Intersectional women's group reflects on 50 years of activism in Memphis

Four women sit in an East Memphis living room sipping scotch and catching up—how the kids are doing, what the old gang’s up to, who’s passed on. It’s been 50 years since they first sat down together and a good while since they last met, but their profound connection is still palpable, as is the deep respect they hold for one another.

These now-grandmothers are battle buddies.

“We faced the world together,” said Joyce Blackmon.

For the ten years following the assassination of Dr. King, they were warriors in white gloves on a critical mission to dismantle racism and religious discrimination using a shockingly effective tool: their own voices.

“I don’t think any of us, when we began it, thought it would have the impact that it did,” said Jeanne Varnell.

The Panel of American Women started in 1957 in Kansas City, Missouri as a response to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In Memphis, it was the 1968 assassination of Dr. King that spurred a group of women to form the 75th chapter.

“It was merely a speakers’ program to talk about the prejudice that you experience in your life being thought of as Jocelyn the Jew and not just Jocelyn,” said Jocelyn Wurzburg, the first coordinator of the Memphis group.

The panel consisted of four women from four seemingly disparate groups—African-American, Jewish, Catholic and white Protestant. Black, Jewish, and Catholic panelists told a five-minute story about an experience with racial or religious discrimination while the white majority panelist, who was white Protestant, spoke to their own ingrained prejudice and privilege.

Monthly newsletters with events, panel schedules, and personal updates kept members of the Panel of American Women informed and connected.

The floor was then opened for questions and conversations with audiences—school groups, churches, clubs, government entities and more.

“We were really dealing with racism without even saying that. What we said was how prejudice affects me, how it affects you,” said Modeane Thompson.

“But by couching it in anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, racism, it made it a little more palatable,” added Wurzburg.

Panelists also built empathy sharing the experiences of their children. “They could put their own selves in that same light and say, ‘Would I want that to happen to myself and my own children?’” said Blackmon.

While the program was straightforward, the training was arduous. To effectively change hearts and minds, the women had to be beyond reproach in their responses, even if the question was intentionally incendiary.

The panelists only pointed the finger at themselves in an effort to illustrate greater truths about prejudice in Memphis.

The women spent months meeting weekly in their groups and as a whole, challenging each other to ask and answer the most difficult questions. They brought in community leaders to ensure they were informed on current events.

In December of 1968, they invited their husbands to a practice run. The first four women told their stories, but when it came time for questions…“Dead silence,” recalled Wurzburg. “I said, ‘Y’all. Is it awful? Have we just laid a bomb?’ And the men said, ‘We had no idea what y’all were doing. This is marvelous! Let me tell you some prejudice stories I’ve got in business!’ And they start sharing among themselves.”

It’s that desire to continue the dialogue that the panelists agree is most important. The presentations created hundreds of ongoing conversations and tangible community development, from policy changes to daycare centers.

The organization expanded beyond the panel discussions to include a program promoting integration in the school system, sensitivity trainings for police and some of the city’s first parenting classes.

Jocelyn Wurzburg, Modeane Thompson, Jeanne Varnell, Joyce Blackmon pose for a recent photo. (Clockwise from top left)

Soon the panelists’ work moved beyond the organization itself. As businesses and nonprofits across Memphis began to integrate and diversify, these groups looked to the panel to find qualified leaders. Panel members worked for and were appointed to boards like the National Civil Rights Museum, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas & Water. While they aren’t often acknowledged for their role, the women were also critical in resolving the 1969 sanitation strike, as they used their status to influence the Memphis City Council.

Participation in the Memphis Panel of American Women also impacted the women’s confidence and friendships.

“You were Mrs. So and So and you only had your husband’s opinion. You weren’t supposed to have an opinion of your own,” recalled Thompson. Participation in the panel built the confidence to first have an opinion then often an education, a career, and in some cases, a divorce.

Nearly every week the women met for panel presentations, committee meetings, community events, and parties. Friendships expanded and families became intertwined, creating a ripple of multigenerational, multiracial, interfaith friendships. It was work, but it was exhilarating work.

“For me, I think I speak for a lot of us, it was the most fun thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Wurzburg.

“That’s what’s kept us bound together,” said Thompson.

Over the years, some 70 to 80 women would serve as panelists, but ultimately, commitment would fade. The busy panelists had less time for speaking engagements. Varnell also thinks that by the organization’s dissolution in 1978, it may have simply reached saturation. “After ten years our audiences had pretty much heard us and heard us and it was just time to end.”

Since then there have been other women’s groups and organizations focused on racial or religious relations, but none have been as intersectional, successful, and long-lasting in tenure and legacy, the women believe.
Founding member Happy Jones poses with her youngest child, Meade, in the early 1970sBut 50 years later, there is renewed interest. Recently, a group of younger people have begun discussing a revival that could include additional groups like Muslim women, transgender women and Latinas.

In the meantime, interest in the panel’s original work has remained strong.

Blackmon, Thompson, Varnell, and Wurzburg will be honored this month—along with Happy Jones, another founding member of organization—with the Judy Scharff Lifetime Achievement Award at Planned Parenthood’s annual James Awards Celebration, the organization’s largest annual fundraising event. The award was created in 2016 in celebration of 75 years of Planned Parenthood in Memphis.

“Forming an interracial, inter-religious, feminist organization in a segregated Memphis is nothing short of a radical achievement. When Memphis was asleep, the Memphis Panel of American Women helped wake it up,” said Grace Weil, director of development for PPGMR. “These women are powerhouses who deserve recognition.”

“The panel's purpose was to give a voice to issues of inequity, wage unfairness, education problems, and most of all, race relations,” Lewis explained. “These are issues that are still relevant today and impact our community.”

The James Award Celebration will be held September 28th at the Hilton Hotel Ridgelake Boulevard Hilton Hotel at 7 p.m.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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