From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights: The Memoir of a White Civil Rights Activist / Edition 2

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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

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A compelling book that links a woman's personal experience with the national struggle for racial equality."
—Nancy A. Walker, Vanderbilt University

"Sara Mitchell Parsons tells the moving story of a courageous white woman who dared to become a champion of racial justice in the heart of the segregated south. . . . [She] became an outspoken advocate of integration at considerable personal cost and played an important role in Atlanta's transformation into a model of civil rights progress. I wholeheartedly recommend this book."
—Coretta Scott King

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817310264
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Sara Mitchell Parsons lives in Atlanta. She has received numerous honors for her community activism, most recently being named 1994 Role Model of the Year by the Older Women's League in Atlanta.

David J. Garrow, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Emory University School of Law, is the author of Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Liberty and Sexuality: The right to Privacy and the making of Roe vs. Wade.

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Read an Excerpt

From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights

The Memoir of a White Civil Rights Activist

By Sara Mitchell Parsons

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8854-6


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 backbreaking, 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 cornersalmost 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 straight laced 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.


Excerpted from From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights by Sara Mitchell Parsons. Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by David J. Garrow,
1. Growing Up Southern,
2. From Buckhead to Brotherhood,
3. Running Scared for Public Office,
4. Crisis in the Bible Belt,
5. "Men Don't Like Women on Boards",
6. Sunday Morning at Ebenezer,
7. Not the Best of Times,
8. From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights,
9. The Second Time Around,
10. Long Journey to a New Life,
11. The Dove Flies On,
12. What Has Happened to the Dream?,

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