Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg: Energized By Issues

By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Baxter Buck


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By the time we reach a certain age, most of us have a modest list of achievements we take pleasure in claiming. Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg ’62 names just a few:

  • Her children, Cheryl Rubenstein, Minda Leigh Wurzburg and Richard Wurzburg Jr. 
  • The Memphis chapter of the Panel of American Women, which she founded in 1968 on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Authoring Tennessee’s first antidiscrimination in employment and public accommodations law in 1972 
  • Her work as the first national chair of the Women and Minorities Task Force of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism 
  • Winning the Women of Achievement award for courage 
  • Chairing the Martin Luther King memorial 
  • Founding the Jazz Society of Memphis

Her list could be twice as long. After all, this is the woman who:

  • Was a moving force behind the Concerned Women of Memphis and Shelby County, a group credited with helping to avert a second strike by the sanitation workers a year after the one that brought King to Memphis where he was killed 
  • As a President Gerald Ford appointee to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, hobnobbed with the likes of Bella Abzug, Coretta Scott King, Jean Stapleton and Gloria Steinham in the campaign for women’s rights 
  • Served on the Minority Business Resource Center of the Federal Railroad Administration, the State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Tennessee Governor’s Panel on Church Arson 
  • Introduced mediation to Tennessee as a viable (and much less expensive) alternative to litigation, particularly in divorce cases

Wurzburg dismisses her accomplishments with a shrug.

“I didn’t have any particular talent so I became an activist.”

Yet her passion for causes remains strong, perhaps because it is deeply rooted.

She recalls taking stands as a schoolgirl. She resigned from her high school sorority because she thought blackballing was “rude,” and volunteered to take the side of the Little Rock Nine when her class debated the pros and cons of school desegregation.

“There’s no question that being a member of a minority myself sharpened my empathy for victims of prejudice,” she says. “I was born in 1940. By the time I was five years old I knew all about the Holocaust.”

In fact, she had a personal experience with discrimination at her alma mater where she was denied sorority membership because she was Jewish.

“My father’s reaction to anti-Semitism always was, ‘Well, they can’t keep you out of the honor society!’” she smiles.

Still, she is appalled by some of her early opinions.

“I initially saw the Memphis sanitation workers strike as merely a labor issue and even wrote Mayor Henry Loeb a letter telling him to stay the course.” Too, “I was opposed to busing because I didn’t understand how it could be constitutional. It wasn’t until I understood how right affirmative action is in the employment arena that I understood the need for remedial measures to overcome the present effects of past discrimination in all arenas. That helped me understand race consciousness to aid integration.”

Once she “got it,” no grass grew under her feet. Beginning with the Panel of American Women (or PAWs as they are sometimes affectionately called), she began to plow a major swath through the attitudes and customs of Memphis.

The panel, founded in Kansas City in 1956 to “increase awareness of prejudice, discrimination and racism,” was designed to be apolitical. Members represented distinct groups—African Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews and the “white majority.” The purpose of the Memphis group was “to discuss the nature of prejudice and the effects it has on our fellow citizens.” It had two goals: “To demonstrate to others how enriched our lives have become since we have let diversity enter into them, and to exhibit our concern about racism in our midst, hoping to solicit discussion and action.”

As soon as she heard about the national group, Wurzburg knew it was right for Memphis in the troubled period following King’s death. Recruiting panelists from a broad cross section of women, she began to lead the group to discuss issues.

“We worked for almost a year on getting the panel members to come to know and trust each other,” she recalls. “Each category met and decided what the others should know about them. We had a long way to go. I remember asking a Catholic sister if she had hair under her veil!”

Through long, grueling meetings and weekend retreats, the group worked through lessons on current events and conflict management. It wasn’t unusual for heated discussions about racial, cultural or religious issues to last all night.

“The black panelists were such patient mentors bringing us white folk along,” Wurzburg says. Through it all, a bond was formed that has lasted 36 years.

Rhodes history professor Gail Murray has this to say about the group in her book Throwing Off the Cloak of Privilege:

“Panel members accepted invitations to speak before church auxiliaries, civic groups and neighborhood associations (usually exclusively white groups). Wurzburg served as the volunteer coordinator for six years. She learned whose chemistry worked well together and often used the same combinations of four panelists. When participants presented a program, they played up the fact that they were ‘just housewives’ speaking only for themselves.”

Wurzburg recalls, “We always ‘dressed up’ as if we were going to a luncheon and we tried hard to be nonjudgmental and nonconfrontational. Our focus was on our common experiences, how we were so much alike, but we so enjoyed our differences.”

Murray reports: “In 1974, when the court ordered the Memphis city school system to achieve at least 20/80 percent faculty integration in all its schools, the panel members made seventeen presentations in three days of in-service training.”

The group lasted more than a decade and spoke to more than 100,000 people. The panelists were known for their ladylike demeanor, their heartwrenching stories, their nonconfrontational approach, their willingness to go anywhere and speak to any group. And their courage.

Did they have an impact? Attitude change is notoriously difficult to measure.

“I can tell you this,” Wurzburg says. “People still come up to me in the grocery store and say things like, ‘My church started a day care center as a result of the panel’s presentation. God bless you.’ It’s very touching.”

While the panel chinked away at attitudinal change, a crisis arose that required more direct action. An uneasy truce was forged between the city of Memphis and the sanitation workers after the King assassination, when the city recognized the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as a union with bargaining rights. As the term of the one-year contract neared completion the union began to push for wage increases and better working conditions, such as wearing uniforms. In an attempt to raise consciousness in the white community, workers would go into stores in affluent neighborhoods wearing their garbage-soiled clothes, and patrons would leave without completing their purchases. There were persistent rumors that the union intended to release rats into posh East Memphis neighborhoods.

Murray writes: “Lester Rosen, chair of the newly formed Memphis Human Relations Commission, and AFSCME official Jessie Epps contacted Wurzburg and asked for PAW’s assistance in swaying public opinion. Rosen and Epps believed they stood a better chance of bringing a women’s network to their side then the white male business establishment.”

Wurzburg recalls, “National PAW regulations prohibited us from taking sides in any political or labor dispute, but there was nothing to stop individual women from getting involved in political action. The union leaders organized a ‘home tour’ so we could see the wretched living conditions the sanitation workers and their families had to endure. They asked me to encourage as many women as possible to come.”

Wurzburg went into action, recruiting women from her broad network of friends and fellow activists to go on the tour and bring along their own contacts. Enough women showed up to fill three buses, and many of them got their first look at the ghettos where the sanitation workers lived.

Wurzburg recalls, “The city-union clash aside, everyone was so appalled by the poverty we saw, we began to get organized as soon as the tour was over. We chose a steering committee to draft a report on our findings, making sure that we had representation from both political parties and several religious faiths. We were careful not to take sides with the city or the union. Our only demand was that both sides negotiate in good faith to avoid a strike—this time in June.”

After several fruitless skirmishes with the city council, the group organized as the Concerned Women of Memphis and Shelby County (CWMSC) and continued to pressure both sides of the dispute to negotiate their differences. Wurzburg says that Jerry Wurf, AFSCME’s national director, told her privately years later that he gives CWMSC credit for averting a second strike.

Murray writes: “City officials denied that the CWMSC had any influence on their decision making; however, the city did negotiate on all the union’s demands, averting the threatened second sanitation workers’ strike.”

The victory wasn’t won without a price.

“We saw the ugly side of people then,” Wurzburg recalls, “the scary side. The panel wasn’t threatening to anyone, but CWMSC was rocking a lot of boats. Women were getting out of their traditional places. We got hate mail and threatening phone calls.”

Her own most chilling experience was receiving her children’s daily itinerary through the mail.

“There was no question about what it meant,” she says.

Wurzburg’s friend Carol Berz says, “Jocie proved over and over that a lot of bullies evaporate when you stand up to them.”

The effectiveness of CWMSC cemented Wurzburg’s growing conviction that desired changes could be wrought with greater dispatch by changing laws than by attempts to change people’s attitudes. Thus, with no legal training, she undertook to write Tennessee’s first anti-discrimination law in employment, housing and public accommodations. As a new member of the Tennessee Commission on Human Rights appointed by Governor Winfield Dunn in 1972, she learned that the commission had no enforcement powers.

“We were one of only nine remaining states without enforcement legislation,” she recalls. “It was a great opportunity to take the best from all the other states’ laws and learn from their mistakes. I had a lot of help because all the affected parties—EEOC, NAACP, NOW, etc.—knew that the remaining states would pattern their laws after ours. It took nine months to write it. This was in the days before computers, so every change along the way meant I had to hire somebody to retype the whole thing. It took another seven years to get it passed.”

Her growing interest in employment law lured her to seek, with the help of Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock, appointment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I thought a year of law school would help,” she explains, “so I went to law school knowing I didn’t want to be a practicing attorney. In fact, the only thing about studying law that excited me were the cases and laws that created new rights.”

She didn’t receive the appointment so she finished law school, passed the bar and got her first job in 22 years at the age of 41.

Like so many freshly-minted barristers, Wurzburg found that the cases she was assigned dealt with “the firm’s ‘other problems’—divorces and collections. I ascertained immediately that litigation was not the best way to solve a dispute, so I hung out a shingle in uncontested divorce work, helping folks negotiate their marital dissolution agreement.” It led to her passion for mediation.

In 1984 Wurzburg attended a mediation conference in New Orleans that gave her “just what I was looking for—vocabulary, tools and skills.” She found an eager audience for mediation among consumers and judges and received “the world’s best press” from local news outlets.

“Unfortunately,” she smiles regretfully, “my fellow attorneys were less enthusiastic!”

As usual, she tackled her new crusade with boundless energy. According to Chattanooga mediator Carol Berz, “Jocelyn gets major credit for the establishment of the Mediation Association of Tennessee, which she started in Memphis and spread statewide. In fact, she has had a great deal to do with just about everything that has to do with family law in this state.” For details on Wurzburg’s approach to mediation, visit wurzburgmediation.com.

Despite a very satisfying political and professional career, Wurzburg has her share of regrets which she shares openly.

“In the civil rights days, if I had had more maturity I might not have alienated so many people. I didn’t know how to do anything in moderation.”

She regrets that she was not more conscious in her college days that the civil rights movement was going on and even what a few of her fellow students were doing on behalf of the cause. However, her first feminist consciousness-raising group was an adult education course taught by Sissy Raspberry Jones ’59 on campus in 1972.

“Our class got together at our last reunion and talked about what Southwestern did to prepare us for the world,” she says. “I was amazed to hear some of my classmates’ stories and I think they were equally surprised to hear mine.”

She speaks of her former marriage with sadness.

“Mine was one of many marriages that were casualties of the civil rights and feminist movements. It was a potent and emotionally charged period. If spouses were on different sides of an issue the times tore them apart.”

There is no sadness about her 22-year relationship with Bobby Bostick to whom she refers as “my dear companion. He was my high school crush I wasn’t allowed to date because he wasn’t Jewish. We re-met by chance six months after my divorce and we’ve been together ever since.”

As Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg approaches traditional retirement age, she occasionally talks about slowing down, but it’s hard to imagine her without a cause. She does travel extensively, including all-women sailing trips with cronies from the Panel of American Women.

According to fellow panelist and sailor Donna Sue Shannon, “She had us on the boat last summer brainstorming a master plan for changing the world. She will never stop. Issues energize her.”