WEC leaders meet in September 1958


(WOMENSENEWS)–Work has been hectic recently for Janet Perkins, Deep South coordinator for the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, a Seattle-based initiative to advocate for social change among poor and working families, funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

On Sept. 6 her group staged a conference in three cities–Los Angeles, Chicago and Birmingham, Ala.–to unveil the group’s family-issues platform for presentation to the next U.S. presidential administration.

But on Sept. 13, Perkins, based in Little Rock, Ark., will take her current-day activism to a symposium back home to reflect on the historic activism of an advocacy group 50 years ago: the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools.

In 1958 nearly 1,300 local white women–most well-to-do wives of young, professional men–stood up to segregationists and the Little Rock political establishment in the name of public education as the city was becoming ensnared in one of the country’s ugliest and prominent clashes over racial integration.

“It is important for there to be conversation for how we can continue to do work for women,” said Perkins, 57, who first learned of the Women’s Emergency Committee in the 1980s, when she worked for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a social justice organization. “How we can learn from mistakes and how we can make change in women’s lives. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Little Rock Central High School Museum historian Laura Miller, on the planning committee for this weekend’s observances, said the event–which begins on Saturday with a symposium on women as agents of change and runs through Tuesday–is a chance to call women to greater grassroots activism.

Miller said the weekend will include Anne Milling, founder and executive director of Women of the Storm, a nonpartisan group of women from Louisiana who formed in January 2006 to address unmet community needs after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

‘Modern-Day Equivalent’

Women of the Storm has worked with legislators to rebuild communities on the Gulf Coast and Miller says she considers them a “modern-day equivalent of the Women’s Emergency Committee.”

The Women’s Emergency Committee received its most recent blasts of commemoration in 1996, when Sandra Hubbard premiered her documentary about the group–“The Giants Wore White Gloves”–at the Hot Springs (Arkansas) Documentary Film Festival and in 1998, when then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was keynote speaker at their 40th anniversary commemoration in Little Rock.

After Orval Faubus, the state’s Democratic governor at the time, shuttered four Little Rock public high schools in September 1958, rather than comply with a federal mandate to racially integrate, 48 women came together for the first meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

The year before the closures, Faubus called units of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent desegregation, and the school board advised the African American students to stay away from school. Images and stories of white mobs waving hateful signs and screaming epithets on the grounds of Central High were transmitted across newswires worldwide. President Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students inside Central for the first time, and the federal troops spent much of the school year on campus.

The schools’ 1958-59 closure is now known as the “lost year” when students who couldn’t afford private education and couldn’t leave Little Rock went without schooling. Of the 3,600 students affected by the schools’ closure, approximately 600 did not find education elsewhere.

‘The Men Have Failed’

Women’s Emergency Committee founder Adolphine Fletcher Terry organized women specifically because business and community leaders–overwhelmingly male–were doing too little to protest the closed schools. “The men have failed,” Terry is quoted as saying when she visited local newspaper editor Henry Ashmore in late summer of 1958. “It’s time to call out the women.”

Terry, who died in 1976, was 75 when she founded the committee.

In 1958 and 1959 the Women’s Emergency Committee met in secret, created phone banks, distributed pamphlets and contacted voters to urge the Little Rock School Board to renew the contracts of teachers and administrators for the upcoming school year.

Segregationist school board members opposed this vote in early May 1959, and the contracts were not renewed. But the committee called for a special election to remove segregationists. The election was successful, and the high schools, desegregated, reopened on Aug. 12, 1959.

To get the schools reopened as quickly as possible and gain support in the community, particularly among white voters, the Women’s Emergency Committee emphasized education rather than issues of race, although founder Terry was a known integrationist.

“We were not for integration but were for education,” said Pat House, a former elementary school teacher who was one of the committee’s youngest members. “We were for education whatever it took.” House, along with an estimated 50 former members of the Women’s Emergency Committee, will attend reunion activities.

‘For Public Education’

The group’s newspaper advertisements said: “Not for Integration. Not for Segregation. Not Affiliated with Any Other Organization. For Public Education.”

Despite their non-integrationist stance, the group’s members were harassed, as Sara Alderman Murphy’s 1997 book “Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958-1963,” chronicles.

Murphy, who was a member of the group and the first female integrationist candidate for the Little Rock School Board, describes members who received hate calls, letters and even several death threats. (Patrick C. Murphy II, her son, finished the book after his mother’s death in 1995.)

But Terry braced other members to stand up to the pressures by focusing inward rather than outward. “It was not, ‘Do not be afraid,” House said. “It was, ‘You will feel good about yourself.'”

House, who said she wasn’t afraid to join the group, particularly recalls being hectored by two people. A woman from the anti-integration Mother’s League of Central High School called her home every night and the regional manager of her husband’s pharmaceutical company called upon her, futilely, to resign.

Minnijean Brown Trickey, a speaker at the commemorative symposium, is one of the “Little Rock Nine,” nine African American students admitted to the city’s previously all-white Central High School to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that found public school segregation unconstitutional.

Trickey, 67, said that by the fall of 1958 she had already left Little Rock to study in New York. In 1958 she had been expelled from Central High for standing up to white students who were verbally and physically abusing her.

But she was horrified to hear of the closing of the high schools during the “lost year.” One family she knew had to choose which of its two daughters could leave Little Rock to attend school, because the other had to stay behind and help out at home. “Like the New Orleans diaspora,” she said, “everyone got spread everywhere.”

Eliza Borne, great-granddaughter of Women’s Emergency Committee founder Adolphine Fletcher Terry, is a senior at Wellesley College. She is a graduate of Little Rock Central High School.

This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.