Civil rights scholars acknowledge that women were the backbone of the movement. “There is a Chinese saying, ‘Women hold up half the world’, civil rights pioneer Julian Bond once commented to NBCNews.com. “In the case of the civil rights movement, it’s probably three quarters of the world.” Many argue that it was primarily women who laid the ground work for the movement. Writer Lynne Olson says that black woman activists in Montgomery, Alabama had already been fighting bus segregation for years by the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. She writes that hundreds of women volunteered behind the scenes to push the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Park’s act of defiance. Olson makes clear that Parks was not just a tired seamstress, but a long-time activist who planned to be arrested.
It is true that most women who participated in the movement were volunteers who stayed in the background cooking meals, raising funds and handling logistics. However, women participated in the movement at every level. Photographs from the era show women on the front lines facing clubs, taunts, dogs, fire hoses and jail. Jamia Wilson, in a piece for the the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project,” recalls her mother’s stories about attacks on black women during marches. “According to my mother, black women’s bodies were often battlegrounds for opponents of civil rights.” She says her mother spoke of being kicked repeatedly around her reproductive organs for sitting at a lunch counter. Women also played leadership roles in the movement. They were educators who developed literacy programs, strategists who organized protests and writers who fought racism with their words. Why then, is Rosa Parks the only female name most Americans recognize as a hero in this fight for freedom?
In recent years, there’s been a great deal of discussion about this question. Bond places the movement within the context of the 1950’s saying, “There were relatively few women in public leadership roles,” in those days. Still, he says,… “that does not excuse the way some women have been written out of history.” Some point to the movement’s roots in the black church, where deference to male leadership was the norm. Others remind us that the 1950’s and 60’s , the country was caught up in a toxic brew of racism and sexism. Black women had to deal with racism from society as well as sexism from white men and black men. In “ Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement: 1960-1970,” Tiffany Joseph writes, “ Because of their gender, black women were expected to serve in clerical and domestic positions within civil rights organizations…. and were ostracized if they deviated from those expectations.” It seems that in the movement’s quest for “black manhood,” women’s rights and roles were rarely considered. A key example is the now famous story of how women were shut out of leadership in the 1963 March on Washington, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC.) No woman gave a major speech at the March or accompanied movement leaders afterwards to meet with President Kennedy.
Much has also been written about the lack of full recognition and leadership roles for women in other organizations, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party. SNCC gets decidedly mixed reviews on this issue. In “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC,” Martha Noonan, a black volunteer and one of the book’s editors writes, “I had no sense of being mistreated as a woman.” On the other hand white volunteers, Casey Hide and Mary King, have written of “widespread and deep-rooted assumptions about male superiority in SNCC.” About the Panthers, prominent female members, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown, recall that male chauvinism was alive and well in that organization despite party rhetoric about male-female equality.
Because of this history, I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by helping to write women back into the civil rights story, starting with Pauli Murray. Murray was a civil and women’s rights activist and lawyer. As NAACP chief council, Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the “bible” of the civil rights movement. Anne Braden, a white woman journalist and teacher, worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., who praised her in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Septima Poisette Clark was an educator who organized “citizenship schools,” which trained community leaders to teach the disenfranchised how to read, write, pass literacy tests and vote.
I could go on naming women who shaped the movement. Do you know the names, Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Daisy Bates or Fannie Lou Hamer? This 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, honor Dr. King’s the dream of equality for all by finding out who they are.