Opinion writer

BARBARA LEE: The role of women in the civil rights movement is extremely important and, actually, women were central to the civil rights movement.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: That’s Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, herself a veteran of the civil rights movement, expressing a core truth: that the movement was powered by women.

And because of the time they lived and the kind of work they did, their stories are rarely memorialized in the same way the stories of men like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and Andrew Young are.

ANDREW YOUNG: There were strong women throughout this movement that nobody knows. The men had a hard time getting along with each other because they were all young and each had a different approach to civil rights. They were very high-strung and brilliant and competitive young men. And it was Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women that basically kept the peace amongst the six civil rights organizations and sat in on all the meetings. But they didn’t let her speak at the March on Washington. She was a great speaker.

CAPEHART: Dorothy Height would go on to live to be 98 years old. Still fighting for justice until the end. In his eulogy, then-President Barack Obama paid tribute to her commitment by recounting an episode that took place just two months before she died in 2010.

[Obama speech:] Last February, I was scheduled to see her and other civil rights leaders to discuss the pressing problems of unemployment — Reverend Sharpton, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Marc Morial of the National Urban League. Then we discovered that Washington was about to be blanketed by the worst blizzard [on] record — two feet of snow.

So I suggested to one of my aides, we should call Dr. Height and say we’re happy to reschedule the meeting. Certainly if the others come, she should not feel obliged. True to form, Dr. Height insisted on coming, despite the blizzard, never mind that she was in a wheelchair. She was not about to let just a bunch of men — (laughter) — in this meeting. (Applause.)

CAPEHART: Hi, I’m Jonathan Capehart and this is “Voices of the Movement,” a series from my podcast “Cape Up” sharing the stories and lessons of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement and using them to figure out where we go from here.

During the civil rights retreat in January at Sunnylands in California, we all sat down for a remembrance dinner. Various leaders stood up and told us about those they worked with who are no longer with us.

Andrew Young, King’s chief strategist, was assigned to memorialize Dorothy Height. And he used that moment to herald other women who contributed so much to the success of the movement, who are no longer around to share their own stories at a time when the world seems ready to recognize them.

YOUNG: There could not have been a civil rights movement without the sacrifice, the vision, the support and the hard work of the thousands of women.


Andrew Young pays tribute to the women of the civil rights movement at a dinner at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Jan. 4. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

CAPEHART: One of those women was Dorothy Cotton. As the director of the Citizenship Education Program, she was the only woman with an executive position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

YOUNG: In Atlanta, with the civil rights movement, Dorothy Cotton came down to work with us in voter registration and citizenship and we joined her with Septima Clark, a schoolteacher from Charleston.

CAPEHART: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to call Septima Clark the “Mother of the Movement.” Clark believed that “literacy means liberation.” So she worked with the Highlander Folk School to set up Citizenship schools, which were designed to educate disenfranchised voters and empower black communities.

YOUNG: And she taught literacy on the ferry boats going back and forth between John’s Island and Charleston. Every morning and every night every afternoon she was there to teach people to read and write, to register to vote. And it was about an hour and fifteen minute ferry ride and she was there every morning making sure that the longshoreman got their reading lesson in every day.

CAPEHART: Eventually, Clark combined her efforts with Dorothy Cotton’s citizenship education program with the SCLC.

YOUNG: Together, we recruited and trained 6,000 smart leaders from Virginia all the way over to East Texas.

The names you heard about most: Fannie Lou Hamer; Amelia Boynton in Selma. Almost all of these people, all of the students from [the] Albany, Ga., freedom movement, all of them came over to Dorchester center. And Dorothy Cotton and Septima Clark basically kept them for a week. We helped them to know how to read. And we didn’t teach them to read like we taught children to read because we assume that everybody can read something. And our job was to convince them that they could read. So we started with you have a Coca-Cola sign and you hold it up. “What does that say?” They can all read “Coca-Cola.” And then you spell out the syllables with them. They knew them. But we we taught them the sounds of the reading that they knew and then they conducted classes in their homes, in their churches, and their beauty parlors. We trained a generation of leaders between 1961 and 1966. That was Dorothy Cotton’s work. We had somebody from just about every county in South Carolina, about half of the counties in Georgia, and about half in Alabama right across the black belts from east Texas all the way up to Virginia.

That was the foundation of the civil rights movement upon which, when Martin Luther King moved in and started a movement, there were already people there that we had trained.

CAPEHART: The people trained by Dorothy Cotton and Septima Clark went back to their communities and helped educate and train more potential voters. Those people included women like Amelia Boynton.

YOUNG: Amelia Boynton from Selma, Ala. — went to Selma as a 19 year old girl in 1929. She worked in voter registration and community organizing throughout her life. She actually led a get-out-the-vote caravan across the Black Belt of Alabama for Obama’s reelection to his second term. From 1929 to 2008, she was an active voice, and nobody really knows much about her. But that’s [why] we named my newest granddaughter Amelia. After Amelia Boynton.

CAPEHART: Young also talked about Coretta Scott King. We all know her name, but there’s so much more to her story.

YOUNG: With Coretta Scott King, you had a young woman who at 15, came home from choir practice only to find that our house had been burned down. And her father got her together with her sister, and brother, and mother, and had them kneel and pray. First to thank God that no one had been hurt. Then he asked them to pray for the sick people who felt, for some reason, that [it was] necessary to burn their home down. And then he asked them to pray that they never feel any bitterness or hatred in their heart. He asked them to forgive their enemies.

And so it speaks to two things; it speaks one to the strength and power and determination of the women in the South. But because this happened probably sometime in the 1940s, it talks about a nonviolent tradition that existed in the south independent of Martin Luther King or any of the rest of us.

And I used to say to Martin, and Martin would say, “You know, if we hadn’t married these little country girls we probably wouldn’t be where we are today.”

So everything we talk about. Women who have been suffering in this country and [the] South forever, silently. But they pushed us men.

CAPEHART: Young includes his first wife, Jean Childs, among those women.

YOUNG: I was in New York settled down to a good job [and] had bought a home. The Nashville sit-in story came on. My then wife, with two children and one on the way, said, “It’s time for us to go home.” I said, “We just bought this house. We’re home.” She said, “No, this is not home.” I said, “What do you want to do?” She said, “Sell this house. Quit your job.” I was working with the National Council of Churches in New York. I said, “What are we going to do then?” And she said, “I don’t know. God will make a way.” We came back south and ended up with Martin Luther King.

CAPEHART: Young would go on to become the United States ambassador to the United Nations, as well as the mayor of Atlanta.

YOUNG: Some years later, when I saw her ex-boyfriend and I said rather arrogantly, “I guess you’re glad you didn’t marry him.” And she said, “Shit, if I’d married him he’d have been the mayor of Atlanta.”

CAPEHART: After I got back from Sunnylands, this idea stuck with me. The idea that we’re not recognizing the women of the movement in the way that we should.

LEE: Oftentimes, women in the movement unfortunately were in many ways not seen, but we saw them anyway because we knew who they were and we knew that the movement never would have happened had it not been for these heroic women, who really in many ways was the backbone of a lot of the movements.

CAPEHART: That’s Rep. Barbara Lee of California.

I wanted to talk to Lee because she’s embodies the legacy of those who came before her and how the movement evolved in the years after King’s death. Bet you didn’t know she was a member of the Black Panther Party when she was a young activist.

I spoke with Lee at the U.S. Capitol about her involvement in the late stages of the civil rights movement. An activism that started literally at birth.


Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) talks with The Post's Jonathan Capehart on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 2. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

LEE: The issue of infant mortality with African American women. The huge huge numbers of black babies dying and mothers, in terms of maternal deaths, it’s enormous in this country. I am so obsessed with with turning this around and I think this comes from my birth.

My mother, when she was pregnant, needed a C-section. She went to the hospital in El Paso, Texas, and they would not allow her in. They denied her admittance into the hospital because she was black.

The way my mother got in the hospital was really quite remarkable. First of all, we all know the history of sexual abuse, and assault and rape of black women. My great grandmother was a domestic worker in Louisiana for [an] Irish household. The head of the household sexually abused and repeatedly raped my great grandmother. She couldn’t do anything about it. That was her job. Out of these rapes, she had two children. One was my grandmother. My grandmother looked like she was white because her father was Irish. And so my grandmother had to come up to the hospital and insist that my mother get in because she said this is my daughter let her in. And you know everyone kind of looked at each other. They couldn’t quite figure it out because my mother, she was beautiful. She had green eyes. She was fair skinned, but she knew her father, my grandfather, was all the way black. And so they couldn’t quite figure it out. And so finally they let my mother in the hospital because they thought that she was okay enough, white enough to get in, because she was the daughter of my grandmother who they thought was white.

LEE: But she did finally got get in due to my grandmother. They left her on what my mother calls a gurney and in the hall. No one tended to her. She became delirious and she almost died. A nurse walking by saw her called a doctor and they rushed her into the emergency room. It was too late for a C-section. She almost died. And they delivered me using forceps. Pulled me out. And I almost didn’t get into this world. I almost didn’t make it. So my mother almost died in childbirth, and I almost didn’t get here. There was a scar above my eye for years, up to five or six years ago right above my eye where the forceps pinched my eye as they were pulling me out.

And so this probably is the beginning of my passion and commitment for justice and equality and the end of racism and sexism and all the -isms that we know. Because for me, I almost didn't get here. So I have to repay the debt that I owe for just being able to breathe.

I had to fight to be the first [black] cheerleader at San Fernando High School.

CAPEHART: What?

LEE: Yeah! When we moved to California, I wanted to be a cheerleader at San Fernando High. It was a selection process. If you didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes, you were not selected. I had to go to the NAACP at age 15 and say, “I want to be a cheerleader. Can you help me?” The NAACP helped me. We went up to that school. We made them change that selection process to an election process. I tried out in front of the student body. I won, and I was the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High. That same year, a Japanese American, Jamie Tanaka, won also. So I broke that glass ceiling at age 15. So you know that was my first election.

CAPEHART: After high school, Lee went on to work with the Black Panther Party, an organization that took up arms and was the philosophical opposite of the nonviolence preached by King during the civil rights movement. An unsurprising position for its members to adopt when you know the Black Panther Party was originally formed to protect African American neighborhoods from acts of police brutality. The Black Panthers also provided community resources, such as education, legal aid, transportation assistance and more.

LEE: I believed in social activism and ending poverty and equality and justice and Black Panther Party had a 10-point program: feeding hungry children. I worked on the Breakfast program. We provided free medical care through the George Jackson Medical Clinic. I bagged groceries with my children. People didn’t have food to eat. They didn’t have shoes. And so we bagged shoes and food and gave them away at survival rallies. And so part of what I did with the Black Panther Party as a community worker was just work hard in the community with the party on their 10-point program. I got involved in politics through Shirley Chisholm.

CAPEHART: Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress, and the first of her race and gender to run for president.

LEE: She insisted that I register to vote, and I did. But I actually got her hooked up with the Black Panther Party and that’s when the Black Panther Party conducted its first voter-registration drive. I’ll never forget this, but I asked Huey Newton to hold a fundraiser for Shirley Chisholm, and he did. We raised money for the Shirley Chisholm presidential primary. She was so happy to receive their endorsement. From what I remember, she said something to the effect that she wishes that the country didn’t need a Black Panther Party, she wishes we did have a society that was just and fair, and the end of racism. But until that happened we needed the Black Panther Party.

CAPEHART: So were there women in the movement or in your life who you looked to as role models as, you know, this is what I want to be? This is who I want to be like?

LEE: My mother unfortunately passed away four years ago. She was a phenomenal woman. She passed away at 90. She was the first African American civilian [worker] at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was one of the first 12 students to integrate the University of Texas at El Paso. Sometimes, I look back at some of the lessons that she taught me and now I realize exactly what she meant and what she did and why she told me never look back and to keep moving forward. Don’t let anybody turn me around.

Believe you me, she took the backseat to no one. She was active with the NAACP. She was active with the Phillis Wheatley Club in El Paso, Texas. She’d always taught us that we were equal to boys and to men and boom — I grew up and realized, ‘Boy, my mother was really far ahead of her time,’ because this was way before the feminist movement.

CAPEHART: Why don’t you think women get the recognition they deserve for their role in the civil rights movement?

LEE: Boy, that’s a very deep question and it’s hard to understand, but yet to understand it, because we still haven’t addressed the issues around gender equity and sexism and racism. So as an African American woman, I still feel this each and every day. We’re fighting to be seen and I have to just say “Hidden Figures,” the movie, was phenomenal. I mean that’s a clear example. Look at Coretta Scott King, for example, another one of my “sheroes.” She was really active in the peace movement and she was very influential with Dr. King in terms of really talking about world peace and why we have to fight for peace and justice. So the society has just never, unfortunately, valued women as equals. That day is over though. It’s over. We’ve broken a lot of glass ceilings and we’re still breaking a lot. But I think for the generations coming after us, these girls aren’t going to have to fight the same battles that we have to fight.

Black women, especially . . . we’re not out for equality for ourselves but it’s always breaking those barriers for others so that others can won’t have to go through this crap that we have and continue to go through. I think that’s extremely important to recognize and so black women in the movement in the civil rights movement in the struggles right after slavery — Harriet Tubman Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells — all these unbelievable brilliant black women.

CAPEHART: Women like those we’ve talked about in this episode, like Dorothy Cotton.

[Archival audio montage begins]

DOROTHY COTTON: So I said to my then-husband George Cotton, “I think I’ll go down to Atlanta and help them out for about six months. And I stayed 23 years because the civil rights movement just became my life.

CAPEHART: Fannie Lou Hamer.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with your telephones off of the hook because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America? Thank you.

CAPEHART: Dorothy Height.

DOROTHY HEIGHT: Women have what I call a humane sense. They’re concerned about what’s going on with children, with the sick, with the elderly. They have learned. And they will join hands — they might have their disagreements and whatnot — but when it comes down, I always say, women know how to get things done.

CAPEHART: Coretta Scott King.

CORETTA SCOTT KING: But I was blessed with parents who taught me not to let anyone make me feel like I wasn’t good enough. And as my mother told me, you are just as good as anyone else. You get an education and try to be somebody. Then you won’t have to be kicked around by anybody and you won’t have to depend on anyone for your livelihood. Not even a man.

CAPEHART: Shirley Chisholm.

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. 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.

[Montage ends]

CAPEHART: And so many more.

LEE: Their stories are just beginning to be told now and there. Their boldness and how they were the backbone of so much. And that’s who we are and still we rise.

CAPEHART: Coming up on “Voices of the Movement,” George Wallace — and his fateful meeting with Shirley Chisholm that upset one Barbara Lee.

Listen to Episode 4: The story of Bloody Sunday and today’s pilgrimage to Selma | Listen to Episode 6: How segregationist George Wallace came to ask for forgiveness

Related:

Listen to the entire “Voices of the Movement” podcast series

Read more from Jonathan Capehart