Let's Not Forget The Black Women Who Defined The Civil Rights Movement

I am reworking a previous essay from Aug 2009 in honor of MLK Day. While we want to honor Martin let’s not forget about Coretta! She like many women were the backbone that provided all the support that made it possible. Today, like every other day should be Black Woman’s Freedom Day in honor of all the women who risked their lives for Civil Rights but let the male “leadership” take front and center stage for the glory. We’ve continued to pay dues unreciprocated to help uplift a community that would have long collapsed. It is time for those who’ve sacrificed so much to relax and reflect, be rejuvenated and refocus their priorities on things that will uplift and sustain them. We now have our very first African-American First Lady and it’s time for that “change” to manifest itself across the board for all women.

Civil Rights WAS supposed to be part of the CONTINUED journey of the collective advancement of African-Americans. Sadly it became the end of the road. As we who have eyes can see it has all gone downhill culturally since then. The impending political devaluing may not yet be complete but it is in progress. Smart individuals who see the end of the road around the bend will prepare themselves. Everyone else can remain confused, in denial or as willful obstructionists.

“A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket. “When you take your case to Washington, D.C., you’re taking it to the criminal who’s responsible; it’s like running from the wolf to the fox. They’re all in cahoots together”. “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation, you wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution, you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now.” “You and I, 22 million African-Americans — that’s what we are — Africans who are in America. You’re nothing but Africans. Nothing but Africans. In fact, you’d get farther calling yourself African instead of Negro. Africans don’t catch hell. You’re the only one catching hell. They don’t have to pass civil-rights bills for Africans.” Ballot or the Bullet excerpt.

Malcolm X described his continued commitment to Black nationalism, which he defined as the philosophy that African-Americans should govern their own communities. He said that Black nationalists believe that African-Americans should control the politics and the economy in their communities and that they need to remove the vices, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, that afflict their communities.

If “we” as individuals and our (hold-overs from the 60’s & 70’s, self-appointed & future wannabe) MISleaders actually did GOVERN instead of defending all manner of mediocrity and depravity blacks in this country would be much better off.

Govern is defined as:

To bring into conformity with rules or principles or usage –

Impose regulations direct or strongly influence the behavior of –

The African-American women who did all the grunt work behind the scenes were expecting to be rewarded for their loyalty later on. Many (most?) were cast aside and today with few exceptions are forgotten.

As Olson recounts it, the day after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, the city’s black leaders held a mass meeting to promote a boycott. It was December 1955, and the meeting was packed with ministers and others who wanted to speak, among them Parks. The crowd never heard from her. “You’ve said enough,” one of the leaders told her. And with that, Olson says, Parks became a shining example of the role of women in the Civil Rights movement: they got things started and the men took the spotlight. Freedom’s Daughters excerpt

How many of us have considered the physical danger these women and children were put in?We have to remove the blinders or romanticism to properly assess the retaliation that went on behind the scenes. You’d have to imagine if law enforcement would let an attack dog loose on a person in plain sight something even worse occurred in absence of photographers and television crews. Think of Abu Ghraib.

The women who participated in the Freedom Rides and other resistance were likely exposed to untold abuse including sexual assault. I’m sure that was a message the male “leaders” didn’t want to get out. Neither would the women want to expose themselves to the public scrutiny. Being raped is traumatic enough but if it was coupled with efforts for equality…..I just can’t imagine going through something like that.

If anyone is reading this who personally knows some women in their late ’50’s – 80’s who’d be willing to step forward without shame and tell the TRUTH…try to get it recorded somehow. It’s a vital part of our history. Not just from a race perspective, but a feminist/womanist one. Could this also explain why so many women initially held tightly to the idea of “black love” and pairing only with other African-American males?

  • Pauli Murray
  • Maria Stewart
  • Fannie Lou Hamer
  • Ella Baker
  • Septima Poisette Clark
  • Diane Nash
  • So many other women!!!!

Here are some names you may or may not be familiar with. Without them we wouldn’t have had a Movement. There are also many unknown contributors we owe a debt of gratitude to. We know Hamer was beat up and considered less than so it wouldn’t fall out of the realm of possibility that some women may have been assaulted as well. Those entrenched in supporting white supremacy murdered white people so nothing was off the table.

We also need to reexamine what we believe the Movement was about. If you start to dig deeper and look at things more critically you’ll see a pattern emerging where the African-American men who took prominent roles (or small) were interested in advancing their own interests above the collective. That included seeking out mates who were not black. It was a driving impetus for this “equality” fight. They wanted equal access without retaliation by white men to white women.

I’m reading a review by Paige Turner of the book: Freedom’s Daughters The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 by Lynne Olsen. Now with my analysis Ms. Turner has a few problematic beliefs that fall into the typical indoctrination of marginalized black women who diminish themselves: the “save all our people” complex as she titles her review, “Women Hold Up the Sky” and her willingness to dismiss Stokely Carmichael’s clear contempt of women with his quote about women’s best role as “prone”. Um…no dear. Anyone who makes “jokes” and does bad “satire” displaying racist images as we saw last year means it. Anyone who makes light of rape and tells women their purpose is solely for the sexual gratification of a man is SERIOUS.

Freedom’s Daughters draws strong connections between the plights of black and white women, both being in the same powerless boat. There is a good exploration of the complex and conflicted relations between white mistresses and their black female slaves. This conflict was never eradicated but reared its ugly head during the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom Summer” when the inequality of sexual attention given to the female SNCC workers created a permanent schism. “The clash between black and white women in Mississippi seemed to stem in some cases from the fact that each appeared to have what the other wanted. Unlike many white women, black women were not restricted to office work or the Freedom Schools. They were out on the front lines with men, canvassing, organizing, going to the courthouse and in general asserting themselves in no uncertain terms…[but]…when the day was over and there was time to relax, the men took out [their white female co workers]. “Our skills and abilities were recognized and respected,” Cynthia Washington noted, “but that seemed to place us in some category other than female”. (Sexism, patriarchy, jealousy, focusing on non-caliber men, the unresolved issues of sexual assault of black women by white men.)

Had Ella Baker had her way people would have been charged with taking more responsibility for themselves instead of looking to one decidedly male leader as Messiah. I don’t know that the masses would’ve complied but a few more key individuals would’ve been great! We can see that legacy being played out TODAY with how many African-Americans are resistant to the idea of true accountability for our “first black President” with their excuses at the ready. Ranging from “give him time to do x,y,z” “I trust him” “he’s the President of the US not of black people” those that are afraid to simply ASK for their due because they VOTED for the man at the highest rates of any other group have fallen into the pit of apathy, inaction and learned helplessness. I’ve discussed how I volunteered, that I was excited about the election and he was my preferred candidate but I have a list of things I expect be done. Like health care being passed with the public option. A lot of my support has always been about ensuring the prominent role of the African-American First Lady & First Daughters being used as an impetus for the rest of us to be elevated not just in the United States but the world. This is our best opportunity to do so and help secure more prominent futures for the next generations.

An important revelation in Freedom’s Daughters is the way male and female leaders perceived and wielded power. The legendary and greatly respected Ella Baker of the SCLC, NAACP and SNCC had a completely different view of people management than did Martin Luther King (as I mentioned above). “King ran the SCLC in the same authoritarian manner that he and most of the other ministers ran their churches. To them power meant control over others. Baker had a completely different view of power. She believed that King’s job and the SCLC’s should be to nurture people, to help them find the power within themselves to change their own lives and the society in which they lived.”

Of course someone reading this might protest and ask, “Why are you mentioning the black man and his “failings” or being critical” My reply: Look at the state of black people in America and ask yourself how did we get here? The men declared themselves the LEADERS! They abandoned their roles as fathers and husbands AFTER Civil Rights were won. The 30% marriage rate for blacks [married to each other], the 80% OOW birth rate and the 70% unmarried rate for black women did not happen by osmosis. So the buck stops with them.

There was a point where so many black women stopped looking out for their BEST interests and decided saving the race was more important. There’s a handful of black female bloggers discussing this error but NOBODY else is! I’m certainly not finding groups of black men talking about how we are doing too much and they need to step up and hold themselves accountable. If there are feel free to leave their (names & numbers, lol) blogs in the comment section! SOMEBODY has to speak out. Really, I’m not trying to rehash but we need to fit some more of the missing pieces. I believe many black women are STILL thinking it’s certain “undesirables” who are acting up the way I used to before my revelation that it’s the majority of men (with an increasing number of women) who are [DBR] damaged beyond repair/recognition (of normative behavior).

I am reading and researching so many stories of WOMEN who risked LIFE and LIMB for the benefits we enjoy and squander so readily and it makes me angry to see their efforts be spit upon by those of us 1-2 generations beyond them and our endless litany of excuses about how we have it so “hard” now. People are struggling but some people are ALWAYS struggling. When is it ENOUGH? There is not enough money in the world to throw at people who’d take it and burn it while offering even more excuses about why they can’t function and how it’s someone else’s fault.

How did things fall apart so quickly AFTER Civil Rights was passed? The foundation must not have been strong to begin with. Why is ANY critique met with a rush to silence or attack the messenger? Why were the women marginalized and shut out? I’m not so sure I’m willing to say it was all or mostly their “fault” either. There would’ve been an internal war had women stood up. Yes, I think from my lofty perch I can say they should have revolted but perhaps they were thinking a compromise was better than complete failure for the Movement. It’s too bad that we won a battle (Civil Rights) that was miscalculated as a war, only to lose the real war (the entire population going to hell in a handbasket). Diane Nash put herself in physical danger because the “men” thought it wasn’t safe to march. Other women followed suit. Perhaps she thought being a female would protect her. It didn’t. Now I have to ask the obvious, what kind of coward lets a woman risk physical harm?

HAD THESE WOMEN NOT PUT THEMSELVES ON THE LINE WE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD A CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

Let’s repeat that shall we?

No African-American women = No Civil Rights that we all got to “enjoy”.

No movement can be sustained strictly by the sheer force of will by a handful of women. Eventually they had to pass away. The men who were made “Gods” were killed. Since no one else has stepped into a leadership role BY EXAMPLE of course things have fallen apart. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of lying. There’s a lot of personal gain and a big giant collective failure.

It’s just a shame that we’ve regressed. African-American women have been doing EVERYTHING for so long most don’t even know how NOT to.

So put down your axe, pick, club, etc. Stop the hard labor and LEAVE the plantation. Your Emancipation came years ago only you were too busy SLAVING AWAY to notice. YOU ARE FREE!

5 comments to Let’s Not Forget The Black Women Who Defined The Civil Rights Movement

  • Great post. I just finished reading, 'At the Dark End of the Street', about the women who worked for civil rights starting with justice for victims of rape. Rosa Parks was a field investigator of criminal cases before she made her stand on the city bus.

  • This post is so very important. Year after year we celebrate Black History month and there is always such a visible erasure of Black Women. Thank you so much for this post.

  • Nia

    Thanks as well for highlighting these courageous women and I look forward to learning more about each of them.

  • what a way to start off the year! (again)

    great post

    wow

    i read very few posts more than twice…

    • Faith

      Thanks! I thought it was important for us to acknowledge those women that made the sacrifices we got to enjoy. I'll be discussing more how the women were specifically pushed aside (for example not being allowed to speak at the March on Washington). I hope more realize how we've been used and discarded so that we stop offering our necks on the chopping block!!