Women from eight southern states met in Atlanta in 1930 to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). Three of the original twenty-six leaders came from Mississippi—Bessie Alford of McComb, Ethel Featherstun Stevens of Jackson, and Mrs. Ernest Moore of Clarksdale. The organization grew out of efforts by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation to oppose violence and to encourage greater communication between whites and African Americans. Most members, including Alford and Stevens, belonged to the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a group that was working to extend its reach into issues of labor, violence, education, and race relations, especially after women gained the right to vote in 1920.
Jessie Daniel Ames, the ASWPL’s founder and president, encouraged several Mississippians to form a chapter of the organization. Stevens, Moore, and ten other women, most of them from Clarksdale and Jackson, met in 1931 to form the North Mississippi ASWPL. Alford helped form the South Mississippi chapter, which published its mission that “as a group of Mississippi women,” they were “joining our own protest to the protest of other Southern women who feel a peculiar abhorrence to mob violence.” A 1931 lynching tested the new group’s determination, but the executive committee published a statement in Jackson newspapers that condemned as inaccurate and hypocritical the reason supporters of lynching typically gave for the practice: the protection of white women against the violence of African American men. “Mississippi women know, in their souls, that the heart, the life, and the sacred honor of our men are pledged to our protection; but we plead with all our heart that we may find that protection behind justice, swift, clear-eyed, and calm, and not behind lynching, that howling, cowardly creature of the jungle.”
For a short time, Mississippians helped lead the way in advancing the organization. Alford, Stevens, and others in the state developed rules and objectives for organizing into chapters and attracting new members. In 1931 Mississippi had more women (560) in more counties (44) in the ASWPL than did any other state. By the mid-1930s, the group had about 12,000 members.
Members of the group tended to operate by alerting sheriffs and other government officials about potential lynchings. Alford, the group’s first state chair, tried to cover several South Mississippi counties, listening for news of potential violence and passing the news along to sheriffs; equally important, she encouraged women in all parts of the state to report acts of violence to the organization. After a 1934 Clarksdale lynching, she wrote to the sheriff to demand “that you & other officers use your authority and official power to identify the ringleaders of this mob and see that they are punished according to our law!”
Some women could not join the ASWPL because of opposition from their husbands or other men in their families or communities, and some remained quiet about their activities. Many felt frustrated that their church organizations and other women’s groups chose not to take stronger stances against lynching. Alford and the group’s second chair, Montie Greer of Potts Camp, wrote to the state’s senators and governor for assistance in opposing lynching.
Some past and present critics of the organization have noted that the ASWPL never admitted African American members and that some leaders seemed at least as concerned that white male atrocities were committed in the name of chivalry as they were that lynching victims died tragic deaths outside the law. National leaders such as Ames never called for a federal antilynching law, primarily because they said such a law could never cover the range of violence in the South, but that refusal put the group at odds with many other reform groups.
The ASWPL adopted a new practice in the late 1930s with a series of educational initiatives they called antilynching institutes. The institutes continued until the ASWPL disbanded in 1942 when its parent group, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, became part of the Southern Regional Council.
- Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching (1993)
- Caroline Beverly Herring, “The Mississippi Council of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1998)