“I went down to register in 1963,” Cooper recalled in a 1965 interview with Jet magazine. “The next day I was fired from my job as a practical nurse at a rest home. I’ve tried to register several times, even before Dr. Martin Luther King came. They rejected me once and told me I failed the registration test. The other times, they never let me in the place. Once I stood in line from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., but never got in to register.”
As Cooper, 54, waited that warm winter day in Alabama, the local sheriff, James G. Clark, and his deputies arrived outside the courthouse to break up the line. Clark poked Cooper in the neck with his billy club, according to a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) account. “He came up behind me and jerked me,” Cooper recalled. “I jerked loose, pushed him back and told him not to twist my arm the way he was doing.”
Then Clark made the mistake of hitting Cooper. She spun around and landed a hard right hook, knocking the sheriff to the ground.
“He hit me. Then I lit into him,” Cooper later explained. “I guess I just got delirious or something, so I won’t deny that I hit him. I probably hit those other deputies, too. They hit me with that billy stick in the eye. In an alley away from the crowd and while I was handcuffed, they pushed me again, and jugged me with those clubs. I had bruises all over and a bad cut in my head.”
During her victory speech, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris acknowledged the generations of women “who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including the Black women, who are often — too often — overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy … I stand on their shoulders.”
Many scholars and historians agree that Harris is standing on the shoulders of many unsung superwomen of racial justice.
“So many Black women have laid the groundwork for this moment and for the vice president-to-be,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington. “Because they did kick down the doors and they laid the groundwork, they were the ones who were the architects of the voting rights movement. There are lessons to be learned from what they did and how they showed up.”
Black women played critical roles in organizing, strategizing and putting their lives on the line for political freedom. Black women — even during slavery — planned resistance movements and organized for freedom.
“Each woman is like a step in a staircase that continues to go up. Each step rises,” said CeLillianne Green, an author, poet, lawyer and historian. “There are so many women whom we never heard of. But for them, there is no Kamala D. Harris. It’s the quiet power and dignity of Black women who you don’t know about who paved the way.”
Harris will be sworn in as vice president more than 170 years after abolitionist Sojourner Truth traveled the country preaching against slavery and injustice and advocating for women’s rights, even when White women in the suffrage movement resisted being connected to the anti-slavery movement.
In 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Truth took on those who had the audacity to believe that women were less than equal. “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone,” she proclaimed, “these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side-up again.”
A stand for the race
Black women challenged the notion of a country that once claimed it was a democracy but counted Black people as three-fifths of a person.
“History has its own power and black women more than ever before need its truths to challenge hateful assumptions, negative stereotypes, myths, lies and distortions about our own role in the progress of time,” Darlene Clark Hine wrote in the preface to “Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia.”
Consider the courage and audacity of Ida B. Wells, born enslaved in 1862 near Holly Springs, Miss., six months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Wells became an author, newspaper owner and anti-lynching crusader.
In 1913, Wells, who openly criticized racism among White women in the suffrage movement, created a suffrage group focused on Black women in Chicago. “When I saw that we were likely to have a restricted suffrage and the white women of the organization were working like beavers to bring it about, I made another effort to get our women interested,” she wrote in her autobiography “Crusade for Justice.” The women who joined her “were extremely interested when I showed them that we could use our vote for the advantage of ourselves and our race.”
Months later, she went to Washington to attend a parade organized by suffragists Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, who wanted the parade segregated by race. When the women stepped out on March 3, 1913, a day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, they were jeered.
Wells had no intention of marching in the back. She stood on the sideline until the Illinois delegation approached, then stepped to the front.
“I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition,” she wrote later. “I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”
In August, when Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he began by acknowledging Ella Baker, a phenomenal political strategist and organizer.
“Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way,” Biden recalled. “Give people light. Those are words for our time.”
Baker, often called a social architect of the civil rights movement, was a field secretary for the NAACP. King recruited her to help run and organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then she helped form SNCC, which organized Freedom Rides to challenge segregated interstate transportation; and Freedom Summer, a campaign to register Black people in the South to vote. Baker helped organize the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, which challenged the all-White Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi.
“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use,” Baker said, “and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence.”
One example was provided by Fannie Lou Hamer, a SNCC community organizer, who co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Black-and-white footage from the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City shows her making her way through a crowd of men. She wore a print summer dress and carried a white purse on her left arm.
When she arrived at the witness chair, Hamer put her purse on the table and without notes proceeded to speak for 13 riveting minutes, telling the credentials committee and the world about the injustices suffered by Black people. Hamer recounted being stopped by police after trying to register to vote, being fired as a sharecropper, about 16 bullets shot into the home of friends where she slept. She described the beating she endured in a Mississippi jail after attending a voter registration workshop in South Carolina.
“After I was placed in the cell,” Hamer said, “I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, ‘Can you say, “Yes, sir,” nigger? Can you say, “Yes, sir?” ' ”
It was Annell Ponder, a teacher, librarian and voting rights worker from Georgia, who also attended the workshop. “They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.” Ponder refused to say “Yes, sir.”
When the men came for Hamer, they forced her to lie face down on a bunk and beat her with a blackjack.
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Hamer said. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Then she got up, dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, grabbed her purse and made her way out of the convention. Her party was not seated. But a year later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing voter suppression and discrimination.
The Selma-to-Montgomery march was planned in the living room of Civil Rights activist Amelia Boynton in 1965, after Boynton asked King to come to Selma.
On March 7, 1965, Boynton and more than 600 people, including Lewis, gathered to march, according to the National Park Service. Determined, they began to peacefully walk from Selma to Montgomery. But on the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, local police and state troopers attacked them, spraying tear gas and hitting them with billy clubs. “Police beat Amelia unconscious for refusing to retreat,” according to the NPS. "Television and newspaper cameras recorded the violence. Over seventy marchers were beaten and seventeen hospitalized. The event became known as Bloody Sunday.”
The photo of Boynton, beaten unconscious and a state trooper looming over her, went viral, published in newspapers around the world to show the hypocrisy of American justice, according to an SNCC account.
In 1964, Boynton became the first Black woman in Alabama to run for U.S. Congress. Her campaign motto: “A voteless people is a hopeless people,” according to SNCC history. “Despite being defeated, she earned eleven percent of the local vote, where only five percent of Blacks were registered.”
In 2015, Boynton died at age 104, only months after she crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge with President Barack Obama on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Sit-in, kneel-in, lie-in
Some Black women freedom fighters are unknown by history and some listed only by first names — such as Angela, one of the first Black women to appear in records in the colony that would become Virginia. Some are famous, like Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the first Black women to serve as a college president. Bethune later became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Some Black women were simply unintimidated by threats of violence.
Diane Nash was a founding member of SNCC, “and few were more militant than she,” according to SNCC history. “When violence stopped the first Freedom Ride in Alabama,” she was insistent rides continue.
“The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome,” she told a movement leader, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, according to SNCC. “We are coming into Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride.”
Another courageous Black woman was Daisy Bates, the only woman to speak on the platform during the official program at the 1963 March on Washington. Bates took the podium in a couture hat and cat-eyed shades: “We will kneel-in; we will sit-in until we can eat in any corner in the United States,” she intoned. “We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote.”
On Sept. 20, 1964, the home of Aylene Quin was bombed, after Quin opened her restaurant in McComb, Miss., to SNCC workers and freedom fighters.
In an affidavit collected by SNCC, Quin wrote that in May 1964, she began receiving threatening telephone calls. “A lady used to call me and say things like, ‘Do you think the civil rights bill will do you any good?’ I said, ‘It will do me no harm.’ And then she said, ‘If I knew where you lived, I would come and kick your black ass.' ”
Days later, on a Sunday night, “while my two children were asleep in the bedroom and a pregnant babysitter was there, my home was bombed,” Quin wrote. “The bomb tore up my whole house and all the furniture. My two children, luckily, were only slightly injured.” The babysitter also survived. The bomb had been planted underneath the porch.
“One day after the bombing,” according to SNCC history, Quin traveled to D.C., where she met privately with President Lyndon B. Johnson “and demanded increased federal protection for Black people in McComb and the South.”
Seeking higher office
On Jan. 25, 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first Black woman elected to Congress, stood on a platform in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn. She waved to the crowd and declared her bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
“I am not the candidate for Black America, although I am Black and proud,” said Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket. “I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. … I am the candidate of the people of America.”
Chisholm ran against Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), who would go on to win the Democratic nomination but lose in a landslide to Republican Richard Nixon.
Nixon would face another Black woman during his impeachment hearing, when Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) gave a speech seared into the pages of history.
Jordan became the first Black women in U.S. history “to preside over a legislative body when she was elected president pro tem of the Texas Senate in 1972,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “In 1972, Jordan was one of two African Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Jordan delivered the opening remarks at Nixon’s impeachment hearing. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” she said. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
If members of Congress could not find enough evidence for impeachment, she said, “then perhaps the 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”
Nixon resigned before the full House could vote to impeach him.