In honor of Martin Luther King Day: The Vineyard Five reminisce

“We really wanted to do something concrete” –

Five Vineyard women went to Williamston, North Carolina in 1964 to deliver canned food and clothing to people in need. From left: Polly Murphy, Nancy Hodgson Whiting, Peg Lilienthal, Virginia Mazer and Nancy Smith. — Courtesy MV Museum

In the spring of 1964, five women from Martha’s Vineyard traveled south to support civil rights. Excerpted from interviews that appeared in the book Vineyard Voices and in The Dukes County Intelligencer with permission of Linsey Lee and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Oral History Center.                   

The “Vineyard Five” were: Peg Lilienthal, Virginia Mazer, Polly Murphy, Nancy Smith, and Nancy Whiting.

Polly Murphy

This was the early sixties and Civil Rights were very much on our minds. Things you saw on television, things you read; people were getting more and more aware of the terrible injustices…And I think maybe Kennedy’s death, in that November of ‘63, sort of heightened everybody’s awareness and emotional feelings.

Henry Byrd, who was the minister at Grace Episcopal Church, had gotten very involved in the whole Civil Rights Movement, and he went with a group from Boston to Williamston, North Carolina.

And Henry Byrd arranged for a group from Williamston to come up here, right around Christmas…there was a big meeting in the Old Whaling Church and they spoke and sang freedom songs. And stayed with us — people who had room to put them up — for a couple of days. Most of these people were sort of veterans of a battle that was going on in Williamston. It was a very ugly situation down there — a lot of violence. Black people had difficulty registering to vote, they couldn’t eat in restaurants, they were getting shot at.

There was an organizer down there, a black man named Golden Frinks, who Reverend Byrd was very enthusiastic about, and he was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under Dr. King, and one of the things they had organized was a boycott of the white stores there. So we began to collect canned goods and clothing and things like that to send down to support them in their boycott.

The high school kids here began to have — what did they call it? — “Can Dances,” where everybody for admission would bring some cans of food to be sent down to Williamston.

Then we said, “How are we to get it down there?” And at some point we decided, “Well, we’ll stick it in the car and drive it down.”

So there were five of us: my sister, Nancy Smith, and me, and Nancy Whiting, and Peggy Lilienthal, and Virginia Mazer. Virginia being from the South — she’s from Jackson, Mississippi — and for her watching television and the bombing of the little girls in Birmingham; this was just agony to her. And her feeling was: “I can’t just sit here as if it weren’t happening, I need to do something,” So I would say she was, really, the one that was the impetus behind us going. And we all agreed with her.

So we ended up taking two cars down to Williamston. And all the canned goods, and clothes and things. By then, it was late April.

When we got down there we were all very frightened; we had heard such terrible things. There was a woman named Sarah Small, who had come up to the Vineyard and had spoken, and had won all our hearts, and we went to her house. And eventually Golden Frinks came over. Now, we had decided we should go down as ladies, I mean no jeans, you know. We all had hats and gloves, very alien to the way we lived here. But we thought this is how we should do it. And, I remember, Golden Frinks came in and he said, “Hmmm… ladies.” He said, “I haven’t had any ladies before…” and what was the best way to use us. And really we were there to be used.

Nancy Whiting

I can remember packing my suitcase. It was supposed to be that we weren’t going to jail. We were just going to take the food and the clothes and the things for the people. That’s when I started in on packing and what to take. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll just take my harmonica along. I might just need it.” And I knew perfectly well that I was thinking about being in jail and my harmonica would be a handy thing to have.

We knew it was dangerous. We certainly knew that. We knew we might go to jail. And we didn’t know if we would come back alive. I certainly thought it through very carefully before leaving. But quietly — I didn’t talk to anyone about it. And what I wound up thinking was that I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to know that I had a chance to influence people in this way and turned it down. And that’s the way we decided. I’m not sure how the others decided, but something similar I would suspect.

We took two cars. On the trip down in the cars, we didn’t talk about much. We were careful with each other and with ourselves. Superficially, it was just a little trip. Just take the stuff down. We didn’t talk about what we were about to do. I was with Virginia a good part of the time and she was the most scared. Rightfully. She knew the South. She was raised there. I was too stupid to be scared in the sense that she was. Not stupid, but I just — I knew her, and I read her emotions. In the time when I was with her, I was reading her Emerson’s Essays, especially the one when he goes to jail, On Civil Disobedience.

Polly Murphy

[Mr. Frinks] asked us how we felt about going to jail and it was decided that we should picket the local Sears and Roebuck store, which refused to hire any blacks.

So, they had made placards for us that Sears discriminated, and we went out and walked around in front of the store. And before long, the police arrived. What we were arrested for, technically, was picketing without a permit. But it was the first time I experienced this… people looked at us — the whites walking by — looked at us with real hate. You know, I’m sure people have disliked me from time to time, but I’ve never experienced hate like that.

And when we got to the jail, the sheriff there was like something out of a bad movie. He was not red-faced or fat, particularly, but he just seemed beside himself with rage, “What were we doing down there?” And I, and I know Virginia and Peggy, too, attempted to sort of talk to him about race, you know. And when he said, “Why have you come down here?” Peggy said, “We’ve come down to love you…” or something like that, which didn’t go over very well. I was frightened. He seemed so obsessed that he was frightening. You felt he could do anything.

I felt rather safe being in jail. I mean, before we went down I would wake at three in the morning and think, “This is crazy. What do we think we’re doing?” At any rate, I slept a great deal while we were there, and it was just about twenty-four hours, that’s all. And we got bailed out by our assorted husbands at home. We came out the next afternoon with the group of black people waiting to greet us and, and they took us and we had a lovely dinner that they had prepared for us, and then we left by, sort of, a back way.

We got away safely, and that was really all there was to it, but I think it had a profound impact on all of us. I think we all felt very humble, we came back to a very safe environment leaving our friends in an environment that wasn’t safe.

I think there were, at that time, quite a lot of people here who felt that we had no business going down there, or that’s how I think they put it to themselves. I mean, the idea that you don’t go and meddle in another community. Yes, it seems to me there were some letters written to the Gazette that were not approving.

Well, to us it just seemed very logical; sort of putting our money where our mouth was, you know. And here we weren’t living with — not to say there wasn’t discrimination here, because there was and is, but not the kind of frightening thing there was in the South, you know.

A term that was used a lot at that time was “bearing witness” and I think we did that. I think that what we brought, maybe, was the knowledge of support from beyond their immediate, small world of Williamston. I mean we were one little group of many groups that went different places in the South, and I think it helped. I mean, I think the accumulation of people, and the fact that it was, more and more, on television, I think, eventually, the cumulative effect… it was a part of it.

And some people from Williamston came up again that summer. That would have been ’64, which was the Mississippi Summer, when a lot of people went to Mississippi and they had just found the bodies of Chaney and Goodman. When Golden Frinks flew in to the airport, all of our teenage children, who had never met him, but by this time were saturated with our stories, just ran across the tarmac and threw their arms around him and hugged him, you know. It was a real greeting.

But I think we all, ALL of us, I think we all have feeling of gratitude that we did this. That we saw what we saw, and that we did go down. It meant a lot.