The achievements, accolades, and leadership of Black women in social and political movements have often been devalued and made invisible. White washed histories of revolution have exclusively focused on great men and their elites as social leaders. Black women do not get the same recognition as their male counterparts, despite putting in equal effort for political and social freedom. Black women have consistently been a key to social and political movements. Their struggle was structured by the triple constraints of gender, class, and race. Their work has literally changed the world as they dedicated themselves to recording, retelling, and improving racial inequality and also to gender inequality, where their voices were essential.
The civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s has been a constant reminder of the struggle for social and racial justice throughout the United States and the world. A world where the role of Black women was crucial as their experience was defined through racial and gender injustice. Black women have repeatedly been assumed as uninvolved in such organizations despite their prominence, with their stories and struggles removed from history. ABC’s new six-episode series Women of the Movement is based on the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, and her fight for justice for her son’s murder. This struggle and story expose just how much Black women were necessary to the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement influenced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the murder of Emmett Till, and the long history of racist policies in America has always been entwined with a few but great leaders. The quest for manhood, masculinity, and the perceived need to have a male leader framed through the lens of racial patriarchy overshadowed the work of Black women of the movement.
Ella Baker considered the mother of the civil rights movement, noted in an interview:
“The movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s was carried largely by women, since it came out of church groups. It was sort of second nature to women to play a supportive role. How many made a conscious decision on the basis of the larger goals, how many on the basis of habit pattern, I don’tknow. But it’s true that the number of women who carried the movementis much larger than that of men. Black women have had to carry this role,and I think the younger women are insisting on an equal footing”Ella Baker, taped interview with Gerda Lerner, December 1970
Even though Black women did not necessarily seek recognition or the need to be awarded for their services, we cannot continue to praise the movement without naming the names of those whose groundwork has been dismissed, which has often been the work of Black women.
Despite the movement’s prominence in history, contemporary activists will remember it as the Freedom Movement. They defined this revolution as not just a fight for civil rights and law but as a way of equal living. This includes the importance of Black women’s leadership. It’s impossible to declare social equality without liberating Black women from the oppressive double jeopardy of racial patriarchy. Despite their constant need to prove they belong in spaces that they rightly deserved, the relation between politics and gender has always been more than just Black liberation but a liberation that Black women could also benefit from. The undeniable link between class and race has never been denied, but what has commonly been failed to mention is that the triple oppression of race, class, and gender has been at the center of Black liberation, yet, constantly viewed as women’s issues.
Women of the Movement countlessly demonstrates how Black women were dismissed, where their fight during the civil rights movement had unique challenges distinct from those faced by Black men. For example, Mamie Till-Mobley constantly battles the racial patriarchy, with men undermining her case of justice for her son. Her fight to even get her son Emmett Till to her hometown of Chicago after being murdered in Mississippi was just the beginning of the state and the racial patriarchy attempting to dismiss her from her own son’s death.
The show reveals how the police attempt to cover up Emmett’s murder, wanting to bury Emmett’s body right after the autopsy instead of questioning the suspect. Mobley requested for her son’s body to be sent to Chicago. The sheriff rejects Mobley’s plea to the point that Mobley had to turn to her community to help her retrieve her son. Upon that moment, Mobley, rather than accepting the racist, patriarchal trope of behaving hysterically and acting out as the angry Black woman, uses her strength to fight for justice for her son, firing up the civil rights movement.
Women of the Movement justly positions Mamie Till-Mobley’s place in this political movement. She uses her trauma to oppose the system that aims to belittle and systematically oppress Black people. Her fight was larger than life as she did not comply with the submissive role she was given but created an opportunity to have a political stance, achieving greater and personal independence. Furthermore, her ability to share her trauma with the world because she “wanted the world to see what they did to [her] boy” exhibits the link between the personal and the political that Black women with power possessed.
For Black women, politics was integrated into their homes and played a role in how their loved ones would participate in this historical change. Women of the Movement exposes that even though Black women had the ability to be leaders in spite of their pain, they were also mothers, wives, aunties, teachers possessing that nurture to lead with their emotion and intelligence. Mobley led her case, not just as an activist but as a mother, expressing the need to have empathy; she allowed the world to share her pain through her own lenses.
Many of these activists were also involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1909, advocating to disrupt and dismantle discrimination within employment, education, housing, and political affairs. Black women believed education was the key to political and economic freedom. They had taken the role of mentors and teachers. They saw that education was crucial for any sense of liberation for black people. This helped focus on under-represented political issues and disparities within a class, such as capitalism, and how their class constructed the type of racism they experienced.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Despite the contribution of Black women constantly being overlooked, it has never been less than the contribution of Black men. Even though Fannie Lou Hamer broke one of the biggest boundaries of political power that separated Black and White Americans, there is a constant need to explain who she is and her work with African Americans. Her legacy within the civil rights movement lives on today as she advocated the right for African Americans to vote, challenging the political structure of Mississippi and other states that had snatched this power away from the Black community. In 1962, Hamer realized she had the right to vote and began to be a spokesperson, educating African Americans on the importance of voting and its benefit to their community.
“And, you see, you know the ballot is good. If it wasn’t good how come he [Whites] trying to keep you from it and he still using it! Don’t be foolish, folks: they going in there [courthouse] by the droves and droves and they had guards to keep us out of there the other day. And dogs. Now if that’s good enough for them, I want some of it too”Fannie Lou Hamer, I Don’t Mind My Light Shining, 1963
Hamer, alongside Annie Devine and Victoria Jackson Gray, founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) an alternative to the state’s White-controlled Democratic Party. Hamer and other MFDP members went to the Democratic National Convention, to challenge Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation and to be recognized as the official delegation. This party was open to Black and White members from different economic backgrounds, which challenged the traditional Democratic Party that exuded African Americans. Her advocacy for African Americans to vote incorporates women’s rights, understanding that it was also an integral part of American democracy. As a leader within the MFDP, she did not hesitate to criticize Black men for failing to address and advocate for women’s rights. However, she articulated that leadership was not ordained by gender but by hard work and commitment. It’s fair to say that behind the African American right to vote is Fannie Lou Hamer, who made it possible to vote for an Obama in the 21st century.
One of the leading Black women of literature is Alice Walker, activist, author, and poet. The first African American woman to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1966 she participated in the March Against Fear with Martin Luther King. Her participation in this movement played a prominent role. She recorded her experience through her novels and essays to show how they dealt with her time’s social and political issues.
Her first novel “Meridian” was centered around the civil rights movement, affirming its vision for freedom and non-violent society. The novel claimed as a “womanist” novel, honored the Black and female consciousness that arose during the movement. In using the word “womanist” rather than “feminist,” Walker expressed the separation from White feminists who failed to consider race when advocating for women’s rights. A “womanist” is a Black feminist who is “committed to the survival and wholeness of the entire people, male and female.” She is a revolutionary artist who interpreted this movement through fiction and explored the effects of a racist society on both Black and White women and men. Whilst other leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with the treatment of African Americans through speeches, she pursued the art of writing where her words would be everlasting to inspire future generations to continue the fight against struggle.
Probably the most least known Black woman leader yet key member of the civil rights movement was Ella Baker, known as the mother of the civil rights movement. Born in 1903, a granddaughter of enslaved people, Baker spent almost half her life raising political and economic consciousness for African Americans. In 1921 she moved to New York, where she desired to be a social activist, advocating for social injustice that she was raised in. In New York, she developed her advocacy. She got involved in organizations, the first being the Young Negroes Cooperative League in 1930, whose purpose was to improve Black economic power through collective planning. Due to the lack of economic welfare in her childhood, she continuously linked the African American struggle to economic welfare. While many activists focused on social issues, Baker understood that African Americans could not be liberated if they could not benefit economically.
In 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship, inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which helped raise money to fight the Jim Crow laws in the South. Just two years later, in 1955, she was a co-organizer of Martin Luther King’s infamous organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which helped build up the civil rights movement.
“People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job”Ella Baker, Address at the Hattieburg Freedom Day Rally, 1964
Like Fannie Lou Hamer, Baker believed that voting was another key to freedom and that they needed to exercise their voice against the political laws that impacted their lives. As a result, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in 1960. With Baker’s organizational skills and knowledge, it became one of the US’s largest advocates for human rights.
Baker only made a few speeches during her time as an activist. However, her work inspired people like Rosa Parks to speak up regarding injustice. Due to her organizational skills and consistent activism over decades, she has been a founding inspiration, igniting the fire for future generations to build on her work. She traveled all over America to help local activists improve their craft and implement their advocacy tactfully. Deservingly, she gained the nickname “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning someone who passes skills from one generation to another. Her foundation of political and social injustices allowed future activists to continue where she would leave off.
Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King’s activism started before her marriage to MLK and continued after her husband’s assassination. In 1962, she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where she served as a Women Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation disarmament conference. A member of the National Organisation for Women, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and United Church Women focusing on women’s rights, she often met up with her fellow activists, such as Alice Walker. Even though she was never considered a radical feminist, she recognized the biological gender difference between women and men. She realized that White supremacist patriarchy had been the source of all oppression for Black women. Her work always assured that women activists could be just as powerful as men and that women would be able to liberate themselves one day instead of having to suffer and experience sexism that was bound to them silently. In an interview, she proudly acclaimed:
“But they’re [women] are capable of tremendous compassion, love, and forgiveness, which, if they use it, can make this world a better place. they have retained a love of Justice, that they can still feel the deepest compassion, only for themselves but for anybody who is oppressed”Coretta Scott King
Coretta and Martin did have four children. While the children were not a burden to the couple, Coretta’s advocacy was not as prominent as her husband’s. Thus, she turned to music to serve her beliefs, writing poetry and singing about the civil rights movement. In addition, she used her artistic voice to carry on her work, performing in freedom concerts and singing in some of the most precious concert venues, fundraisers, and conferences.
Fundamentally, part of the reason why the public memory of these legendary women is foggier than that of other male activists is due to the exclusivity of the gender-based racial patriachal conception that proposes whose voice should represent African Americans and how radical their voices should be. As a result, these women gave up their prominence within the civil rights movement. They understood that their contributions were more important than reaping the rewards of their work. Yet, we still honor the work of these legendary women who incorporated the oppression of gender, race, and class into their vision of liberation.
Women of the Movement ignites this fuel to remind us of the many women who – understanding that Black men had their dignity scrutinized – were at the forefront for the survival of every Black person – adult and child. Regardless of the triple categories of oppression that prohibited them from being recognized and respected, African American women within the movement performed remarkable things and maintained significant leadership roles. Their organizational skills, sustainability, and nurturing were vital and a necessity to keep the civil rights movement going.