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Washington Conference of National Organizations Plans Action for Equality
by Billie Portnow
Originally published in the May, 1960 issue of Jewish Currents
The sit-down demonstrations by Negro students against discriminatory lunch counters which began Feb. 1st in Greensboro, N.C., were spreading rapidly throughout the South when a historic conference dealing with the same basic issue took place in Washington, D.C., at the Shoreham Hotel, Feb. 17-19.
Attended by over 300 delegates from 24 states, including the deep South, the conference was called by the newly formed National Organizations of Women (NOW) for Equality in Education.
With the significant theme, “The Effects of the Integration Struggle on All Our Children,” the Conference was sponsored by 16 national women’s organizations representing 14,000,000 members: American Ethical Union, National Women’s Conference; American Jewish Congress, Women’s Division; Association of Universalist Women; Delta Sigma Theta (Negro sorority); Fellowship of the Concerned; General Alliance of Unitarian and Other Christian Women; National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs; National Council of Negro Women; National Council of Women; Pioneer Women (Labor Zionist); Seventh Day Baptist General Conference; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Women’s Branch; United Automobile Workers, Women’s Department; United Church Women of the National Council of Churches; United Synagogue of America (Conservative) and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Individual sponsors included Judge Jennie L. Barron, Gertrude Berg, Ruth H. Bunche, Agnes DeMille, Lorraine Hansberry, Fannie Hurst, Margaret Mead, and Lillian Smith.
PERHAPS THE MOST THRILLING thing about the conference, one New York delegate explained to me, was the impact the delegates had upon each other. Members of Jewish and other organizations from the North came in contact perhaps for the first time with splendid Negro and white women from Mississippi and Alabama.
The wife of a Jewish Senator from Alaska, where segregation has been outlawed, worked together with women from the deep South who are out on bail for their activities on integration and who were using assumed names for fear of reprisals back home. Middle class women conferred with women auto workers from Detroit representing the United Automobile Workers. The representatives of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference exchanged suggestions with women from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Most important was the impact of the knowledge that other people care, upon the Negro mothers who “have suffered for their children” and “have been anguished as they saw their children forced to experience the humiliations that are heaped upon them by the double standard of racism in the United States,” as Justine Wise Polier phrased it in her moving summary address.
The Negro women’s participation in the Conference was outstanding in every way. Mrs. Vivian Mason of Norfolk, Va., past president of the National Council of Negro Women, seemed to be looking every white woman present in the eye when she rose and asked quietly: “What do you really feel?” Her questions probed: Would you move if a Negro rented the place next door? What would you do if a Negro slum child were placed next to yours in school? Do you invite Negroes to your home socially? “Do we have answers as liberals?” she challenged. “Can we answer the segregationists as long as part of ourselves remain segregationist in feeling?” Such challenges were constructive. The Negro delegates were especially eager for the continuation of this NOW set-up.
MRS. THELMA RICHMAN, president of the National Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, at whose initiative NOW was formed, opened the conference. “We have watched with dismay,” she declared, “as an attitude of permissive lawlessness in regard to the issue of resistance to school integration invades all areas of American life.... Among our deepest concerns in this area are a breakdown of moral values, an increasing disregard of law and order, a growing disrespect for education itself and the inevitable consequences to our children and to our society.
That there is need for concern in this area was adequately attested to by a NOW-sponsored study of youth attitudes toward civil rights and civil liberties. Dr. Martin Hamburger, assistant professor of education at New York University, who served as project coordinator for the study, reported “a disturbingly large minority of American high school students lack understanding or appreciation of democratic principles.” The report noted a “clear-cut tendency for liberal attitudes on racial issues to be accompanied by democratic attitudes on civil liberties.” This correlation similarly extends to attitudes on integration and peace. He concluded with the ominous statement that “unless our schools provide a solid understanding of the principles of democracy and freedom among our youth, the effort to promote positive attitudes toward racial integration will be diluted to the point of ineffectiveness.”
The effect of racial inequality in the United States upon the struggle for world peace was noted by a number of speakers, including Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Kenneth Clark. “A permanent peace can only come,” said the former First Lady, “if it is accompanied by equality of opportunity for millions of men, women and children around the world who do not have it.” (At a press conference, she had rebuked The White House for not having promptly convened a conference after the Supreme Court decision on school integration).
Dr. Clark, outstanding Negro educator and associate professor of psychology at the New York City College, asserted that the “inner conflicts and Confusion” and “moral quandary” of white youths who are taught about the Bill of Rights in schools that bar Negro students cause a kind of “moral flabbiness” in which “expediency replaces fair play and cruelty substitutes for humanity.” He cited “teen-age bigots” of the South as the “end result of the process of dehumanization resulting from the stunted and provincial attitudes learned in segregated schools.”
Lest the impression be left that bigotry is the all-pervasive force among Southern youth, Dr. Jean Grambs, professor of education at the University of Maryland, told the conference that many Southern youths are “20 years ahead of their parents” in their attitudes toward integration. “There is a resurgence of moral courage among large numbers of white high school and college students in the South, a courage that challenges their parents and their teachers to change Southern attitudes and customs on the race issue,” Dr. Grambs declared.
A most telling statement was made by the Rt. Rev. James A. Pike of California, who said that because of a lack of integration in church, school, union and other groups, “people are not too apt to accept persons of other races and ethnic groups in their day-to-day living arrangements.” Church-time on Sunday “is the most segregated hour in American life,” he accused. Then he added that which is basic to the whole concept of equality: “The mere solving of any one of the problems of integration will be barren in result if it is in isolation from progress in other spheres— jobs, housing, education, public accommodations and the right to vote.”
Among the most productive sessions were a series of conference workshops on what women can do in their church and synagogue groups, in Parent-Teacher Associations and in their local civic organizations to promote positive community attitudes and action on the integration issue.
In addition to the 16 sponsoring organizations, the delegates represented organizations such as: Girl Scouts, Sigma Gamma Rho (Negro sorority), All-Souls Women’s Alliance, National Beauty Culturists League, Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, Women’s Fellowship, Church of the Brethren, Beth El Sisterhood of Baltimore, Sisterhood of Arlington, Va., Jewish Center, United Society of Friends Women, and National Council of American Baptist Women.
Discussion and planning were combined right at the conference itself with activity. A delegation consisting of Mrs. Mason and Mrs. William Sale Terrell of W. Hartford, Conn., president of the United Church Women of the National Council of Churches, went Feb. 18th to call on U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers to impress upon him the fact that many millions of women wanted “the strongest possible measure that will effectively protect the right to vote of every American.” On that day, it will be remembered, the Senate filibuster was under way. Therefore additional delegations visited every Senator and Congressman from the 24 states represented at the conference.
MRS. JUSTINE WISE POLIER, Justice of Domestic Relations Court in New York, in her summary address, expressed “concern lest the greatest single issue facing our nation’s schools — the issue of equality — fail to be reflected by the forthcoming White House Conference on Children and Youth,” on March 27-April 2. The NOW for Equality Conference unanimously adopted her statement: “We therefore urge that the Golden Anniversary White House Conference on Children face up to this key issue and seek a golden answer that will lift the horizons for all Americans.... Surely every effort to avoid this issue, to prevent its full exploration, or to provide palatable opiates would be unworthy of the occasion and of the needs of our children.” [Despite top-level efforts to sidetrack the issue of segregation, it burst forth in most of the sections of the mammoth White House Conference. Mrs. Ruth Zalman will comment on the Conference in June in Parents’ Corner.—Ed.]
Already the conference is beginning to be felt in the local communities to which the delegates returned. In Miami on March 15 a report-back interracial meeting of 200 women was held at the Hotel Biscayne Terrace, addressed by psychiatrists, sociologists and educators.
The conference agreed to reconvene the presidents of all participating organizations after the White House conference to “discuss the future of NOW, its organizational structure and the relationships and activities it can encourage on a national and local scale.” Efforts are being made to expand NOW to include organizations that did not take part in the February conference, such as the YWCA, the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah (which did contribute to the financing of the February conference), the National Council of Catholic Wornen, the National Association of Temple Sisterhoods (Reform) and many others.
Whatever each of these and the participating organizations are doing separately they can surely do better cooperatively. It is to be hoped that no indifference or complacency about the issue and certainly no organizational rivalry or exclusiveness will deter those outside from joining in this grand all-embracing effort to abolish segregation and discrimination in American life. Women have been a powerful force for progress at other times in our country’s history. They can be especially effective on this issue.
At the time of publication, Billie Portnow was a member of the magazine's Management Committee who had oceasionally written book reviews for Jewish Currents. For some years she had been active in the American Jewish Congress.