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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Nelle Morton, June 29, 1983. Interview F-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Experiences as a woman leader in the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen

In this excerpt, Morton talks about what it was like to be a woman serving on the executive committee of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen during the 1940s. While she was not the only woman on the executive committee, Morton had a unique position of leadership as the general secretary. While Morton later became actively involved in the women's movement, she explains that at the time she was largely unconscious of gender discrimination. Nevertheless, her experiences with the Fellowship generated a growing cognizance of her own oppression as a woman, in large measure because of the way people reacted to her as a woman in a position of leadership. Her comments regarding the way the male leaders of the Fellowship, such as Scotty Cowan, treated her are especially revealing.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Nelle Morton, June 29, 1983. Interview F-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
What about the role of women? Were women active in the Fellowship?
NELLE MORTON:
Well, yes, it seemed to me that they were.
DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
Did any woman ever serve on the Executive Committee?
NELLE MORTON:
Oh yes, there were a number of women on the Executive Committee. Ah, my goodness, who were they? Uh, well I know Flemmie Kittrell was one at one time . . . she was a professor at Howard, Sadie Hughley was another, Oh Phemie Young was another.
DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
Well, what I'm getting at is . . . I had a feeling . . . I never knew Buck Kester at all, but I had a feeling he was very traditional in the way he viewed females. And women's roles, and that sort of thing.
NELLE MORTON:
Well, I, at that time, was not as much aware as I am now.
DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
None of us were.
NELLE MORTON:
Yes. But I am very much into the Woman's Movement now. And I began . . . an interesting thing about . . . several people have asked me why . . . how a nice, Southern, quaint woman like me ever got so deeply involved in race and labor, and so forth. Benjamin Mays, I remember, asked me that twice. He said, I can tell you why . . . she's a woman. And I did not know what he meant then. And I think I know now much more what he meant than he does. But I just remember that so well. I wonder what does he mean? Because she's a woman. and I just . . . I've been aware, I think all my life of being discriminated against, but, you see, women were never quite sure whether the discrimination was because you're really not quite good enough or whether you are discriminated against. And so, therefore, we have been so indoctrinated not to fight for ourselves because it might turn up we were worse than we think we are. (Laugh) And I think this . . . I think women have been part of bringing on the discrimination, just for this reason. And I never was quite sure, until now, how committed I was to the methodology that I used in the Fellowship, and that I taught at Drew. At the time, it was in the Fellowship, I didn't know whether . . . quite whether . . . I just don't like to be, you know, the one always up front and that I'm afraid to be, but now I see it was such a deep commitment that, uh, uh, well I think it's run our way through my life.
DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
Well, looking back on it, do you feel that there was discrimination against women in the Fellowship? Or not?
NELLE MORTON:
Well, I know Scotty Cowan used to say, he used to say, "Girl," and I would be so mad now, I didn't see he meant anything by it . . . he'd say, "Girl, I tell you, I never had a woman boss before, and I don't like the idea," he said, "I just have to admit, it really is working out." He said that to me a dozen times, and I've always felt, yeah, you are . . . I think I felt he was discriminating, but he was trying to own it. I think in one way, you know . . . sometimes there's a backward discrimination, if you know what I mean, there's some people in the race issue who are in a kind of reverse prejudice . . . they overdo the thing, and black can sense that right away. Well, I think I have always had the feelings that the Executive Committee was very careful about me, protecting me to do the thing that I could do. And I just have a sneaking suspiciion that there were times when they made up the money themselves for salary. Because I didn't see how, and it was worrying me . . . 166 because I was helping to take care of my father then. And for ah . . . as I say, I never missed while I was with them, I never missed a salary. And I'm sure that there was some discrimination . . . I think they felt that anybody who would take a job like that just needed all the support they could get. And I had that feeling. I never had the feeling that there was . . .
DALLAS A. BLANCHARD:
They weren't putting you down because you were a woman?
NELLE MORTON:
I, I, it may be the only place I've ever been . . . and I'm not sure they would offer a man the kind of salary they offered me. But I took it. And that may have been discrimination. And I'm sure there was, because there was . . . I think I was . . . I guess I was so much concerned about discrimination in economic areas of so many people in race, you know, that I wasn't as aware, but I'm sure it was there.