Arlene's Civil Rights Movement Journey
[Ed. A Boston native, Arlene Wilgoren Dunn studied mathematics at Brandeis University and later earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Arlene spent more than a year working in the Pine Bluff and Little Rock offices of the SNCC Arkansas project. Since then she continued her activism as a member of a variety of organizations including People Against Racism (PAR) and the Race Relations Council of Northern Indiana. She also enjoyed a successful career in the airline industry, ultimately working as Director of Financial Analysis at Midway Airlines.]
Arlene Wilgoren in 1964 with a student from Arkansas AM&N College (now Univeristy of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)
This is a story of how the experience of working in the civil rights movement of the 1960s completely transformed the life of a Jewish girl from Boston.
I worked for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in Arkansas for 15 months in 1964 and 1965. Although this was a short period of time, its impact was profound and is still with me, nearly 45 years later. This journey actually began seven years earlier, fittingly enough, with a triggering event that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the fall of 1957 I was a high school sophomore in Boston, attending a city wide college preparatory school. Although I lived in a very homogenous Jewish community, I attended school with a more diverse student body. When the Little Rock Nine students attempted to integrate Central High School I was shocked to see TV news footage of angry white mobs and the Arkansas National Guard preventing them from entering the building. Here I was receiving an excellent education in a safe environment, while there were teenagers, like me in all ways except my skin color, being refused what I took for granted. Later in life, when I came to understand more about white privilege, I read a quote from Robert Terry, author of several books on race, including On Being White and For Whites Only that could describe me: “Being white in America is not having to think about it.”
In February of 1960 I participated in my first civil rights action when I was a freshman at Brandeis University. A group of students demonstrated at the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square in support of the lunch counter student sit-ins in the South. After graduating from Brandeis, I moved to New York City and became quite active with the New York SNCC office, which was primarily involved in fundraising to support the organizing and action campaigns in the South. Early in 1964 plans were solidified for the 1964 Freedom Summer, which was to bring 1,000 (mostly Caucasian) students from the North to participate in voter registration drives in Mississippi. As I was no longer a student, it did not occur to me to join this effort. I was content to provide support through volunteer work in the New York office. We were a dedicated group – young folks willing to do just about anything, from menial tasks such as stuffing envelopes to calling people asking for financial support.
Excitement about the summer project built over the spring months, and we raised a lot of money. There were times when I was tempted to join up, as the excitement was very contagious. But I had held my job only 8 or 9 months, so taking a few months off seemed out of the question. Then the fateful day in June occurred when news of the disappearance of three civil rights workers – James Chaney, a black youth from Mississippi, and two white northern volunteers, Andy Goodman and Mike Schwerner – came to light. The New York SNCC office placed a full page ad in the New York Times and donations began pouring in. Hate mail also arrived. One evening I opened a letter containing extremely vile statements and a specimen of feces. That did it for me. I decided then and there that I was not going to stay away out of fear or hate. I spoke with Julie Prettyman, the director of the New York office, about the possibility of my going despite the fact that I had not participated in the volunteer training, which included important exercises in methods of nonviolent demonstrations. She reported back that I could go to the Atlanta office, SNCC national headquarters, and request an assignment, but that there was no guarantee that I would indeed be placed. Within a week I had quit my job, walked out on my apartment lease, got rid of most of my stuff and was on a bus headed to Atlanta.
I stayed there for a week, helping out in whatever way I could. I was soon on another bus headed for Pine Bluff, Arkansas where I would work for SNCC as a field secretary, the title given to everyone. My salary was subsistence level (about $20 a week), but housing was provided. The next 15 months would be one of the most memorable times of my life, in personal as well as political ways.
Some of my memories were introductions to a new culture. I was offered many new foods – greens and other vegetables cooked with fatback, which I tolerated but did not really like, sweet potato pie, which I love to this day and chitterlings, which I tried only once. I was offered pig’s feet, which I never tried. We mingled with the community socially, and I especially enjoyed evenings at the Elks Club where there was often a live band, sometimes quite famous blues performers such as Bobby Blue Bland and even B.B. King. They did not have a liquor license but you were allowed to bring your own liquor and buy “setups” – mixers, lemon, lime or whatever else you liked to mix with liquor. We ate, drank, and danced until the wee hours.
My SNCC responsibilities were primarily in managing the office. Occasionally I joined in a group canvassing in the community to encourage people to register to vote. I remember a small house we visited where the family was clearly struggling with poverty. The furnishings were simple and well worn, yet the house was clean and had a dignified presence. There were pictures of Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy on the wall. The family welcomed us into their home and listened to us with respect. My time in Arkansas was my first real hands-on experience of the level of poverty so many people in this country endure. Those images have stayed with me and help to inform my political and social thinking to this day.
I got to know a group of students at Arkansas AM&N, the historically black college now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I dated one of the students for a while, fearlessly appearing in public with him and riding on the back of his motorcycle. Some of my SNCC colleagues expressed concern that I might be endangering the project as well as my own life (and his), but we were determined to live freely and openly express our belief in racial equality.
The director of the Arkansas Project was Bill Hansen. Bill was tall and lanky with a strong, square jaw. With his very long legs, he often strode with such determination it was difficult to keep up. He had little tolerance for the requests of some of the women in the project (myself included) that men and women should be regarded as equals with regard to job assignments and leadership roles. And it wasn’t just about men and women. Bill ran the entire project in a domineering way. He was very focused on the goals for SNCC. We had long discussions about policy or proposed activities, but in the end, Bill seemed to always prevail, whether because everyone eventually agreed with him or he simply decided enough was enough and “dictated” the policy. Bill was very strong willed, as am I. So we were frequently in conflict.
And yet, I learned a great deal from Bill and have always valued his substantial intellect and his willingness to share his understanding of history and politics. He had a keen understanding of the role of racism in every aspect of American society and was always willing to take the time to share this knowledge.
Arkansas SNCC was small and not in the media spotlight as much as the Mississippi Freedom Project in 1964 or the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. But we took ourselves very seriously and worked on the same issues, such as voter registration, freedom schools and desegregation of public facilities. We had many political discussions to help motivate us and provide context for our work, but what sticks in my memory are the intense, often all night, discussions at national SNCC meetings. When I attended those meetings, I truly felt part of making history. I began to relearn American history, a process that continues to this day. I learned about thinking strategically and about the connections between domestic racism and American foreign policy. And I began a process of coming to grips with white privilege and how that affects my life as well as the lives of people of color.
My most memorable experience during my time with the Arkansas SNCC project came shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. A common practice for many public restaurants and similar establishments in the South was to declare themselves as “private clubs” to avoid having to serve blacks. Governor Faubus (the same governor who had called out the National Guard in 1957 to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School) had the nerve to declare the cafeteria in the basement of the Capitol building a private club. When we heard about this, we quickly put a plan in motion.
Another white SNCC worker in the office, Nancy Stoller, and I went to eat at the cafeteria two or three times. Sure enough, there was a guard of sorts at the door. He did not ask us anything, certainly not if we were “members.” We engaged him in conversation, making sure he would remember us, and giving him an opportunity to request a membership card. A few days later, just before the lunch hour, we returned with about 20 of our closest friends, most of whom were black. Among the group were adults, college students and a few high school students.
As soon as we arrived, the guard stood up and said, “I’m sorry, this is a private club.” Nancy and I protested, reminding him that we had eaten lunch there several times before and he never mentioned anything about a private club. He hemmed and hawed and stammered, and would not let us proceed. Shortly, someone from inside the cafeteria closed the doors. Then the manager came out and tried to reason with us. He returned to the restaurant when we refused to leave. Soon, people started showing up for lunch, waving their wallets, showing a driver’s license, social security card, business card – anything to feign a “membership” card. Some were allowed in early in the confrontation, but soon, no one was being admitted.
The layout of the basement and the entrance to the cafeteria was interesting. As in many Capitol buildings, there are large, expansive hallways. There was a set of stone stairs at each end. The cafeteria was at the end of a rather narrow hallway off this expansive hallway, about10-12 feet wide by15-20 feet long. The 20 of us were crammed into this small hallway, waiting and wondering what would happen next. Soon we saw what looked like an imposing display of Arkansas State Troopers inside the cafeteria facing out. I don’t really know how many there actually were, but it sure looked like a lot and they were all very tall and very big.
We were again warned to leave and when we did not, the troopers stormed out and began beating us with Billy clubs and fists, chasing us down the hall to the stone steps leading out of the basement. We scrambled our way out of there with the troopers on our tail making sure we left the building. We suffered a few minor injuries – a few knots on heads, bruises and scratches, but nothing serious. We regrouped at the SNCC office to discuss what to do next. It was a raucous discussion, a free-for-all with many people describing what had happened to those who did not go. We decided to go back the next day and attempt to enter the cafeteria again.
The same events happened the next day, even worse, as the people in power could not believe we would actually return after being beaten up. When we returned a third day, the troopers threw down canisters of some kind of tear gas that felt like hot mustard in our nostrils, eyes and throats. We demonstrated a total of four days and Governor Faubus closed the cafeteria rather than serve blacks. The cafeteria remained closed for several months, until a suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced them to reopen and serve anyone. At the trial, both Nancy and I testified about how we entered the cafeteria unchallenged. The defense attorney tried to discredit us by saying we were “outside agitators” from the North, but Nancy pointed out in a sweet southern accent that she was from Hampton Roads, Virginia.
In the summer of 1965 there began to be stirrings within SNCC about “Black Power” and the role of whites in the black civil rights movement. At one meeting something occurred that has stayed with me all these years. A young local southern black woman stood at the front and said that she wanted to work in the movement. She wanted to type the newsletters and print the leaflets and it shouldn’t matter that she could not type as fast as the white girls from the north.
After many discussions filled with emotion and tears, I began to understand that my presence was a deterrent to the success of the movement. I left Arkansas and within a year or so became involved in an organization called People Against Racism (PAR) which worked in the white community to help educate people about how racism and white privilege damages all segments of society.
As I write this in 2009, the United States has an African-American president and certainly some progress has been made since 1965, but, alas, racism is alive and well in America and the struggle continues.