Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement
Growing up as a black woman in America, you learn very early on that we face a triple barrier: race, gender and class. We also carry the burden of slavery, rape, lynching and other atrocities, while trying to maintain family ties in a America that has historically depicted us as childlike, aggressive, hypersexual and violent. The result of that construct and the accompanying racist fears and forced subjugation it justifies has been counterintuitive: black women in America are caring, loving and talented human beings who live their lives constantly at risk from the greater world. As they worked hard to escape stereotypes in the fight for justice and equality, these women activists rose above adversity and opened doors for people of all races.
Although black women are the core of organized African American life, their influences within American culture has often gone unrecognized as they challenged systems of racism and discrimination. In that regard, you could say that all black women are activists. Ordinary women who get up every day, went to jobs that they were overqualified for and underpaid to do, working to keep their families intact, investing in their children’s future, and often under the most duress circumstances, represent the many faceless and nameless women who did all they could to create a path for the next generation. If this is the case, then all black women in this book can be defined as activists. Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters — all of our womanly ancestors — helped make America what it is today. They were the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Willingly, they answered the call.
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Building on existing networks of kin and friendship embedded in local institutions such as clubs and churches, black women knew who to turn to and how to get things done. This kind of local knowledge from “everyday kind of people” is how social movements organize at a grassroots level. Recruiting friends and relatives through existing networks, meeting in safe spaces such as beauty parlors and at sorority meetings, and building support using door-to-door political canvassing, women quickly found themselves on the front lines of boycotts, voter registration drives, demonstrations, and even acts of civil disobedience that landed them in jail. Still, they persisted.
In time, historians began reshaping the story of civil rights by focusing not only its national leaders but also on grassroots activists. Not surprisingly, there is a gender dimension to this reframing: Most of the national leaders of the movement were men, but the energy and support at the grassroots level was often supplied by women leaders who laid the groundwork for the civil rights revolution, but were hushed in historical texts.
[bookmark: _Hlk527202177]When we think of the early known black woman activists, we often turn to Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Truth and Tubman were activists who were distinctly different, but shared common ground in that they were both born into slavery, neither could read or write, yet they each managed to turn this nation upside down with their individual stories of trial and triumph. Truth worked to abolish slavery, promote equal rights for women, and eradicate the use of alcohol among men and women, while Tubman, often referred to as the “”Black Moses”” of the Underground Railroad, dedicated her life to creating safe passage for slaves to escape to freedom. But they did have major philosophical differences between them regarding slavery.
Truth was patient and an obedient slave. Once freed, she looked at the big picture and believed that slavery could end peacefully by moral persuasion, but it would take time. She became a willing activist, giving antislavery speeches at abolition meetings and women’s rights conventions to build sentiment against the institution. Truth fought within the system, using hymns and songs to relax a hostile audience before she gave a speech, and when she spoke of the emotional suffering she endured being auctioned off from her family to another slaveowner, she moved the audience to tears. During the Civil War, when she met President Lincoln in 1864, Truth told him he was doing a good job.
In contrast, Tubman was disobedient and fought back when she was beaten by her slaveowner. She had no patience with slavery. As a freed woman, she undertook a personal crusade against slavery by helping family members escape and later, anyone willing to travel the Underground Railroad to freedom. Unlike Truth, Tubman fought outside the system using hymns and songs as a code to alert the slaves it was time to leave for the north. She also carried a revolver, which she pointed at the head of any tired runaway slave who wanted to turn back. During the Civil War, Tubman believed President Lincoln was dragging his feet about freeing the slaves, and she didn’t want to meet him.
According to Carlton Mabee’s book, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, Truth and Tubman finally met in Boston in August of 1864 and he wrote, “”Truth tried to persuade Tubman that (Abraham) Lincoln was a real friend to blacks, but Tubman insisted he was not because he allowed black soldiers to be paid less than white soldiers.”” [CITE]
Truth and Tubman’s different backgrounds and ideologies truly reflect the wide range of approaches that have affected the civil right movement in a myriad of ways. Their stories and others like them not only help deepen our understanding of the movement as a whole, it deconstructs the false narratives that suggest that black women either played subservient roles in movements for liberation and resistance, or were absent altogether.
The early years of the women’s rights movement date back to 1848 when for the first time small groups of women who had been working individually joined together in the National Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, where nearly 300 people were in attendance. Here they laid out a list of rights that women did not enjoy at the time such as the right to attend college, own property or enter male dominated professions such as medicine and law. But their worst offense was that they rendered nearly invisible the black women who labored in the suffragist vineyard, and looked away from the racism that tightened its grip on the fight for the women’s vote in the years after the Civil War. Frederick Douglass was invited to speak. No black women were in attendance.
[bookmark: _Hlk527222532]During the antebellum era, black women abolitionists like Truth, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sarah Redmond, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Margaretta Forten, supported universal suffrage at a time when the power of the vote was exclusively for white men. Universal suffrage continued to be the goal after the Civil War. During the 1860s, divisions about strategy erupted over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that extended political power to black men but not to women. The suffrage struggle itself took on a similar flavor, acquiescing to white supremacy with the belief that white woman would be degraded if black men preceded them into the franchise. There was also a deep, patriarchal strain that came during the postbellum period where black men argued that since they had to protect their women and children, they needed to lead. While many black women found this offensive and saw this as nothing more than sexism and misogyny, some women found it heartening to be protected from outside forces that were trying to exploit them. It is why women like the poet Francis Ellen Watkins Harper supported the “Negro Suffrage” side of the argument, agreeing with Frederick Douglass that it was more important to support the enfranchisement of black men over black women. This position was also supported by the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) a white organization that attracted some black women to its ranks. This group focused on state legislatures, and some black women suffragists like Watkins Harper served as a state delegate from Pennsylvania at national conventions. But staunch suffragists like Anna Julia Cooper, were particularly effective in emphasizing to black women that they required the ballot to counter the belief that “black men’s” experiences and needs were the same as theirs.[CITE]
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many black women joined local women’s clubs and further organized at the national level in order to accomplish their aims for change and reform. In 1896, the National Federation of Afro-American Women merged with the National League of Colored Women to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), with activist Mary Church Terrell as its first president. Unwelcome in the mainstream suffrage movement, black women’s clubs and organizations became central to their support of women’s suffrage because they believed in the power of the vote. Club members organized voter education campaigns in their communities, circulated petitions calling for women’s suffrage, and worked in political campaigns to obtain the ballot. By 1916, the NACW passed a resolution in support of the woman suffrage amendment, and its vehicle for action was the Equal Suffrage League, which mobilized clubs nationwide to support the movement.
By the early 1900s, luminaries like Terrell and the noted anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett became more deeply and publicly engaged. Their participation, along with others in the civil rights movement was encouraged and facilitated by a number of factors. One of three amendments passed during Reconstruction to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for African Americans, the Fourteenth Amendment and ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” This clearly repudiated the Supreme Court’s notorious 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that a black man, even if born free, could not claim rights of citizenship under the federal constitution. Unfortunately, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court ruled that racially segregated public facilities did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a decision that helped establish Jim Crow laws throughout the South for decades to come. The ratification of the Constitution together with the Plessy court decision became the impetus for civil rights activism. Many women became active in local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization founded in 1909 that took the lead in raising public awareness of lynchings. Besides creating organizations and clubs, they filed lawsuits, participated in boycotts, wrote articles, published books, and in some cases became persuasive speakers who traveled nationally and internationally on lecture tours. Because of their outspoken and divergent viewpoints from both the civil rights and suffrage movements, black women activists faced regular public disapproval, even from black men. Yet under severe restrictions, these new leading voices would pave the way for social and economic justice.
The United States gave women equal voting rights in all states when the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920. Black men, who had been given the vote after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, had already been disenfranchised due to paramilitary violence, and federal- and state-sanctioned voter discrimination laws that included voting taxes and literacy tests. These actions eventually precluded black women from voting as well. In the meantime, while former white suffragists from the North celebrated the vote, they were uninterested in fighting discrimination against women who were suffering racial discrimination, as white supremacy reigned victorious throughout the South. It would take another half-century — and a civil rights movement with black women in supporting roles — before the black community would become fully enfranchised, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Another organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), was founded in 1935 by civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, with the aim of improving the quality of life for African-American women and families. NCNW still exists today as a non-profit organization that reaches out through research, advocacy, and social services in the United States and Africa. In 1946 Mary Fair Burks founded the Women’s Political Council (WPC) as a response to discrimination in the Montgomery League of Women Voters, which refused to allow African-American women to join. The WPC not only sought to improve social services for the African-American community, they are famously known for instigating and supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black women were relentless in their attempts to make meaningful engagement with the suffrage movement, not only because they believed in the cause but because they knew it was important that they were present and fighting for their rights both as women and African Americans.
Activists like Ella Baker represented another path to activism. A strong and principled woman who worked as a field organizer for the NAACP in the 1940s, by the end of World War II, Baker’s efforts helped the NAACP grow its membership from 50,000 to over 450,000 members, with its largest expansion In the South. When Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker, who joined in 1957 and became its first “temporary” executive director, often bumped heads with the men in the organization, especially male ministers like King. When sit-ins swept the South that were mainly led by college students, she signed on with the newly organized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she served as a mentor to the rising generation of student activists. An impassioned believer in participatory democracy, Baker’s motto was “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”[CITE]
Throughout the South, black women were crucial to the civil rights movement, serving as organizational leaders. They protested, participated, sat in, mobilized, created, energized, led particular efforts, and served as bridge builders to the rest of the community. Ignored at the time by white politicians and the media alike, with few exceptions they worked behind the scenes to effect all of the changes the movement sought. Daisy Bates created an NAACP youth council in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, and later provided emotional and physical support to the “Little Rock Nine” who desegregated the high school in 1957. Septima Poinsette Clark served as the director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School, and later spread the concept of citizenship education throughout the South. Highlander created the Citizenship Education Schools, a program Clark led which trained over 25,000 people, and played a major role in registering black voters across the South. Later, the program was transferred to the SCLC because the state of Tennessee was threatening to close the school. And then there was Diane Nash, who was instrumental in organizing and leading the Nashville sit-ins while a student at Fisk, and then went on to become active in SNCC. After being denied the right to register to vote in Ruleville, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer became a field secretary for SNCC and the driving force behind the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the all-white state delegation chosen for the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
This is why it is important to note that Rosa Parks’ popular image as a tired seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, was far from the neophyte many believed her to be. For years, she had been active in her local NAACP, and attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School during the 1930s. It was Parks’ act of refusal that struck a chord with millions of black women who were tired of being verbally abused and physically assaulted. If it had been merely a protest about riding the bus, it might have shattered, but Parks’ action went to the very heart of black womanhood, and as a result, black women played a pivotal role in sustaining that movement into a yearlong boycott.
In fact, this iconography extends to all the women of the civil rights movement: Leaders like Baker were overlooked until scholarship was written and introduced by African American woman scholars. Myrlie Evers-Williams, Betty Shabazz, and Coretta Scott King are often seen as the dutiful wives and respectful widows who solely dedicated their lives to preserving their husbands’ legacies, when they achieved far more during and after their husbands’ lives. Angela Davis remains somewhat trapped in a time-machine bubble for her afro and clenched fists instead of the extensive scholarship she has created over the past decades on economic, social, racial, and gender justice. It is also not surprising that Pauli Murray, the gender non-conforming activist and legal scholar who coined the term “”Jane Crow”” for the sex discrimination black women faced, and was highly instrumental during the civil rights movement, is rarely mentioned. Murray worked with King, but was critical of the lack of female leadership in his movement. Her book, States’ Laws on Race and Color (1951), has been referred to as the “bible” of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling which declared separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.
[bookmark: _Hlk527829631]But the civil rights movement was more than just a middle-of-the-road kind of movement, activists like Baker and Murray also had links to the nonaligned black Left, which expanded during the 1930s and 1940s in response to the ravages of the Depression as well as to heightened racial violence. Black women artists, writers, journalists, and activists including Grace Campbell, Esther Cooper Jackson, Louise Thompson Patterson, Marvel Cooke, Claudia Jones, Shirley Graham DuBois, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Charlotta Bass were among the group of radicals that historian Eric McDuffie calls “Black left feminists.” [CITE] Although not all of them would embrace the term “feminist,” they understood that black women faced the “triple oppression” of race, gender and class. Most adopted a global perspective that connected the fight for racial justice in the United States to liberation struggles in Africa, the Caribbean, and other Third World nations. They also joined a host of Left and labor organizations, including the Communist Party (USA), the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the National Negro Labor Council, the National Negro Congress, and the Civil Rights Congress, among others, to push through an equal rights agenda. These groups remained active largely in the North and to a lesser extent in the South, until anticommunism and Cold War repression decimated their numbers.
While black women have been essential leaders across social justice movements, the labor movement is no exception. Despite historical segregation that kept women and black workers out of some of the most powerful labor unions in the United States, black women like Maida Springer Kemp, Clara Day, Addie Wyatt, Hattie Canty and Johnnie Johnson who dedicated their lives to organizing were often ignored by the history books. They fought long and hard so that all working people can realize not just basic workplace rights, but a life of dignity and respect. Their efforts attracted thousands of women and people of color to unions, and laid the groundwork for the peak of the civil rights movement. They also worked closely with organizations such as The Urban League, SLCL, CORE and the NAACP, to support orchestrated legal challenges that would eventually produce victories like the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black women worked to translate these and any other public victories into concrete local results and initiatives.
With all the work they did and for all they achieved, black women made little progress in convincing their male counterparts of their right to exercise full leadership in the civil rights movement. When the March on Washington in August 1963 was being planned, women were relied on as organizers, recruited as marchers, and featured as singers, but they were not granted a speaking voice at the March. Instead, their participation was to be relegated to A. Philip Randolph saying a few words about their contributions to the struggle, and then invite a group of women to take a bow. When the women fought to be recognized, the male leaders allowed Daisy Bates to read a speech that was written by the NAACP’s John Marshall. Indeed, this 142-word speech, which read more like a pledge to support male leadership, was the only words spoken by a woman at any length at the March. Rosa Parks got to say eight words. Josephine Baker, who was also on the dais, was not allowed to speak. Parks and the actress Lena Horne were sent back to their hotel because Horne was trying to get press coverage about Rosa Parks as the woman who started the civil rights movement, not Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly, the civil rights leaders, who relied on and coveted these women’s hard work, had great difficulty moving beyond their belief that women were second-class citizens. Not only did they ban the women from speaking, they directed them to march separately from and behind the men. After the March, when the male leaders made their way to the White House to meet with President Kennedy, the women were left behind. This exclusion created a moment of clarity.
Quiet as it has been kept, Bethune’s NCNW scheduled a debriefing the day after the March to discuss the treatment the women received both during the March as well as in the movement. [CITE] NCNW held a second meeting in November 1963, where Murray spoke of the key roles women have played in civil rights work, only to be rebuffed at the March. The bigger issue was that black women had to not only deal with the civil rights struggle, but they also had to address sex discrimination more aggressively from their own men. Soon after, the women began to tie their civil rights work into a feminist perspective.
By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement shifted gears, and a new generation of black women came to the fore to play an important and influential role in the growing black power movement. After the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the younger activists no longer saw nonviolent protests as a viable means of combatting racism. They believed that desegregation was insufficient and only through the deconstruction of white power structures could a space be made for black voices to give rise to a collective black power. While there were different strategies and tactics between the civil rights and black power movements, their fundamental goals often converged. For example, while the civil rights movement owes its standing to Brown, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, it was black power activism that built the black political machines that actually got black people elected into office.
[bookmark: _Hlk533359268][bookmark: _Hlk527234284]This younger generation of women held leadership roles in various black nationalist organizations, including the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, while at the same time fighting against the sexist ideologies of their male members. They worked towards bringing attention to issues of gender identity, classism, racism, and sexism. Notable leaders include Elaine Brown (the first Chairwoman of the Black Panther Party), Angela Davis (leader of the Communist Party USA), like Denise Oliver (Young Lords), Fran Beal (SNCC, Third World Women’s Alliance), Kathleen Cleaver (National Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party), and Assata Shakur (member of the Black Liberation Army). All of these women were targeted by the United States government for their activism.
If the women’s suffrage movement emerged from the abolition movement, the women’s liberation movement grew out of the struggle for civil rights. When this second-wave feminist movement, led by Betty Friedan and later Gloria Steinman gathered steam in the late 1960s, many black women felt alienated by the main planks of the movement, which largely advocated for women’s right to work outside the home and expansion of reproductive rights. Earning the power to work outside the home was not seen as an accomplishment by black women since most of them had to work to support their families. But what frustrated them the most was that the women’s liberation movement continued to do what the suffrage movement did before them, which was hinder the involvement of minority women due to racist sentiments, coupled with a narrowly-oriented set of goals that favored white upper-and-middle class women.
As the black power movement went into decline in the late 1970s, many black women continued their fight within a growing black feminist movement. Newly formed organizations such as Third World Women’s Alliance and the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) sought to address issues unique to African-American women such as racism, sexism, and classism. Though the NBFO had disintegrated by 1977, another organization, which formed just a year after the NBFO in 1974, the Combahee River Collective, which included scholars and writers such as Cheryl Clarke, Gloria Akasha Hull, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith, turned out to be one of the most important black feminist organizations of our time, as it argued that the liberation of black women would lead to freedom for all people. Perhaps the most notable piece to come out of the Combahee River Collective was the Combahee River Collective Statement, which helped feminists expand on ideas about identity politics.
Though invited to participate within the women’s liberation movement, many women of color cautioned against the single focus on sexism, finding it to be an incomplete analysis without the consideration of race or class, which impacted access to education, health care, housing, jobs, legal justice, with poverty and violence permeating their lives. Mobilization efforts on the part of Latinas, Native Americans, and Asian American women also challenged traditional feminist and civil rights organizations to broaden their representation to include an even wider diversity of women’s voices. Likewise, while many lesbians saw commonalities with women’s liberation through the goals of eponymous liberation from sex-based oppression, which included fighting against homophobia, others believed that the focus was too narrow to confront the issues they faced. By 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the phrase “intersectionality,” which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black or of being a woman. Instead, Crenshaw argued that each concept should be considered independently while including how interacting identities frequently compound upon and reinforce one another.
Between 1970 and 1990 we witnessed the decline of the civil rights movement and the weakening of the push for the greater integration of blacks into mainstream American society. Several factors contributed to this development. First, there was the passing from the scene, mainly from the deaths of key civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. Those who replaced them generally lacked the leadership skills, talent, and charisma to capture and sustain a national movement. More importantly, it was the civil rights movement’s success in eliminating de jure discrimination in crucial areas, and getting many white Americans to see how racial discrimination violated the nation’s basic creed of equality of opportunity, which led many to believe that civil rights laws were well-settled. As a result, the interest of many African American civil rights groups and activists began to diminish as they began to give greater attention to taking advantage of the opportunities wrought by the success itself.
Women leadership also waned through either death, retirement, or changing paths and directions. By the early 1970s, Diane Nash removed herself from the national spotlight. Fannie Lou Hamer died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer at age fifty-nine in 1977. Pauli Murray died of cancer in 1985. Ella Baker worked until her death at age eighty-three in 1986. Elaine Brown returned to school and then lived in France for most of the 1990s, and then later returned to the U.S. to focus on prison reform. Once Angela Davis was acquitted, she completed her degrees, focused on scholarship by writing books, worked on social justice initiatives and continued teaching. And after Assata Shakur was convicted of the murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster in New Jersey, she escaped from prison while serving a life sentence for his murder in 1979, and has lived in exile in Cuba since 1984. This and other circumstances clearly left a void of black women activists that could not easily be filled.
Organizations that led the fight for civil rights and desegregation were floundering as well. By early 1967, SNCC was approaching bankruptcy as liberal funders refused to support its overt militancy. After leadership issues with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), SNCC was no longer an effective organization, and largely disappeared in the early 1970s. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the SCLC leadership was transferred to Ralph Abernathy, who presided until 1977. After Abernathy stepped down, the organization suffered from leadership woes, before reinventing itself as a national and international human rights organization. In the 1990s, the NAACP ran into debt and scandal, and was saved when Myrlie Evers-Williams stepped in as its president in 1995 to clean up the mess. Roy Innis, who served as National Chairman of CORE until his death in 2017, redirected the organization’s mission during the 1970s to support conservative political positions. Having suffered from government oppression, the killings and arrests of its members, which collided with internal conflict, the Black Panther Party’s demise occurred around 1982. And finally, the National Urban League, whose current president (as of this writing) is Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, appears to be one of the few organizations able to transition smoothly into a new era as it continues its efforts to promote economic and political empowerment, as well as working to reduce violence and poverty in urban black America.
During the 1980s and 1990s, blacks faced affirmative-action backlash, a crack cocaine epidemic that had a devastating effect on black communities, and modern forms of social and judicial discrimination that resulted in blacks having the highest rates of incarceration of any minority group, especially in the South. On the other hand, more blacks moved into the American mainstream financially with the proportion of families with median incomes of $50,000 or more expanding from 5 percent of all black families in 1969 to 14 percent by 1990.[CITE] But while blacks were finally making substantial financial and political strides in the post-civil rights era, they found themselves facing resistance from white people who saw the advancement of African Americans as robbing them of their entitlement to middle-class privileges, which perpetuated a backlash atmosphere that advanced the conservative movement.
While national organizations lost their power and movements faded away, with the help of black local politicians, local grassroots initiatives sprang up around the country in black communities to rail against the crack cocaine epidemic and other social ills, like police brutality and housing discrimination. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the field of grassroots advocacy had exploded over the past decade. Previously, grassroots initiatives were defined as a “boots on the ground” strategy, which worked very well for black women activists in the past. Now, with the expansion of technology and social media, the incredible value in grassroots advocacy has superseded traditional organizations, and has expanded with professionals at the top of their game utilizing emails, tweets and social media shares.
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