Cover image for From southern wrongs to civil rights : the memoir of a white civil rights activist
From southern wrongs to civil rights : the memoir of a white civil rights activist
Publication Information:
Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, c2000.
Physical Description:
xxv, 184 p. ; 24 cm.


Material Type
Shelf Number
Item Notes
Book F294.A853P37 2000 1 .SOURCE. GIFT,1/08

On Order



This first-hand account tells the story of turbulent civil rights era Atlanta through the eyes of a white upper-class woman who became an outspoken advocate for integration and racial equality.

As a privileged white woman who grew up in segregated Atlanta, Sara Mitchell Parsons was an unlikely candidate to become a civil rights agitator. After all, her only contacts with blacks were with those who helped raise her and those who later helped raise her children. As a young woman, she followed the conventional path expected of her, becoming the dutiful wife of a conservative husband, going to the country club, and playing bridge. But unlike many of her peers, Parsons harbored an increasing uneasiness about racial segregation.

In a memoir that includes candid diary excerpts, Parsons chronicles her moral awakening. With little support from her husband, she runs for the Atlanta Board of Education on a quietly integrationist platform and, once elected, becomes increasingly outspoken about inequitable school conditions and the slow pace of integration. Her activities bring her into contact with such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King. For a time, she leads a dual existence, sometimes traveling the great psychic distance from an NAACP meeting on Auburn Avenue to an all-white party in upscale Buckhead. She eventually drops her ladies' clubs, and her deepening involvement in the civil rights movement costs Parsons many friends as well as her first marriage.

Spanning sixty years, this compelling memoir describes one woman's journey to self-discovery against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in our country's history.

"Sara Parsons's efforts to integrate and improve schools and her attack on complacent white churches made her a pariah and resulted in the break-up of her marriage. . . . She was one of the South's first white elected officials who openly advocated racial equality.-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Sara Parsons in the 1960's [was] the lone white member of the Atlanta school board to support integration. . . . Jimmy Carter may not have had the courage [then] to meet with Martin Luther King. But Ms. Parsons did. She met Dr. King on several occasions, even though each time it seemed to cost her another white friend.-- New York Times



Chapter One Growing Up Southern I was born Sara Bedell Perry in my grandmother's house on April 18, 1912, just three days after the Titanic went down. It was quite common at the time for a woman to "go home" to have her children, so my mother traveled a little farther east to Canton, Georgia, where my grandmother lived, and returned to my father after my birth. My mother and father already had two children and an established household in Cartersville, Georgia, a small town about thirty miles northwest of Atlanta.     My family on both sides had been southern born and bred for generations. My grandmother used to tell me about the Civil War. She said that we had had to leave the family farm when Yankee soldiers commandeered our house and land to stay in. After the army had moved on, we returned to find that the Yankees had put feed for their horses in our bureau drawers. Since there was no food to eat, her mother had knocked loose the grain from the bureau drawers onto a sheet and made cornbread for our homecoming meal. As a child I grew up playing with worthless Confederate money my grandmother's family had saved in a cigar box. I was raised as a daughter of the Old South.     In the early 1900s, my father's father owned a couple of small-town newspapers, and my father helped out. He became a kind of troubleshooting newspaper businessman, doing whatever it took to fix up ailing papers. He also dabbled in real estate. I remember that we moved from town to town a lot when I was little.     My mother was the typical dutiful wife of the era. My mother hated dirt. Everything had to be spotlessly clean--our house, our yard, even our sidewalk. Our bodies and clothes were always scrubbed and fresh. I got my first spanking at the age of three after I slid down a muddy bank wearing my Sunday school clothes.     My mother ran the household, raised the kids, and went to church. She was a strict Methodist. Her unthinking prejudice extended not only to blacks but also to Jews, Catholics, and Gypsies. Her fear of Gypsies was palpable. "They kidnap children," she warned us. "If you ever even hear a Gypsy caravan, you come in this house immediately ."     Lo and behold, when I was six my brother and sister actually did hear the dreaded sound. The caravan seemed headed right for our house! We ran inside as fast as we could and hid under our parents' bed. When curiosity finally got the best of us, we cautiously peeked through the curtains in the front bedroom. In the yard we saw wagons with pots and pans swinging from the sides, strange, exotic clothes in shades of the brightest yellows, oranges, and reds, and colorful beads and bracelets. Heads were swathed in bandannas. The Gypsies wore sandals on their bare, dusty feet.     In my southern community we feared others who were in any way different from us. I didn't even know a Catholic or Jew until we moved to Atlanta in 1925. And although blacks lived among us, they were fundamentally, profoundly different, or so I was constantly told. To most southern whites the black race seemed to have been brought to America to be our servants and farmhands. Most white families in the area had a black servant. Although my family was by no means rich, we were no exception. Our servant's name was Bertha, and she was the first black I ever knew. Right up to the 1950s, there was a kind, quiet, humble black woman in the life of most white children in the South.     Bertha was at our house every morning at about 6:30. She cooked breakfast and prepared a big dinner for the middle of the day. My mother sometimes allowed Bertha to go home for a few hours before she had to serve a light supper at six. Bertha could walk home. Each neighborhood had a section of small cabins nearby where servants lived. There was no public transportation, and no servant had a car.     My first distinct memory of Bertha dates to a warm spring afternoon in 1918, when I was six and my mother let me go home with Bertha. She lived in one of eleven identical cabins built in a row. Each was whitewashed, which was as near as servants' houses came to being painted. I did not see a black person living in a painted house until I moved to Atlanta in 1925.     I recall holding Bertha's hand as we walked down the sandy, dusty lane toward her cabin. Its one room was dark and smelled of wood smoke. There was a fireplace made of rough-laid bricks. To keep the cold winter winds from blowing through her cabin's wood plank walls, Bertha had pasted lots of brightly colored Sunday comics over the cracks. I found these comics fascinating.     I saw cast-off chairs, an old table, and a lumpy featherbed--or was the mattress made of corn shucks? A cardboard fan advertising an undertaker's parlor hung on a wall. Since there were no screens in the windows, Bertha used the fan as much to shoo away flies as to stir up any faint breeze.     What impressed me most was the big, humpbacked trunk that sat at the foot of Bertha's bed. It looked very mysterious, and I imagined all kinds of wonderful contents. Could it contain a beautiful wedding dress that had belonged to Bertha's mother? A long white baby dress and cap, handmade with lace and ribbons? But even as a six-year-old, I knew deep down inside that black servants were "dirt poor"--too poor to own any such treasures.     Bertha and I sat down at the table. She heaved a sigh of relief to be off her aching feet. It was no wonder they hurt. Servants in those days wore old, worn-out shoes and hand-me-down clothes acquired from some white family. In those days I don't recall ever seeing a black woman with a coat that was new or even quite her size. I don't recall what Bertha and I talked about, but I do remember feeling sorry for her.     Bertha was our daily cook, so she didn't do our washing. That back-breaking, time-consuming work fell to another black woman whose name I can't remember. Our washwoman came once a week and picked up our dirty clothes. She cleaned the clothes by boiling them in a big black iron pot in her yard and then hanging them out to dry. Next they were starched and painstakingly ironed with rock-heavy irons that were heated on top of a hot woodstove even on the hottest summer day.     I vividly remember how thin and tired our washwoman always looked. When she came to deliver our starched, pressed clothes each week, she was accompanied by her small son, who walked slowly behind her, pulling the large, heavy basket in a rickety wooden wagon. For all her labor, the washwoman was paid $ 1.50, a woefully inadequate sum. One time, I saw my mother take some hard candy from her pocket and hand it to the washwoman and her son. Was this from kindness, I wondered, or was it because my mother felt guilty for paying her so little?     Most southerners will say that they seldom heard or even used the word "prejudice." We lived without thinking, for the most part blindly ignorant of our multiple sins against blacks. At the same time prejudice was as strong and widespread in our lives as terminal cancer. It would take a vast library to hold all the examples of white people's prejudice against blacks before the civil rights movement and afterward.     When I was about nine I recall seeing a black girl riding a girl's bicycle. The sight was memorable because no black family in Greenwood, South Carolina, in the early 1920s could have afforded such a luxury.     It would be hard for any white person to write a definitive history of black woman servants before the 1960s--cooks, maids, and so-called nannies. The truth about this complex subject lurks in dark corners almost impossible to explore. Fanny Kemble, the English wife of a southern plantation owner, came close, but her book, Journal of a Resident on a Georgia Plantation , was published in 1863. She told the true story of slave women, how they were bought and sold with no thought given to their personal lives and how they were cruelly separated from their husbands and children when family members were sold to plantation owners living miles away.     I learned the most about servants and the way they were treated in my own home and in those of friends. Until World War II nearly every middle-class southern family could afford to hire a servant or at least part-time help. A family that was well off could afford to hire several servants. In the 1930s and 1940s servants came to back doors, hat in hand, smiling, to ask even the smallest favor--a degrading custom indeed.     Although their weekly salaries amounted to near starvation wages, servants were almost never given a raise, no matter how faithful they had been or how hard they had tried to please. What did they think when they couldn't afford to pay anyone to stay with their children while they took care of ours? How did they feel about our elaborate dinner and cocktail parties, tables laden with food, when their own family often went hungry?     I don't know the answers to these questions. I never asked. I can only wonder why our servants did not hate us. No doubt many of them did. All these years later I can only marvel at the love and patience they showed me--love in spite of our unseeing, unthinking, indifferent treatment. Even if we were kind, and even if we did "love" them, what kind of love did we offer them?     Once Martin Luther King listened while a white woman raved on and on to him about how much she loved Inez, her servant. "What is Inez's last name?" he asked. The woman did not know even though Inez had been with her family for twenty years.     My grandmother had a cook named Mary who was kind, cheerful, overworked, and grossly underpaid. How she kept body and soul together on her salary of five dollars a week remains a mystery to me. One Christmas Mary somehow managed to give everyone in our family a gift. The small blue glass vase she gave me touched my heart more than any other present I received that year.     During the 1920s and 1930s servants were paid so little that by unspoken agreement they were allowed to tote home any leftover food from the evening meal. This privilege was no doubt granted to help ease the guilt we felt for their low wages--or perhaps we knew in our hearts that without this food their families would go hungry. Mary toted leftovers in a large round tin pan covered with newspapers and tied tightly with heavy string to keep the food warm. On rainy days she would carefully wrap the tin in an extra cover of wax paper. Mary had to walk to the streetcar, then ride across town to the black section eight miles away. More often than not she probably stood in the back after having been on her feet for the better part of ten hours.     I wish I had been older when Mary worked for my grandmother. At the time I was a teenager more interested in boys than in what went on inside our house. But I did realize that Mary was different from any blacks I had known before. She was better spoken and had a better grasp of what was going on in the world. It was fun and interesting for me to talk with her.     In the 1940s, years after Mary had left us to go to work for one of our cousins in Washington, D.C. (where the pay was much better), she came back to visit relatives in Atlanta and stopped by to see my mother and me. She had moved to New York and married a well-off Chinese merchant. When she entered our house, she was wearing a full-length fur coat. Despite the change in her fortunes, she was still the same caring Mary we remembered, and there was much affection all around as we visited.     According to a southern tradition, whenever a family servant left a position, she always recommended someone--usually a relative--to take her place. There were no employment agencies, because this networking was satisfactory to both parties. When Mary left us to go to Washington, she sent us her cousin Ruby. Ruby was very lively and had a boyfriend named Oscar, who, as we said in the 1930s, "could play a mean piano." One party my sister and I threw must have been quite special, because not only did Ruby come back to serve a late meal, she brought Oscar to play our old upright piano in the parlor. I wonder what we paid Oscar for his three hours of playing.     Ruby, like Mary, hoped for a better life, so she too left Atlanta for a job up north (as did hundreds of thousands of other blacks). My mother wrote her a nice letter of recommendation, and Ruby sent her a thank-you note. It was the only letter my mother ever got from a black person, and she kept it until she died forty years later. The letter, mailed from Philadelphia on October 22, 1943, still has three one-cent stamps on it. It reads:     Dear Mrs. Perry, You don't know how much I thank you for what you did for me. I couldn't have gotten my job without your help, Mrs. Perry--I really don't know how to thank you. I have met a lot of people since I have been up here but none of them compare to you. Because you always would help when it was needed and thanks a lot for making me save what I can. Now I am working on a very good job. I am beginning this week to send money home to mother just as you know she needs it, Mrs. Perry. Again I want to thank you for what you did for me. I won't forget. Tell the family hello for me. Respectfully, Ruby     My family kept moving around, but I'd have to say I had a typical, happy southern childhood. I enjoyed school and was an average student. I had friends, played outside (but never with any black children), went to church, and saw relatives.     My parents had a troubled relationship, however. My father always seemed to be gone on business, sometimes for weeks at a time. He drank, he smoked big cigars, he played poker, and he ran with a racy crowd. My very straightlaced mother abhorred his activities. Mother's main goal was to raise her five children right in the sight of God and the community. I was the middle child. There was never any cursing or drinking or card playing in my mother's house. My father had to go elsewhere to pursue any of his favorite activities. Although she was stern, my mother was a kind, loving, generous person. She sang and read to us. She cared about our cultural and social lives.     Even as a ten-year-old, I could tell that my parents were not suited to each other. I remember asking my grandmother on my mother's side why my parents ever got married. She said, "I guess it was because your mother was the prettiest girl in her high school graduating class, and your father was the best looking. You know, in those days, boys and girls seldom indulged in any revealing conversations about themselves, so how could they have really known each other?" As I look back now on the huge differences between my parents--my mother's down-to-earth, religious lifestyle and my father's love of worldly pleasures--I can see why I grew up feeling so many contradictory impulses.     When I was thirteen, my parents divorced, and small-town life came to an abrupt end. In the mid-1920s, particularly among families that claimed to be respectable and church-going, divorce was an earth-shattering experience. My mother felt impelled to take the unthinkable initiative when my father sold our house to settle a business debt. The marriage ended when there was little money left and no house to live in. My mother, my two brothers, and my two sisters sought shelter with my grandmother, who had moved from her place in Canton to a large house in a pleasant middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta. We knew that there would be no going back to our small-town life or to our father. I remember thinking as we drove into town down Ponce de Leon Avenue, "I wonder what kind of life is ahead of me?"     I spent my teenage years in Atlanta. I went to the city's only public high school for girls, named Atlanta Girl's High. It was a school for whites. At the time I had no idea where--or even whether--black girls and boys went to high school in Atlanta. I had plenty of friends, both girls and boys. In those days everyone, especially young people, felt very optimistic and sophisticated. Yet our relationships were slow-paced, innocent and unthreatening. Dates usually involved going to dances or the movies or drive-ins for hot dogs.     The Great Depression hit Atlanta forcefully just a few months after my graduation in the spring of 1930. I was then eighteen. A couple of years earlier, my mother had taken a job as a sales clerk at Rich's, Atlanta's largest department store. Luckily, she was not laid off. It was the only job she ever had, and she kept it for thirty-eight years.     During the depression, our family finances were generally meager. We never received a dime of support from our father. College was out of the question for me. We were still living with my grandmother, and right out of high school I took a job with Retail Credit Company (now Equifax, a worldwide information services company). Even then Retail Credit generated tons of paperwork, so it needed lots of "girls" like me to type and file.     I sat in a huge room with probably twenty-five other girls, each of us at a desk with a big black manual typewriter. We typed or filed from 8:30 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. five days a week plus a half day on Saturday. It took me about thirty minutes to get to and from work on the streetcar. I had many friends. We dated, went out for Cokes, and even made the trip to Candler Airfield (now Hartsfield International Airport), an exotic new place, to watch airplanes take off and land.     In 1932 my boss at Retail Credit Company--the head of the home office's personnel department--asked me out. Ray Mitchell was twenty-nine years old to my nineteen and was as handsome as a movie star. He had been in Emory University's first graduating class and was already a member of Atlanta's second most exclusive club, the Capital City Club. Ray dated debutantes, loved to dance, and clearly had a great professional career ahead of him. I was impressed! My mother was also impressed, not only with Ray's current success and prospects, but because he "came from good people," as we used to say. In fact, his family was every bit as purebred southern as ours. Like my great-grandfather, Ray's grandfather Mitchell had been in the Civil War.     The Mitchell family lived just a little north of Atlanta in a small farming community called Sandy Springs (today it's one of Atlanta's most prosperous suburbs). According to family lore, when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, grandfather Mitchell walked home with a minnie ball still in his leg.     Mitchell and Hildebrand Roads in Sandy Springs are named after the two sides of Ray's family. Ray was born on Roswell Road, which is now a major commercial thoroughfare. Ray's father worked for Coca-Cola as a low-level manager. Ray was the oldest of eight children. His mother was a housewife and a strict Baptist who, like my own mother, refused to have liquor, cards, or smoking in her house. I can still see Ray's father sitting in the living room with an unlit cigar in his mouth. He went out on the porch to smoke.     Ray was high on the list of everybody in my family, including me. While we dated, I continued to work at my job. He remained the head of the personnel department. He never showed me any favoritism, and I never expected any. I don't remember hearing even a word of criticism from the other girls. Certainly no one thought of sexual harassment. It wasn't even a workplace concept in 1931.     Ray and I married on June 16, 1933. At the time of our wedding, Ray thought he was getting a sweet, polite, well-brought-up southern girl, someone who could be the mother of his children and a helpful adjunct to his professional career--someone who could move up with him in Atlanta society. In June of 1933, when I was twenty-one, he believed I was just such a person.     Not until the early 1950s did I become aware that a racial crisis was approaching and was becoming more severe with each passing day. I owe my awareness to Ralph McGill's column on page one of the Atlanta Constitution . Again and again, McGill appealed to his readers to abandon their traditional segregated ways of living. When the crisis arrived at mid-decade, even the white Protestant and Catholic churches remained largely silent. McGill's was one of a very few voices of reason to be heard in the white community.     At the end of the 1950s, when I was becoming politically active in the civil rights movement, I felt sorry for Ray. The girl he had married no longer existed. I could understand Ray's frustration and anger. But I couldn't go back to being something that did not seem morally right to me.     While we were dating, I can't recall a single incident involving anything to do with race. Because Ray's family was so much from the country, Mrs. Mitchell did most of the cooking and cleaning and child rearing on her own. This work was, after all, her sole purpose in life. I don't ever remember seeing a maid or cook at Ray's house.     Race was a part of our everyday lives in Atlanta. Blacks were servants and laborers. Educated middle-class whites acted respectful toward them, never consciously put them down, and certainly never used the "n" word. I never once heard Ray use that low-class, belittling word, as conservative and even as prejudiced as I knew he was.     Practically from the day I married, black maids formed an integral part of our household. As a southern bride who had been raised in a household that always included a cook, I had never in my life prepared a real meal. In fact, I hardly even knew how to light the gas oven in our new duplex.     Then one day, out of the blue, one of my life's greatest blessings came with a simple knock on the door. There stood Letha Hood, a neat, attractive young black woman exactly my age. She said, "Excuse me, but I heard from the maid next door that you might be needing some help." Although my new husband handled all our financial matters, this question seemed to me part of household management, my responsibility. I felt desperate enough--and confident enough--to hire Letha on the spot. I didn't check references or even wonder whether she could cook (white people assumed that all black women could cook and "keep house"). I just liked her and hired her to come in for five half days a week (Thursdays and Sundays were her days off) from 12:00 noon until 6:30 P.M. Her salary was five dollars a week.     Watching Letha, I learned my way around staples of southern cooking such as fried chicken, rice and milk gravy, butter beans, and a host of other high-calorie, high-fat, high-cholesterol delicacies. Soon after Letha's arrival, I became pregnant with our first child. If Letha had been important in the household before, she became indispensable to me then and even more so after the birth of Ray, Jr.     When the baby was about a year old, we took Letha with us to New Orleans. We were going on a cruise and taking a vacation in Cuba. Ray's father had been transferred by Coca-Cola to New Orleans, so we were able to leave the baby with Ray's parents during our holiday. With Letha in a starched uniform holding the baby, we set off early one morning on the drive down. We stopped in some small town in Alabama for lunch. Letha, wearing her uniform, was obviously with us and was obviously holding our baby. I thought there would be no problem if she ate quietly with us. I was wrong.     I can still see the café owner walking over and hear his words. "We don't serve her kind. She's got to leave." We ordered for Letha and she ate her food in our hot car. I felt terribly sorry for her, though I made no scene. Why should she suffer such an indignity because of her skin color? In New Orleans, Letha stayed in the basement servant's quarters of Ray's parents' house. When we drove back to Atlanta, all three of us knew, without ever talking about it, that we must not take her into a restaurant again, uniform and baby or not.     Letha stayed with us for fifteen years, until 1948. I had three children, and I couldn't imagine coping without her loving, uncomplaining help. But one day, again out of the blue, Letha announced that she and her husband would be joining the northward migration. They were moving to Chicago. I tried to be understanding, but I was devastated. I remember going into our large pantry right after Letha left the kitchen and crying and crying. When I stopped long enough to look up, I saw a long row of canned red tomatoes. To this day, whenever I see such a can, I remember Letha's leaving.     The only other time I recall interacting with blacks early in my marriage involved Ray. In 1935 or 1936, the city sponsored a course meant to help blacks develop basic service skills. Because Ray was head of personnel for one of Atlanta's most prestigious companies, he was invited to attend the graduation. He asked me to accompany him. During the ceremony, one of the graduates came up to me and shook my hand. Although I was now twenty-four years old and had seen blacks every day all my life, I had never before shaken hands with a black.     Ray was gracious and courteous, but he believed that God had made white people superior to blacks. He would willingly go to any black function where the class lines were clearly drawn, where he, and any blacks who might be present, could be certain of his standing. He had no problem about attending our maid's wedding in the early 1950s, for instance, even though we were the only whites there.     My second child, a daughter named Susan Melinda, was born on April 19, 1936, one day after my twenty-fourth birthday. We had moved to a new house on Club Drive in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, just around the corner from the Capital City Country Club. Ray could walk to the golf course from our new home in a couple of minutes. At the time we were upwardly mobile. I was a happy, busy homemaker, involved in neighborhood activities, a garden club, two bridge clubs, Buckhead's most prominent Methodist church, and our two large families. Even the coming of World War II in December of 1941 had very little impact on our lives. Ray was almost thirty-nine and therefore too old for service. I had my third and final child, a boy named Perry. Perry was my maiden name. In the South it was common to use one's maiden name as a given name. Outwardly I was happy. But something deep down inside me was starting to stir, albeit very faintly. Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.