Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2006


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Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness
Mab Segrest (second from right) with her parents (far left), then-Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and a representative of the V.F.W., circa 1965. Segrest was 16 and had just won a state speech writing contest.

Activist, self-proclaimed “race traitor” and CC professor Mab Segrest devotes her life to ending hate crimes.

By Steven Slosberg

Last July, Mab Segrest returned as a witness, of sorts, to the scene of one of the seminal, and brutal, events in her life, the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators at a rally on Nov. 3, 1979, in Greensboro, N.C.

Segrest, the Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and a College faculty member since 2002, spoke at a Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission public hearing on the shootings. It was the first such forum of its kind in this country, and was modeled on Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, among other places.

Segrest (Mab is short for Mabelle) was among the speakers invited by the commission to Greensboro in an effort to understand the social, economic and racial tensions behind the killings and culture of hate festering at that time.

Although Klan members and neo-Nazis were filmed firing rifles and pistols at the rally participants, many of them affiliated with the Communist Workers Party, no one was ever convicted in the killings.

Segrest, then living nearby, in Durham, N.C., where she had completed her Ph.D. work at Duke on William Butler Yeats, was not at the rally. But the killings triggered a commitment to fight hate crimes and racist violence. It was an aversion that had been welling in her since her early teens, growing up in Tuskegee, Ala., and hearing, in 1963, Gov. George C. Wallace vow to adhere to “segregation forever.”

In her candid and compelling 1994 book, Memoir of a Race Traitor, Segrest recalls watching from under bushes in a yard, in September 1963, the forced desegregation of Tuskegee schools. “I was confused and felt increasingly isolated,” she wrote. “I still believed in states rights and was sure most white Yankees were hypocrites, but I also believed segregation was wrong.”

That recognition, and avowal, would lead to family fights at the dinner table and tensions with her parents and brother, and, ultimately, after the Greensboro killings, to Segrest helping to found and become executive director of North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence. During the intense years (1983-1990) Segrest worked with that nonprofit organization, North Carolina was considered the worst state in the country in sheer number and violence of hate groups.

“I grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. I knew that my grandfather had been in the Klan and that one of my own relatives shot and killed a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) worker in Tuskegee, Sammy Younge, in 1965 and was not convicted for the shooting,” she told the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission last summer.

Earlier, she had told the commission: “What connects me most to Nov. 3 is its aftermath, a sharp upsurge in hate violence and my own decision when I was 34 to oppose it. The event had a profound effect on the course of my life.”

In her third-floor office in Blaustein Humanities Center, Segrest displays a black-and-white photo of herself posing with her parents, a state representative of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Gov. George Wallace. It was taken when she was a junior in high school. She had won the VFW statewide contest in speech writing on the subject “What Democracy Means to Me.”

“What was I thinking?” she responded to a question about that framed moment. “I’m not sure, but by that time I was not a fan of George Wallace, so maybe I am thinking ‘who are these crazy folks and how the hell do I get out of Dodge?’ Maybe I was proud of myself for winning the contest and getting my picture taken with the Guv. Maybe both of the above.”

Segrest, who is 56, maintains a home in North Carolina with her partner, and their daughter, who is now in college. She also has an apartment in New London. Among her other publications are My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture (1985), Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice (2002) and Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray: Feminist Strategies for a Just World, a collection of essays published in 2003 that she co-edited.

She also has been immortalized in pop culture, and, needless to say, in the esteem of her students, by being mentioned in the 1999 song “Hot Topic” by the feminist, post-punk band LeTigre:

Gretchen Phillips and Cibo Matto
Leslie Feinberg and Faith Ringgold
Mr. Lady, Laura Cottingham
Mab Segrest and the Butchies, man ...

In the song, the band pays tribute to visual artists, musicians, writers and feminists who have inspired them.

In the Fall 2005 semester she taught “Introduction to Transnational Feminism” and a senior honors seminar for students doing advanced work in gender and women’s studies. In Spring 2006, she’ll be teaching “Transnational Women’s Movements” and “Feminist Theory and Method.” She is also department chair.

“I am deeply happy to be teaching again,” she said, “having left the profession almost 25 years ago because at that time there was not space within the academy to do the kind of work as an open lesbian on sexuality that the times required.

“I am also very happy and grateful to be at Connecticut College and in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, where we have a core of smart and engaged scholars — teachers and students — who collaborate and challenge one another.”

There is another book in the works, a study of Southern “insane asylums,” as they were known when they were founded in the 19th century, becoming “state hospitals” for the mentally ill in the 20th century. Segrest uses works of Southern modernist writers Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams as an entry point to examine, as she explains, “the political dimensions of the constructions of sanity and insanity, which is to say, the raced, gendered, sexual and classed dimensions in these institutions.” She is looking at two such hospitals in Georgia and Louisiana as the basis for an investigation of what she calls the “modernity and the postmodernity of the mind.”

Otherwise, she said plans to settle here, and move her partner up from North Carolina. She’s taken to Connecticut, not only because of the College but because the state has approved civil unions for lesbians and gays.

That and the fact that, as “a provisional Yankee,” she can “draw out not only the differences but the resonances and connections between New England and Southern histories and remind sometimes complacent locals that as late as 1860 a slave ship left New London harbor on the way to Africa to smuggle slaves.”

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