February 3, 1964
Carole Merritt ’62, a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was jailed, along with five other SNCC workers, in Canton, MS. In all, nearly two dozen members of SNCC and CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) were arrested in Mississippi over a two-week period in late January and early Feburary on charges ranging from conspiring to intimidate a family to publishing libel and burning trash without a permit. Charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor in connection with a boycott of white merchants, Merritt was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail.
At an emergency meeting on January 27, called by Susan Finnel ’66, the chairman of the Vassar Committee on Civil Rights (VCCR), President Blanding stated the college “cannot take an official stand on this issue” since “we have people in this college that are not in favor of integration.” The President declared however that Vassar would “strongly support any member of its community who takes a stand sincerely…. I feel so deeply that our students, our faculty, our employees, should all be concerned about these things. We should do anything we can to better the situation.” At a meeting on January 31, the president advised students about effective measures individuals might take to aid Merritt, including contributions to the legal defense fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—specifically designated to aid Miss Merritt, if the donor wished—and letters to senators and congressmen from students’ home state favoring the civil rights legislation currently before Congress.
Sponsored by VCCR and addressed to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a petition with 986 signatures was delivered to Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, and letters were sent to New York Senator Javits, Mississippi Sentor Eastland and Senators Lausche and Young from Ohio, Merritt’s home state. The petition requested a federal investigation into the “harassment, intimidation and arrest” of civil rights workers in Canton.
Miss Merritt was released on an appeal bond on February 22. Saying she was “delighted to speak at Vassar,” she returned to the campus on May 5 and spoke of her experiences in the South. Anticipating Merritt’s visit, Adraenne Bernstein ’65, the Vassar SNCC coordinator said, “I think it will be very beneficial to the Vassar community. Carole is someone with whom students can identify, yet she has had the kind of experience that is remote to most members of the community. I hope that the 986 people who signed the petition will attend the meeting to hear her speak.” The Miscellany News, The New York Times