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HOW BLACK WOMEN CONTRIBUTED TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT (Despite Its Sexism)

by Darius Spearman (African Elements)

INTRODUCTION

While the civil rights movement was largely successful, it wasn’t without its challenges. In fact, it was plagued with sexism. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Diane Nash was the only Black woman among the 15 speakers that day. Even then, she was added as an afterthought at the behest of women activists. Black women were present at every major event in the struggle for racial justice. However, because they exercised leadership in non-traditional ways, their contributions are largely overlooked.

HOW SEXISM IMPACTED CIVIL RIGHTS

Black women have been a cornerstone of the civil rights struggle for decades. Like racism, however, sexism and patriarchal male supremacy are deeply entrenched systems of oppression. Inevitably, the Civil Rights Movement’s gendered organization defined African American women’s social location in the movement. (Robnett 1663) Black women activists were routinely excluded from the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. Even women like Daisy Bates and Ella Baker, who held key positions and established civil rights organizations, received little recognition as movement leaders within the Black community.

Daisy Bates is best known for her role in the integration of Arkansas’s Little Rock Central High School in 1957. (Image generated by Artspace.aI)

Daisy Bates is best known for her role in the integration of Arkansas’s Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Bates was born in Huttig, Arkansas, and became active in the Civil Rights Movement as a young woman. She was president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to challenge segregation and discrimination in the state. Bates played a key role in the integration of Little Rock Central High School, where she served as an advisor to the Little Rock Nine — the nine African American students who integrated the school under the protection of federal troops. Local whites fiercely resisted the school’s integration. As a result, Bates and the students face threats of violence as they attempted to attend classes.

Ella Baker was one of the most important yet often overlooked civil rights activists. She was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. Baker had a different style and conception of leadership that advocated for decentralization and participatory democracy. In 1929, Baker joined the Communist Party USA and became active in the Harlem branch of the party. She worked closely with A. Philip Randolph, one of the founders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and helped organize the first successful sit-down strike against Pullman Company management in Chicago.

In 1931, Baker organized the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), becoming its executive secretary. During the 1950s, Ella Baker founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and organized hundreds of volunteers across the South to register voters and organize voter drives. In 1965, she became Executive Director of the SCLC and later served as its chair.

Although exact numbers are not available, it is clear that women formed a substantial portion of the participants. Women were channeled away from formal leadership positions and confined to the informal level of leadership, where gender created a construct of exclusion. In many churches, for example, women are consistently given responsibilities in the kitchen, while men are elected or appointed to important boards and leadership positions. (Barnett 170)

Despite their lack of public recognition within the movement, Black women paid an economical price for their involvement. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College in Montgomery, was ultimately forced to resign from her position.

As a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Robinson played a key role in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott — a coordinated refusal of African Americans to ride city buses in protest of segregation and discrimination. She also helped coordinate carpools and other transportation options to ensure that African Americans could get around the city during the boycott. Robinson was a skilled organizer and played a vital role in the success of the boycott, which lasted for over a year. Despite economic retaliations, however, she and other Black women continued their activism.

WOMEN AS “BRIDGE LEADERS” AND INFORMAL LEADERS

While often excluded from formal leadership positions, Black women often filled informal leadership roles. Whereas formal leaders occupy organizational offices, informal leaders are “actors within the organization who have personal but not official power.” (Robnett 1665) They were left out of decision-making processes regarding organization, structure, and future strategies

Whereas gender exclusion prevented strong leaders from becoming formal leaders, women shifted their leadership efforts toward bridging the movement to communities.

For instance, although it propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. into a position of national recognition as the leader of the “new” movement, the Montgomey Bus Boycott was nevertheless an event that was initiated by Black women active in the community. (Barnett 168)

A bridge leader is a person who acts as a bridge or intermediary between different groups or communities within a social movement. Bridge leaders play a crucial role in building relationships and fostering collaboration between the different groups and helping to create a more cohesive and effective movement. Black women as bridge leaders were influential figures within social movements. Their efforts to bring different groups together can be the key to success. However, neither their lack of visibility nor their gender shielded them from the brutality of white supremacy.

FANNIE LOU HAMER (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer was a fearless activist in the Civil Rights Movement. (Image generated by Artspace.aiI)

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917 and Ruleville, Mississippi, where she spent most of her day-to-day life as a field worker and sharecropper. This experience gave her valuable knowledge about what it meant to live in a culture with entrenched racism, discrimination, and poverty.

Hamer played a significant role in the movement. With unparalleled courage, she fearlessly positioned herself such that she was constantly in great danger. In August of 1962, Hamer traveled to the town of Indianola, Mississippi, with a group of civil rights activists attempting to register to vote. When they arrived at the courthouse, they were met with resistance and forced to take a so-called “literacy test” in order to be registered. The test was designed to be difficult, and many African Americans who took it were unable to pass even if they were literate. Still, Hamer and other activists persisted in their efforts to register to vote.

After leaving the courthouse, the group’s bus was intercepted by local authorities. While in police custody, Hamer and several of the other activists were beaten by police officers. When Hamer arrived home, she learned that her boss, angry that she had tried to register, fired Hamer and ordered her off the plantation.

During the summer of 1963, Hamer traveled to Chicago to attend a conference organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. There she met James Forman, Jr, a student activist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Together he and Hamer founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the all white segregated Mississippi delegation to the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

AI generated image of Fannie Lou Hamer being severely beaten while in police custody
Fannie Lou Hamer was severely beaten while in police custody while traveling home from a workshop in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. (Image generated by Artspace.ai)

As a member of SNCC, she helped organize sit-ins and became active in the Mississippi movement during the 1962 Freedom Rides. On July 9, 1963, while traveling home from a workshop in Jackson, Mississippi, she and several other activists were brutally attacked by white police officers. They were severely beaten, thrown into jail, and charged with violating state laws prohibiting picketing and parading without a permit. In her own words, Hamer described the beating as follows. “They beat me until my body was hard, my nose was broken, and my face was swollen and cut in several places.” Hamer’s beating left her with visible scars and a permanent kidney injury. She spent three months in prison and was denied medical treatment for her wounds. After being released, she went on national speaking tours to raise funds for legal fees and promote voter registration drives. Speaking about the racist violence she faced, she said,

I want to tell my people something today. I ain’t gonna run away from nothing no more. You got me running around here trying to find out where I’m supposed to go next. And I know God done put me in jail three times already. He done took care of everything except getting me elected president. — Fannie Lou Hamer

Despite the risks, Hamer and other civil rights activists continued their efforts in the Voting Rights struggle. Their activism played a crucial role in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put a number of federal measures in place to protect African Americans in exercising their right to vote.

CONCLUSION

The Civil Rights Movement was a powerful force for good, but it wasn’t without its flaws. African American women have been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and liberation for centuries. Yet, for years, the Civil Rights Movement was defined by its male heroes. Today, the Civil Rights Movement is often remembered for men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, while the contributions of Black women are rarely acknowledged. Unfortunately, their contributions which include everything from organizing protests to bridging the gap between formal leaders and the community, needs are often forgotten and overlooked in wider society. Yet, without the tireless work of Black women, the Civil Rights Movement might not have succeeded.

SOURCES

Barnett, Bernice McNair. “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class.” Gender and Society, vol. 7, no. 2, 1993, pp. 162–82. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/189576. Accessed 18 Dec. 2022.

Elliott, Aprele. “Ella Baker: Free Agent in the Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 26, no. 5, 1996, pp. 593–603. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784885. Accessed 18 Dec. 2022.

Hamlet, Janice D. “Fannie Lou Hamer: The Unquenchable Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 26, no. 5, 1996, pp. 560–76. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784883. Accessed 18 Dec. 2022.

Robnett, Belinda. “African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 101, no. 6, 1996, pp. 1661–93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2782115. Accessed 18 Dec. 2022.

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