Panel of American Women
The Little Rock Panel of American Women was organized in 1963 by Sara Alderman Murphy. It was based on the national Panel of American Women that emerged in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1956, and it offered participants the opportunity to learn more about people of different races, religions, and cultures. In the aftermath of the 1957 school desegregation crisis in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and the continued efforts to desegregate schools across the state, the panel provided a structured forum for open discussion about racial and religious differences.
The organization’s members traveled around Arkansas to speak. The panels consisted of five or six women—Jewish, Catholic, African American, white Protestant, and occasionally Asian American—and a moderator. Each woman spoke about her experiences with the effects of prejudice, then the moderator opened the floor to questions from the audience. One African-American panelist, Gwen Riley, often spoke about her experiences with segregation when she was a child and then asked audience members whether they thought she should tell her young daughter that some people would consider her inferior because of her race. Other panelists answered questions about Judaism and Catholicism. White panelists in particular, many of them former members of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), such as Kathryn Lambright and Martha Bass, talked about how getting to know women of other races changed their opinions about race relations and integration.
These panels provided the opportunity in the state for audience members to get to know people of other races and religions. The panelists encouraged audience members to continue discussing these issues. The presentations helped lessen some audience members’ anxiety about school desegregation and the growing civil rights movement and began to address the effects of racial and religious prejudice.
In 1971, as school integration again came to the forefront with court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance, panel members turned to the schools to continue their efforts to change attitudes. The organization incorporated as a nonprofit organization and hired a small staff to develop programs for students to fight racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. It also provided human-relations training for teachers. In the mid-1980s, the panel merged with the Arkansas Public Policy Project and formed the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Inc. The organization provides training for grassroots organizations and research on environmental, tax reform, and rural economic development issues.
For additional information:
Barnes, Paula C. “Sara Alderman Murphy and the Little Rock Panel of American Women: A Prescription to Heal the Wounds of the Little Rock School Crisis.” In The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., edited by Randy Finley and Thomas A. DeBlack. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.
Miller, Laura A. “Challenging the Segregationist Power Structure in Little Rock: The Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools.” In Throwing off the Cloak of Privilege: White Southern Women Activists in the Civil Rights Era, edited by Gail S. Murray. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.
Murphy, Sara Alderman. Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958–1963. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Panel of American Women Records. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Laura A. Miller
Little Rock, Arkansas
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