In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our advocacy director shares thoughts on one of the most powerful, but often overlooked, forces in the Civil Rights movement – women.
When I think of the Civil Rights Movement – the journey, the impromptu opportunities and the planned sit-ins, walks, and protests – I cannot help but to imagine the rooms those involved also sat in. The energy that drew college organizations to the pastors and elders and everyone in between.
And in thinking of the room, the images that are lifted to the top of my mind are of the women of the movement. Women like Dorothy Height, a longtime YWCA leader, and Coretta Scott King, who did life with Martin Luther King Jr., who was audience to those mesmerizing speeches that grew from car conversations or anger from yet another injustice, to what we now recognize as some of the greatest oral expressions. Wife to the Civil Rights leader, mother to her children, was not all she was. She was an activist in her own right.
Many women played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement. They led organizations and they were lawyers on school segregation lawsuits. They quietly organized and forcefully vocalized a demand for equality.
Ella Baker – “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Baker was a highly respected civil rights leader who mostly worked behind the scenes advising, supporting, and mentoring greats like W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. Baker’s reputation as a leader and movement builder earned her the nickname “Fundi,” which is Swahili for a person who teaches craft to the next generation.
Daisy Bates – “No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies.”
Bates was a newspaper publisher who documented the fight to end segregation and discrimination in Arkansas. She became president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and played a crucial role in desegregation. Fighting for desegregated public schools, Bates was the guiding force behind enrolling nine black students in an all-white high school in Little Rock, famously known as the Little Rock Nine.
Bates’ relentless efforts to promote and enforce education equality are regarded as major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
Fannie Lou Hamer – “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Hamer led a life dedicated to fighting racial injustice and promoting the African-American vote and voice in politics. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and ran for Congress in Mississippi in 1965. While her bid for Congress may have been unsuccessful, Hamer’s legacy of political activism during the Civil Rights Movement will not be forgotten.
Dorothy Height – “Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his or her goals.”
Height spent her life focused on improving the opportunities of African-American women. Height was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, working with some of the major civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. One of Height’s major accomplishments was with YWCA USA, where she directed the integration of all of its centers in 1946 and established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965. In 1971, she help to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Acknowledging Height’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and to women’s rights, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
Diane Nash – “The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out thing even you didn’t know were there.”
Nash was a member of the influential Freedom Riders and one of the most prominent student leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did Nash help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but she also led the Selma Voting Rights Movement. A fearless advocate, Diane Nash is an incredible example of the power of students to create change.
Septima Poinsette Clark – “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”
Known as the Mother of the American Civil Rights Movement, Clark was a teacher and advocate for education. A member of the NAACP, Clark was involved in petitioning for the city of Charleston, S.C., to hire African-American teachers. She also started citizenship schools, which taught literacy to adults in order to help many African-Americans register to vote. As recognition for her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, she was awarded the Living Legacy award in 1979.
Jo Ann Robinson – “People the world over should know that any group, if given equal opportunity in education, employment, civil rights, and the like, can be desirable citizens anywhere, with as much to offer as any other group.”
Many recognize the historic 1955 Montgomery bus boycott as one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement. Few realize, however, that Robinson was the woman who started it all. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Robinson distributed over 50,000 flyers calling on African-Americans to boycott city buses on Dec. 5, 1955. Her sense of justice and belief in nonviolent protest propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward and changed the course of history.
YWCA Dayton CEO and President, Shannon Isom, has noted: “When women are in the room, the room changes for the better.” These are but a few of the many women who “walked in the room” during the Civil Rights Movement, and in so doing, made it better.
Today’s room shifters have created a momentum that elevates and is showing in real time the impact that will be made when women dare to say, “I. Am. HERE.” Women like Stacy Abrams, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Michelle Alexander – founders of Black Lives Matter, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. There are so many women around the world showing up in power and being our ancestors’ dream.
Decide today that YOU will join in, that you will take up space. Decide today that you will make the rooms you dare to enter change for the better.
Get involved now by signing up for our next 21-Day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge, and continue the conversation by listening to this speech by Martin Luther King Jr., given to a student group in 1967. As you listen, think about your own life’s blueprint – what encouragement do you hear for designing the life and world you want?