*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes vol viii, where I profile behind-the-scenes operations/admin badasses of the American Civil Rights Movement and document their data cultures and practices. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, stick around – there is more to come. As always, if you have a spreadsheet/database dilemma, write to my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column and I’ll write back, usually with puns. Onward!
Before SNCC (1960), before SCLC (1957), before MIA (1955), there was the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery (WPC) (1949). I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to the WPC and I wish our popular memory and social movement history books went this far back! Not only did the WPC set the stage for philosophical and tactical decisions yet to come but! also! the women in leadership went on to play major behind the scenes roles in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and beyond. They had threatened the bus boycott and begun to build the case and infrastructure for it way back in 1953 and ’54, but it wasn’t until the very end of 1955 that Rosa Parks kicked off the real deal. Learn more about this story here.
Eager, as always, to learn operational and financial details behind the scenes of social movement organizations, I was delighted to find Mrs. Erna Dungee’s name when I was reviewing some of the founding documents of the MIA. She was the financial secretary and the only woman officer. According to Belinda Robnett in How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights,
As an organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association’s gender patterns strongly followed those of the church. Officers generally were men. Only woman served in such a capacity at its inception, Mrs. Erna Dungee, secretary of the Mount Zion Church, appointed financial secretary. Though Mrs. Dungee was an officer, she was also part of the paid staff, which included Mrs. Maude Ballou, Dr. King’s personal secretary; Mrs. Hazel Gregory, office manager; and Mrs. Martha Johnson, secretary-clerk. (64)
It’s no secret at this point that I see a huge overlap among invisible labor, admin and operations, and women. So on one hand, I’m not surprised to learn that the only woman officer was a financial secretary! But on the other hand, I am surprised because the patriarchy has always kept a pretty firm hold on finances. (Also, let’s all recognize there are more than two genders!!)
Join me and think back to a community org in your life. Who’s paying the bills? In all of the examples I can think of, these people are fundamentally org care-takers, mensches through and through.
Ok, back to the main event. What does it mean to be a financial secretary, anyway? Well, to answer that question, I had to do quite a lot of digging and ultimately found my way to an article from The Negro History Bulletin, published in 1956. In the first chunk of the article, author Norman Walton goes into significant detail about the first trial of Montgomery Bus Boycotters – even, yes!, bookkeeping records:
On the first day of the trial, the State Prosecuting Attorneys produced testimony and bookkeeping records to show that several thousand dollars had been spent by the MIA to finance automobile rides for Negroes who had boycotted the Montgomery City Lines, Inc. Mrs. Erna Dungee (…) affirmed financial records presented by Assistant Circuit Solicitor R.E. Stewart. Mrs. Dungee testified Association checks were paid to eight service station operators for gasoline purchases for operation of the transportation service. Particular attention was given to the check of $5,000 made out to cash and endorsed by King. Mrs. Dungee testified that the money was simply a transfer of funds from Alabama National Bank in Montgomery to Citizens Trust Company in Atlanta, Georgia. King had explained this move in a mass meeting; he said it was to prevent the typing of of funds by local officials.
What I learned is that Mrs. Dungee not only prepared financial statements and assisted with the MIA newsletter, but was also “on the hook” for defending these records, even in court. I would imagine that she was also involved in the intricate system of managing the carpool system, including paying a rotating cast of drivers, mechanics, and dispatchers. A carpool of this scale was truly unprecedented and very much unwieldy! Sure, all organizations have operational needs to cut checks and the like… that’s old news. But when was the last time we talked about it? When was the last time we touched base with those people and made sure they had the tools they needed?
The fresh take here is that Mrs. Dungee already was an activist in Montgomery and used this leadership role to further apply her time and capacity for movement needs. Jo Ann Robinson corroborates this in her memoir. Perhaps I am reaching too far here, but I imagine that she was in it for the principles and not “just a job.” All the better for the movement, since there was already a sordid history of white supremacists raising allegations of financial misconduct… and unfortunately more to come. In this case, “defense was the best offense.” What I mean is that keeping tight financial records demonstrated their integrity and and protected them from financial and reputational risk. The MIA’s finances were heavily scrutinized and became somewhat of a battleground in and of themselves. This catapulted Mrs. Dungee beyond simple accounting and into visionary/badass/changemaker territory. And of course – underscores lessons that I’m learning more and more every day – there is no such thing as “back office” in social movement organizations. All of our grievances – and all of our work – are connected.
Speaking of offices, Jo Ann Robinson even gives an office shoutout to Mrs. Dungee in her memoir!
The MIA rented a very large building, with some five rooms. Dr. King had a private office, as did his secretary, Mrs. Ballou. There was a business room, usually to take care of guests, ministers, visitors, and so on, plus several desks which various ministers could use. Mrs. Dungee had a special room; so did Mrs. Gregory.
You may be thinking, “MIA had a bookkeeper who had an office… what’s the big deal?” It’s true that those details aren’t groundbreaking – but I think how we tell these stories can be! We do ourselves a disservice to recount the Civil Rights Movement as “great men and their speeches.” I don’t think that we should fetishize every receipt they ever wrote… however, the other extreme of assuming that administrators, secretaries, logisticians, etc weren’t there or weren’t noteworthy is wreaking serious havoc on organizing communities today. We consistently undervalue, undermine, and underresource behind-the-scenes labor, much of it done by women.
In the healthy movement culture of my dreams, database management, finances, mailing lists, hardware/software, project management, governance, etc are elevated to being mission critical. The people who do that work are treated with respect and reverence, just like organizers, public speakers, visionary manifesto writers, and their ilk. We tell the story of leaders like Mrs. Dungee in meeting minutes, newsletters and at community meetings because we recognize that we can’t do the work without her – and her very work is shifting the terrain of our victory.