meeting and talking about what to do about our schools. The mood in the state legislature and in the state in 1962 and 1963 was that we’d rather close them. That was a very serious thing. It could have happened…The violence accompanying James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss convinced me that the potential for violence throughout the state was great. I was so incredibly sad at the useless nature of that. Then I was mad as hell that we would elect somebody who would let that happen. There were so many points that violence could have been prevented.” 

The women’s group met informally for a year or so, then Derian and Green and a couple of others decided they needed to do more than talk. They went to the town’s leading liberal—she had already had a cross burned in her yard—and were introduced to Jean Fairfax of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Fairfax was also active with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was in Jackson working to help prepare the black community for the school integration in the fall of 1964. Fairfax not only put them in touch with organizations like the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, but also turned over to the women her own newest worker in the AFSC, Connie Curry. 

Curry was another white Southern woman, but one less steeped in the tradition. Her parents were born in Ireland. She also had the broadening experience of a Fulbright Scholarship and was baptized in the fire of the early lunch-counter sit-ins during her first job as a staff person for the National Student Association. Curry was already committed to the cause. The atmosphere in Jackson and throughout Mississippi was such that Curry usually was introduced as somebody’s roommate or sister or a friend passing through town. She wasn’t often identified as being on the AFSC payroll.

“It was all very clandestine,” recalled Curry. “Jean Fairfax and I would meet in the Catholic Church in Jackson. She’d tell me what was going on in the black community and I’d tell her about the white side of town. We weren’t even trying to hold public meetings with blacks and whites together. People doing that—like the Mississippi Council for Human Relations—were still considered mavericks. But there were other things respectable white women could do just in the white community.”

Curry recalled her introduction to the group of women Derian and Green had brought together. “The first time I went to Jackson, I remember it was a really fine luncheon at somebody's house. Everybody was well dressed and very ladylike. All I could think of was that this could have been me if I had gone the traditional way of Agnes Scott College [ where she graduated]. It was funny, to tell the truth. I was perfectly at home, but I thought if they really knew I had been on the SNCC board or if they really knew what all I had done .... I really respected the group. I would read the papers and listen to the politicians and think, 'No wonder these people feel the way they do.' They were given no options."

This small band of women had decided there were options, and took it on themselves to convince other Mississippians. They organized an official group, calling themselves Mississippians for Public Education, and began, in the words of Curry, "giving the impression that we were a strong organization." They put up billboards urging parents to "send your children to public schools." They contacted ministers, businessmen, editors and other community leaders to help foster a mood of moderation and respect for the law. They published a pamphlet, "A Time to Speak," and distributed it all over the state. In the weeks before school opened in Jackson, Green and Curry passed it out door-to-door in the white neighborhoods with children who would be attending integrated schools. They ran full-page newspaper ads basically outlining the choices: there could be either a peaceful opening or a violent closing of the schools in the fall. It included a coupon to be returned by those wanting more information on how to achieve the former. From the ads and from word of mouth, the women found others willing to preach the need for rational, reasonable action.

"In the spring and summer of '64, Connie and I traveled all over the state, finding people .... This was the 'Mississippi Summer,' you know. In my opinion the reason we didn't have more harassment is because the people who would have harassed us had what they felt were more important things to do." Like resisting COFO. Or harassing SNCC workers, even killing some summer workers - Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were the most famous. Occasional negative reactions were inevitable, such as when the White Citizens' Council would put Green's phone number on its "dial the truth" hot line, a recording that told whom to call if you wanted to talk to one of the troublemakers.

There were other personal pressures on Green. "I went through several stages with my parents. There were periods that I couldn't go into their house. I expected it. But very quickly, after it became known to my family and friends that I not only was against segregation but was going to do something about it, I had a whole new family of friends. The movement provided a whole social scene."

The movement also provided a life's work. After the schools opened that fall, Green left Jackson and her marriage. In Atlanta she worked for the Georgia Council on Human Relations, recruiting black children to integrate schools around the state, then joined the AFSC for a three-month assignment finding out what happened to black children (and their families} who desegregated Alabama schools. A brief stint with the Southern Regional Council followed, but Green shortly landed a permanent spot with the AFSC, and has been there ever since.

At the age of 41, she still is trying to make schools comply with the laws, as director of the organization's Southern Education Project, but now the battle includes other fronts; stopping sex discrimination is an important part of Green's work. Right now she is doing it back in Jackson.