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Women and the Civil Rights Movement - April 2009


You hardly hear about women and the civil rights movement. I am a black woman who wants to learn about the black women who were important in that movement. Where should I start?

-- Phyllis Dixon - Monroe, Louisiana


You are correct in noting that the vital contributions made by Black women during the civil rights movement are often ignored by orators and writers. Even the February Black History Month kits usually include only a few women. Certainly, one hears about Rosa Parks — as well they should — for her act of bravery and defiance which sparked the civil rights movement. In 1955, Ms. Parks refused to give her bus seat to a White man. Her subsequent arrest helped lead to a mass boycott of Montgomery, Alabama’s downtown stores. There were thousands of Blacks who participated in that nonviolent protest, most were women, many of whom were domestic workers. And, lest we forget, the fledgling movement might have died without the work of Ms. JoAnn Gibson Robinson and the Montgomery Women’s Political Council.

Many of the civil rights leaders were also religious leaders who came from theologically conservative churches that were dominated by charismatic male preachers. In some of the religious denominations — Black Baptists, for example — it was taboo for women to lead men. In other words, women were deliberately kept from leadership positions in Black churches (and in activities heavily influenced by Black Christians), and when Black women did have important roles they did not get the credit they deserved.

Ella Baker

Take, for example, Ella Baker, a lifelong activist who worked with every major civil rights leader from W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King Jr., yet never asked for accolades. In the 1940s, Ms. Baker worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as secretary and director of branches. She did dangerous work, including traveling throughout the South recruiting members, raising funds, and organizing local campaigns. The relationships that she built in the 1940s formed the foundation for the civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s. By 1957, Ms. Baker had left the NAACP and moved to Atlanta to organize Martin Luther King Jr.'s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She did good work there; however, her preference for grass-roots organizing was incongruent with SCLC’s policy of strong central leadership guided by a charismatic leader.

On February 1, 1960, Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, were arrested for staging a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. News of the sit-in protest excited many Black youths who saw it as a new way to challenge segregation laws and norms. Within several months similar protests had occurred in other southern cities. Again, Ms. Baker saw both a need and an opportunity to coordinate the efforts of the student protestors into a broad and sustained social movement. She organized a conference at her alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and out of that conference the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born and so was the freedom movement. The young people from SNCC joined with young people from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1964 Freedom Summer, both of which were coordinated efforts to draw national attention to the racism in the Deep South. It’s a shame that most people don’t know Ms. Baker, the humble and effective organizer, who, for five decades, tirelessly helped build the coalitions and organizations that would one day bring down Jim Crow.

I have always had great respect for people who fought for social justice despite seemingly crushing hostility and resistance. There are few people born on American soil who are as worthy of praise as is Fannie Lou Hamer, a plain-speaking, hymn-singing voting rights activist. In 1962, when Ms. Hamer was 44 years old, SNCC volunteers came to her town to register poor Blacks to vote. It is hard for contemporary Americans to believe, but Ms. Hamer was surprised to learn that she and other Blacks had a constitutional right to vote. The SNCC members asked for volunteers to go to the courthouse to register to vote; Ms. Hamer quickly raised her hand. When she and the others went to the courthouse, they were arrested, jailed, and beaten. It would not be the last time that she would be beaten for trying to vote. For trying to register to vote that first day she was banned from the plantation where she was a sharecropper. But Ms. Hamer was not to be dissuaded. She became a SNCC Field Secretary and traveled around the country speaking and registering poor Black people to vote.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Ms. Hamer knew suffering. She lived most of her life in stifling poverty, working as a field worker at age six. Without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized in 1961 by a White doctor as a part of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor Blacks in the state. In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant's "Whites only" policy, she was beaten savagely by the police. She was refused medical treatment and, consequently, was permanently disabled. On at least one occasion a shooter tried to kill her; Ms. Hammer received constant death threats.

Fannie Lou Hamer is probably best known for co-founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Under Jim Crow, African Americans in Mississippi risked their jobs and lives trying to vote. In 1964, the MDFP challenged the all-White Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention by demanding to be seated. There was high drama and Ms. Hamer spoke in front of the Credentials Committee in a televised proceeding that reached millions of viewers. Ms. Hamer — the granddaughter of slaves and a sharecropper herself with only six years of formal education (the school term was only four months a year) — spoke with power and conviction. In her own way, she is as elegant as Reverend King.

From 1968 to 1971, Ms. Hamer was a member of the Democratic National Committee for Mississippi; this fact alone represented great progress for Mississippi. She ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi Senate in 1971, and successfully for delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1972. Ms. Hamer died in 1977, suffering from breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems. On her tombstone are these words, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark is sometimes called the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement. For at least a half-century, this daughter of a slave worked for the causes of universal literacy, women’s rights, and civil rights, especially the right to vote. She was an influential teacher and leader in South Carolina from the 1930s to the 1980s, and a pioneer in the areas of citizenship education and interracial coalition building.

Ms. Clark began her teaching career at a Black public school on John's Island and, in 1918, she accepted a teaching post at Avery Institute. That year, she was instrumental in obtaining about 20,000 signatures on a petition to have Black teachers hired by the Charleston County School District. Ms. Clark was a central figure and architect of a 1945 court case that forced the Columbia Public School System to make Black and White teachers' salaries equal. In 1956, South Carolina passed a statute prohibiting city employees from joining civil rights organizations, and Ms. Clark was fired by the Charleston school board for her refusal to resign from the NAACP.

After her firing, she accepted a position as the director of workshops at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, an interracial center for civil rights that was run by Myles Horton, a White educator and civil rights leader. At Highlander, Ms. Clark began a citizenship program dedicated to both literacy and political empowerment with the goal to teach Blacks to read and write well enough to pass voter literacy tests, and to teach them to understand their rights and duties as American citizens. For Septima Poinsette Clark, political rights were inseparable from education.

The citizenship program grew too large for Highlander and, so, leaders at the SCLC offered to take over the program. In 1961, the program moved to SCLC and so did Ms. Clark, as SCLC’s director of education. Although she stayed with SCLC for nine years, she never felt that the work of women was respected. She once said of the SCLC’s leadership, “Those men didn't have any faith in women, none whatsoever.” Ms. Clark respected Reverend King and his strategy of nonviolence, but she did not feel truly respected by him. She recalled that when she traveled with him, "He would say, 'Anything I can't answer, ask Mrs. Clark.' But he didn't mean it, because I never did get the chance to speak."

Ms. Clark left SCLC but she remained a teacher and an activist. In 1974, she was elected to the Charleston County School Board. She didn’t work for awards, but others recognized her productive efforts. In 1979, President Carter awarded her the Living Legacy Award, and in 1982, Ms. Clark received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian award.

If you look at photographs and videotape of civil rights demonstrations you will notice the overwhelming number of women and girls. We don’t know their names and don’t remember their faces, but we can respect their unwavering work, sacrifices, and bravery. Fortunately, some of their testimonies have been preserved at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. There you will find the poignant first-hand accounts of men and women, some Black, some White, some multiracial. Most are short reports and include email addresses. Here is one from Ms. Doris M. Bailey.

“I was a student at Jackson State University in 1963. I was one of many who marched on Capital Street during the boycotts. I was a demonstrator after the ambush of Medgar Evers. We marched with flags and signs. The cops followed us, snatching flags and signs out of our hands. We were stopped by cops and placed in jam-packed paddy wagons. We continued to sing and rock the van. The driver put the heat on us and we had to stop all actions in order to reserve oxygen in the hot van. We were jailed at the Fairground in stockades. These stockades were used to house animals during the fair season. We spent the night there and were fed pork-n-beans and white bread. We were released the next day. Some of us met at the "Smack Over" (a college hangout) to discuss the success of the march. The march was very successful. It appeared that every young person in the city was there. I am proud to have participated in the Movement to fight injustice in Mississippi. There are many of us foot soldiers out here who have never had a voice.”

I am also pleased to see that a number of books have been written in recent years that examine the role of women in the civil rights movement. Here are some that I recommend:

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby. North Carolina Press, 2003.

For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Chana Kai Lee. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, by Tananarive and Patricia Stephens Due. One World/Ballantine, 2003.

Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement 1830-1970, by Lynne Olson. Scribner, 2001.

Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, by Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor), V.P. Franklin (Editor). New York University Press, 2001.

Undaunted By The Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967, by Harry G. Lefever. Mercer University Press, 2005.

Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon. University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

April 2009 response by
David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum