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Women prepare to march on Washington, D.C., 1963
Women prepare to march on Washington, D.C., 1963

African-American women played a variety of important roles in the civil rights movement. They were leaders, demonstrators, organisers, fundraisers and theorists. For them, this was a continuation of the previous work African-American women had put in to fight inequality, as seen in the fight for universal suffrage, anti-lynching laws, full employment and anti-Jim crow laws.[1] African-American women were positioned between two struggles, both sexism and racism.[2] African-American women paid attention to the ways in which race, gender and class interlinked,[3] and fought for equality across all categories. Some historians have argued that the women's liberation movement was born out of African-American women's work towards gender equality as part of their civil rights activism. [4]

Domestic life for African-American women during the movement

African-American women were from the beginning pushed into the American workforce, working outside the home and away from their families. African-American women often desired the opportunity to work more domestic jobs in both their homes and near them, because with both mother and father working hard in the workforce, it was difficult for families to interact or engage in activities similar to the leisurely comforts that white families experienced. Because Black women were forced into these opportunities, "the Black woman has not, in general, had the luxury of viewing herself as oppressed from the standpoint of being female."[5] Because of this, the accomplishments of these women should be appreciated through both a feminist, and anti-racism point of view. Due to their presence in the family and in the community, African American women became natural 'bridge leaders',[6] working in the background in communities and rallying support for the movement at a local level.

Lack of exposure for African-American women

Black women in the 1960s not only organised and led protests for civil rights, but expanded their reach into issues such as poverty, feminism, and other social matters. The "master narrative" would depict a civil rights movement constructed around notable male figures, which neglects to properly recognise female contributors. While women are not typically recognised for their efforts during this time, they were primary characters in executing a powerful and successful movement. African American women played a special role within the Civil Rights movement, serving as bridge leaders due to sexist attitudes preventing them from obtaining higher leadership positions. As bridge leaders, these women formed valuable connections with those unable to gain political power, thus amplifying potential constituents’ voices and communicating their messages within the social movement.[7]

Coretta Scott King at Sheep Meadow in Manhattan Central Park, New York, NY- just after the assassination of Dr. King.
Coretta Scott King at Sheep Meadow in Manhattan Central Park, New York, NY- just after the assassination of Dr. King.

Despite some Black women, such as Rosa Parks, within the Civil Rights movement receiving credit for their work, many female contributors do not receive praise or basic recognition for their service. Most curriculums and early education classes fail to recognize important women in untraditional leadership roles despite the significance of their work. History classes often exclude many female activists, like Coretta Scott King, from their study, thus affecting students' understanding of women's roles in the Civil Rights movement.  

It has been suggested that because of gender ideals, women were more often than not channeled away from formal leadership positions within the American civil rights movement, leaving them to tend to informal leadership positions, when available.[8] This may explain why standard narratives neglect to acknowledge the imperative roles of women in the civil rights movement, and remarkable then, that we have documentation of so many leadership positions that women did act in.

African American author Alice Walker coined the term "womanism" to encompass women of color and their support of female culture and strength. Unlike the feminist movement and its frequent exclusion of minority women, womanism better involves females of varying race and class, thus acknowledging the intersectionality of female rights and reaching to a greater community or group of people.[9] This term's more expansive "focus on the community has meant that, when challenged, Black women have historically put aside any differences that they have had for the greater good."[5] Womanism acknowledges the intersectionality of race and gender found within the Civil Rights movement and thus explains why African American women surrendered time and effort amid sexism and racism.[9]

Roles of women in the movement

Supporting roles

Kathleen Cleaver delivering a speech, 1971
Kathleen Cleaver delivering a speech, 1971

African-American women held together black households and their communities while adapting and overcoming obstacles they faced due to their gender, race and class.[3] Many women used their communities and local church to gain support for the movement, local support was vital for the success of the movement.[10] These women played active roles in homes, churches, social clubs. organisations and communities which supported to main movement.[11] Women in the Civil rights movement provided their time and skills on the front lines and behind the scenes. Some women provided their services by using their restaurants to prepare food for protestors, while others provided housing.[12] Many women opened their stores or homes to create safe-havens where civil rights workers could meet and discuss plans or strategies, some used their careers to raise funds for the cause. Women involved in the civil rights movement included students, mothers, and professors, as they balanced many roles in different parts of their lives.[13] Writing and literature was often used, such as newspaper articles, poems and stories to promote civil rights movement. Women such as Ida B. Wells used their journalism skills to provide protection for black women suffering from sexual violence.[12] It was not uncommon to find women arranging plans to put together the signs which would be held at marches, and leading chants or songs during these influential protests. African-American women would provide for their families and play prominent roles in boycotts, demonstrations while educating children and adults.[3]

Leadership roles

Women not only provided help to those in leadership, but also held important positions in the leadership of the movement. This was a movement of women supporting women, within African Americans fighting for their rights. Student, Judy Richardson, left college to organize projects such as voter-registration drives.[12] Kathleen Cleaver took the risk of being the first woman to serve on the central committee of the Black Panther Party, making her a target of the FBI. Ella Mae Brayboy became the co-director of the voter registration drives sponsored by the Voter Education Project (VEP).[14] Grace Hamilton was the first African-American woman to be elected to the state legislature in the south. Even more women ran for political offices during this period of time, but were overshadowed by the election of the first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson.[14] These leaders took positions of responsibility in which they accomplished great feats, most commonly left out of the narrative.

Navigating McCarthyism and the Cold War

Gender Roles

African American women participate in Civil Rights protest in Tallahassee, Florida, 1963
African American women participate in Civil Rights protest in Tallahassee, Florida, 1963

During the Cold War, maintaining traditional gender roles was seen as a way of maintaining national security. Women were encouraged to prioritise motherhood and marriage, and the nuclear family was promoted as the ideal. African-American women in the civil rights movement were sometimes able to use this to their advantage, framing their activism as a protection of families. [15] For example, when activist Ester Cooper Jackson's husband was forced into hiding due to accusations of being a revolutionary communist, Cooper Jackson criticised McCarthyism for the way it disrupted and separated families.[16]

Repression

During the Cold War the U.S. government became aware that racial discrimination in the country was harmful to American foreign relations. Racial inequality was being by the USSR as propaganda to demonstrate the failures of American democracy, and was also the subject of criticism from other countries. Concerned about the perception of America internationally, the government repressed and censored people who were publicly critiquing America.[17] Many activists were affected by this, including several notable African-American women.

The entertainer and activist Josephine Baker used her platform to fight for racial equality. She was vocal in her critiques of racial discrimination and segregation, and refused to perform in segregated venues. Whilst on tour in Latin America, in addition to her performances, Baker gave lectures to her audiences about racism in America. This was disapproved of by the U.S government, who were worried that Baker’s words would encourage anti-America sentiment and propaganda. Accusations of being communist and un-American in the height of the Cold War,  ground Baker’s career in the Americas to a halt, and American immigration withdrew her right to travel freely, which included her being barred from the country. She was not let back into the country for a decade and her ability to tackle racial inequality and bring international awareness to the cause was diminished. [18]

The Montgomery bus boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested on February 22, 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested on February 22, 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott.

The Montgomery boycott awakened the civil rights movement after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, leading to her arrest in 1955 and the start of a 13 month boycott of the Montgomery bus company. Previous to this, Rosa Parks had worked for the Montgomery National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Parks had been arrested before the boycott in 1955 by the bus company, her actions played a significant role in the movement as the boycott was the first of direct action and established Martin Luther King as the voice and leader of the movement.[3] African American women played a prominent role in the boycott, through assembling participants from the church and other local connections while supporting their own families.[19] This help at a local level enabled the movement and allowed it to achieve momentum and reach a global level.

Notable African-American women in the movement

Ella Baker (1903–1986)

Women marching for equal rights, integrated schools and decent housing
Women marching for equal rights, integrated schools and decent housing

Ella Baker noted, "I don’t think you could go through the Freedom Movement without finding that the backbone of the support of the Movement were women. When demonstrations took place and when the community acted, usually it was some woman who came to the fore."[20]

Daisy Bates (1914–1999)

Although Daisy Bates and Ella Baker both held key positions in established civil rights organizations, each received little recognition as the "movement leaders" within the Black community, and both paid an economic price for their leadership roles. Bates, head of Little Rock's NAACP, lost the newspaper owned by her and her husband. Because of sexism within the movement, Baker was never given a permanent position in SCLC or a salary comparable to the man who replaced her.[8]

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)

Many respondents recalled Septima Clark with fondness, with respect, and with praise for her role as a teacher and organizer of adult "citizenship schools" throughout the South. One prominent male respondent, who himself was a "trainer" of civil rights field workers in the South, commented: Ah! What a human being.... There simply was no one like Septima Clark. Martin [King] knew and we all knew how courageous and how gifted this lady was.... She could talk on several intellectual levels.... As brilliant as she was, she could always get down on your level to make you understand and to make you comfortable.... Her role was essential... she taught citizen".[21]

References

  1. ^ Atwater, D.F. (1996). "The Voices of African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement". Journal of Black Studies. 26 (5): 539. doi:10.1177/002193479602600501.
  2. ^ Robnett, Belinda (1997). How Long? How Long? African American Women in the struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press. p. 8.
  3. ^ a b c d Gyant, LaVerne (1996). "Passing the Touch: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement". Journal of Black Studies. 26 (5): 629–47. doi:10.1177/002193479602600508.
  4. ^ Charron, K. M. (2010-12-01). "Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. Ed. by Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard. (New York: New York University Press, 2009. x, 353 pp. Cloth, $79.00, ISBN 978-0-8147-8313-9. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978-0-8147-8314-6.)". Journal of American History. 97 (3): 868–869. doi:10.1093/jahist/97.3.868. ISSN 0021-8723.
  5. ^ a b Duran, Jane (2015). "Women of the Civil Rights Movement". Philosophia Africana. 17 (2): 65–73. doi:10.5840/philafricana2015/20161727. ISSN 1539-8250.
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  7. ^ Robnett, Belinda (1996-05-01). "African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization". American Journal of Sociology. 101 (6): 1661–1693. doi:10.1086/230870. ISSN 0002-9602.
  8. ^ a b Robnett, Belinda (May 1996). "African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization". American Journal of Sociology. 101 (6): 1661–1693. doi:10.1086/230870. ISSN 0002-9602. S2CID 143029491.
  9. ^ a b Izgarjan, Aleksandra; Markov, Slobodanka (2012-12-01). "Alice Walker's Womanism: Perspectives Past and Present". Gender Studies. 11 (1): 304–315. doi:10.2478/v10320-012-0047-0. ISSN 1583-980X.
  10. ^ Collier-Thomas, Bettye (2001). Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. New York University Press. p. 3.
  11. ^ Irons, Jenny (1998). "The Shaping of Activists Recruitment and Participation: A Study of Women in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement". Gender & Society. 12 (6): 693. doi:10.1177/089124398012006006.
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  13. ^ Hribar (2013). "Radical Women in the Struggle: A Review of Recent Literature on the Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movements". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 29 (2): 95–115. doi:10.2979/jfemistudreli.29.2.95. JSTOR 10.2979/jfemistudreli.29.2.95. S2CID 144944025.
  14. ^ a b Nasstrom, Kathryn L. (April 1999). "Down to Now: Memory, Narrative, and Women's Leadership in the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, Georgia". Gender & History. 11 (1): 113–144. doi:10.1111/1468-0424.00131. ISSN 0953-5233.
  15. ^ De Hart, Jane (2001). ""Containment at Home: Gender Sexuality and National Identity in Cold War America"". In Kuznick, Peter J.; Gilbert, James (eds.). Rethinking Cold War Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  16. ^ McDuffie, Eric S (2009). "The March of Young Southern Black Women: Esther Cooper Jackson, Black Left Feminism, and the Personal and Political Costs of Cold War Depression". In Lang; Lieberman (eds.). Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: "Another Side of the Story". New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  17. ^ Dudziak, Mary L. (September 1994). "Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War". The Journal of American History. 81 (2): 543–570. doi:10.2307/2081171. JSTOR 2081171.
  18. ^ Dudziak, Mary L. (September 1994). "Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War". The Journal of American History. 81 (2): 543–570. doi:10.2307/2081171. JSTOR 2081171.
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  20. ^ Vickery, Amanda; Trent, Kyra; Salinas, Cinthia (2019-10-02). ""The Future Is Intersectional": Using the Arts to Reinsert Black Women Into the Civil Rights Narrative". Multicultural Perspectives. 21 (4): 224–232. doi:10.1080/15210960.2019.1686384. ISSN 1521-0960. S2CID 213888759.
  21. ^ Barnett, Bernice McNair (1993). "Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class". Gender and Society. 7 (2): 162–182. doi:10.1177/089124393007002002. ISSN 0891-2432. JSTOR 189576. S2CID 145588429.