Black History Month - Day 25
Women of the Civil Rights Movement
Yesterday I highlighted that children were many times on the front lines of the fight for equal rights during the Civil Rights Movement. Today the focus will be on the women of the Civil Rights Movement that many people have called the “backbone of the movement.”
I’m sure some of these names will be familiar to you but some may be new and they haven’t been given very much attention. We need to teach kids today to remember the strong Black women that helped to make the Movement successful in so many ways.
Kamala Harris, the first ever black Vice President of the United States, has attained this high office because of the work of women in prior generations. Progress is seldom realized within one generation, and the strong black women of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s paved the way for Harris.
For anyone that is interested in discovering more and reading deeper than my article today, there is a book that came out in 2020 from Janet Dewart Bell called, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the women included here are subject of her more extensive work. Lighting the Fires of Freedom offers deeply personal and intimate accounts of extraordinary struggles for justice that resulted in profound social change, stories that are vital and relevant today.
Ella Baker’s Unique Presence
Ella Baker played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. She encouraged non-violent action againist segregation through by supporting lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and registering blacks to vote in the 1960s.
She was a force to be reckoned with. Some called her the most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement. Historian Barbara Ransby wrote,
“Baker operated in a political world that was, in many ways, not fully ready for her. She inserted herself into leadership situations where others thought she simply did not belong. Her unique presence pioneered the way for fuller participation by other women in political organizations, and it reshaped the positions within the movement that they would occupy.”
Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Growing up in North Carolina, she developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery.
As a slave, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner. Her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice continued to inspire Ms. Baker throughout her life. Another source of inspiration was her maternal grandparents who bought, lived on, and cultivated land that was formerly a part of the plantation on which they were enslaved.
Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946.
Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South.
In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — was born. With Ella Baker’s guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country. Ella Baker once said,
“This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.”
Fannie Lou Hamer - The Singing Voice of Freedom
Fannie Lou Hamer led a band of black neighbors to the Sunflower County Courthouse in Mississippi in 1962 to register to vote. This was one of the most racist and dangerous counties in Mississippi. Their group drove an old school bus to town and, with armed white men standing around, they marched into the Courthouse to register…Ms Hamer was in the lead.
After registering, they piled back into the bus and headed out of town, but were stopped by the local law enforcement. They were told their bus was the wrong “color.” No one knew what would happen next because law enforcement officials in Mississippi were many times also members of the KKK.
But in the midst of the fear, Mrs. Hamer began to sing, raising her powerful voice first in church songs, then movement songs. This helped calm the other passengers. Mrs. Hamer’s voice continued to be a powerful tool that mobilized many in Mississippi and across the South during times of struggle in the Movement.
Hamer’s white landlord evicted her for registering to vote, so she moved into town, and the house she lived in there was riddled with bullets on many occassions. Despite threats and violence, her spirit was unbowed, and her voice became more powerful and influential. Her ability to speak plainly and persuasively impacted most everyone who encountered her, especially SNCC workers, who paid careful attention to her arguments and were swayed by her charisma.
In 1964, Mrs. Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). During her testimony in front of the Credentials Committee at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City, President Johnson staged an impromptu press conference for fear of the power of her story.
Mrs. Hamer did not shy away from the dangers of challenging segregation and the denial of voting rights in Mississippi. She said once,
“I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward.”
Diane Nash - The Driving Force for Non-Violence
Having grown up in Chicago away from some of the worst elements of the Jim Crow south, she enrolled at the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959. There she came face-to-face with overt discrimination.
“There were signs that said white, white-only, colored. [The] library was segregated, the public library. Parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels,” she recalls. “I was at a period where I was interested in expanding: going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.”
Diane Nash led the Nashville, Tennessee Sit-in Movement, which preceded the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and coordinated the Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi Freedom Ride after the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was forced to discontinue it. Her tactical and unwavering support of the Freedom Riders was critical to their success throughout the South.
Nash was arrested dozens of times for non-violent protests, including once while she was six months pregnant.
In 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated her for an award from the NAACP’s New York branch, acknowledging her as the “driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.” After her work with the Freedom Riders, she returned to her hometown of Chicago and became an advocate for fair housing.
Myrlie Evers - Fighting For Freedom In Mississippi
On a June evening in 1963, Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, was shot in his driveway as he got out of his car. He died in front of the family home. He had been threatened and shot at before, but this time it was for real.
Myrlie Evers was his partner in life and in activism. The Ku Klux Klan member who killed him, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried twice but both all-white juries deadlocked on his guilt. Evers would finally see justice for her husband's murder three decades later when De La Beckwith was found guilty and sent to prison when he was in his 70s.
Mrs. Evers continued her and her husband’s work and later married activist Walter Williams. They moved to Los Angeles and continued their work for social justice there.
In 1987, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley appointed her the first Black female commissioner to the Board of Public Works, a position she held for eight years.
In the 1990s, Myrlie Evers-Williams joined the NAACP board of directors, and in 1995, ran for chair of the board. At the time, the organization was experiencing a financial squeeze. Evers-Williams spearheaded efforts to put NAACP on firm financial footing.
Saying she had successfully completed her mission, she stepped down after three years and turned her efforts to establishing the Medgar Evers Institute to preserve her husband's legacy in Jackson, Mississippi.
In January 2013, Evers-Williams delivered the invocation at Barack Obama's second presidential inauguration, becoming the first woman and first non-clergy member to perform the prayer.
Shirley Chisholm - First Black Woman To Run for President
Shirley Chisholm is best known for becoming the first Black congresswoman (1968), representing New York State in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven terms. She went on to run for the 1972 Democratic nomination for the presidency—becoming the first major-party African-American candidate to do so. Throughout her political career, Chisholm fought for education opportunities and social justice. Chisholm left Congress in 1983 to teach. She died in Florida in 2005.
When she won her Congressional seat in 1968, she was initially assigned to the House Forestry Committee. She shocked many by demanding reassignment. She was placed on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committee. Chisholm became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 and championed minority education and employment opportunities throughout her tenure in Congress.
Shirley Chisholm worked tirelessly her whole life to improve the lives of all citizens, and break down barriers for blacks and women. She once said almost prophetically,
“I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew, or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”
We now have the first ever Black woman as Vice President of the United States!