Interviewee: Sara Mitchell Parsons
Interviewer: Janet Paulk
Date of Interview: May 5, 1999
Extent: 2 audio cassettes; 2 compact discs; 38 page transcript
Sara Mitchell Parsons was born in Canton, Georgia in 1912, and graduated from Atlanta Girl's High in 1930. After high school, Parsons completed a total of two years of public affairs coursework at Georgia Evening School (now Georgia State University), Emory University, Humboldt State University, College of the Redwoods, and Mills College. After college, Parsons began a lengthy career in public affairs as a member of the Atlanta Board of Education (1961-1968). After moving to California, she served as an elected member from the 3rd District to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the first woman elected in the 120-year history of the county. From 1977 until 1980, Parsons served as board representative for several different organizations, including the County Mental Health Advisory Board, the Juvenile Delinquency Commission, the CETA Advisory Board (Chairman), the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, the Courthouse Beautification Committee (Chairman), the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, and the Convention and Tourist Bureau. She also served as the chair of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors in 1980. From 1978 until 1980, Parsons was the governor's appointee to the California Solar/Cal Committee as well as vice-chair of the Employment Steering Committee of the National Association of Counties (1979-1980). Parsons was also elected by the Democratic Party of Northern California as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in New York City in 1980. In addition to a career in politics, Parsons also participated in various community service projects. She served as president of the North Fulton High School PTA (1956-1958), as a member of the Official Board of the St. James Methodist Church (1958-1963), and as president of the Atlanta League of Women Voters from 1958 until 1960. She also acted as a visiting lecturer at Emory University and was invited by President Lyndon Johnson to the White House Conference on Education in 1965. In the same year, Parsons was awarded the Atlanta "Good Neighbor of the Year" award. Recently, Parsons completed the book From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights that chronicles her transformation into a civil rights activist and her friendship with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Parsons describes her childhood as being happy, even after her parents divorced when she was eleven years old. She says that her mother was a very strong and active woman, belonging to DAR, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Women’s Temperance Union. Parsons was married at 21, and quickly had children. She says that it was through her work with her church, and with the PTA, that she became involved with the League of Women Voters, and that that subsequently led to her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. She describes how, in 1961, she ran for a position on the Board of Education and won. Her position on the Board introduced her Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she remained in contact for a number of years. Her main focus during this time was the integration of schools and she describes visiting black and white schools, and seeing very clearly that “separate but equal” was not working. She goes on to discuss the contentious integration of the Atlanta League of Women Voters. Parson’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Women’s Movement took a toll on her personal life: she and her husband divorced after more than 30 years of marriage. She says “I felt sorry for my husband because he had married a sweet southern girl. And I turned out to be this civil rights activist, flaming feminist.” Parsons joined NOW and was introduced to Betty Freidan: She says that during a visit to Atlanta, Freidan was interested in writing about black women in the Civil Rights Movement, and wanted to meet some. Parsons goes on to describe their less-than-successful experiences. Parsons believes that the Christian right was the greatest obstacle to the Women’s Movement, and that during the period of the Civil Rights Movement, some churches were “a big disappointment…because of their hesitancy to speak out and do…the right thing.” She ends by discussing her book, From Southern Wrongs to Civil Rights.