DescriptionThis dissertation illuminates the participation of ordinary Black and white women in the Civil Rights Movement by examining an antipoverty program called The Mississippi Box Project. Founded in 1962 by Virginia Naeve, a white artist, pacifist, and mother, The Box Project was a grassroots family-to-family postal benevolence program that paired poor African American families in Mississippi with white New England families, who exchanged food and clothing for letters of gratitude and firsthand accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. Within a few years over 3,000 Mississippians and 300 white outsiders were exchanging goods and letters through the clandestine channels of the United States Postal System. This dissertation is the first to analyze the Box Project’s correspondence between Mississippi women and New England women. Using archived organizational records, state and federal poverty data, and oral histories, The dissertation demonstrates the ways in which everyday women imagined themselves as participants and political actors through the exchange of in the Civil Rights Movement, explores their constraints to direct-action political engagement, and considers the role of benevolence and charity in social movements.
The Box Project, I argue, is a microcosm through which to explore the relationship between motherhood, race, activism, and political consciousness in 1960s-era social movement networks. My project moves the historiography of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement beyond a traditional activist-centered, “organizing tradition” narrative by centering the experiences of ordinary rural Black women. The project also argues that middle-aged white women and mothers in the Northeast understood Box Project benevolence as the appropriate form of engagement within the Civil Rights Movement. Engaging questions around the ethics and efficacy of the antipoverty program’s reliance on white sympathy to meet the lasting needs of the poor, the dissertation considers the limitations of individual charity and benevolence meant to alleviate poverty and support racial justice. Bringing together the histories of the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, and Pacifism with this history of the Mississippi Box Project, I illuminate the successes and failures of benevolence and federally backed, locally implemented social welfare interventions of the 1960s, and reflect on the legacy of an era that sought to bring about social and economic change to Black Americans in Mississippi.