I’m guessing Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X are your top two. Kwame Ture, John Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin are probably up there as well.
All of these individuals have made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and all have been studied extensively. There have been biopics of King and X which capture all their nuances, and there are countless stories of Du Bois and others that follow their journeys, their politics and their personal lives.
Some of the more notable figures of the Civil Rights Movement have since become emblems for freedom, used widely by marginalised communities across the globe to protest against social injustices and inequities.
The global impact of the movement is undeniable, but the longstanding campaign – and how it’s portrayed – fails to take into account the role Black women played in eliminating structural racism.
Doing the work
Black women have always been fighting for civil rights but the amplification of their work has been few and far in between. This is evident with Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883), an abolitionist who advocated for civil and women’s rights. Sojourner was known for challenging prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority. She stated:
“I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? ... I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Though Sojourner’s activism was heralded by notable African American figures of that time, her work has only recently become part of the larger cannon that chronicles the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement.
Similarly, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) is another historical figure whose impact has been overlooked. An author and investigative journalist, Wells spent months travelling in the South, taking notes of all of the lynchings she had witnessed. The aim of this trip was to provide context to the brutalities she witnessed, and this culminated in an extensive article that destroyed the mainstream media narrative that those who were lynched were rapists and criminals.
Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, outlined some of what Wells witnessed:
“They would torture people before they were killed and dismember them afterwards and pass around the body parts. It was shocking to me that people would take bones as souvenirs. The more I learned about the level of violence, the more I appreciated what it took for her to do what she did. I am just amazed.”
By exposing the reality behind lynchings, Wells was instrumental in unmasking the institutional nature of anti-Black violence, in addition to highlighting how barbarity inflicted on Black people was glorified and entertained by white audiences. In spite of this, Wells’s work fell into obscurity.
Black women understood the necessity of challenging both racist and gendered power structures. Though there were several schools of thought which approached this in varying degrees, supporters of the Civil Rights Movement failed to recognise the distinct level of oppression Black women faced.
“Black women were the engine that kept the movement alive.”
The Mississippi Summer Project, attended by Black civil rights organisations and white volunteers, was a clear example of this, as white feminists who attended the retreat did not view the gendered nature of racism as a valid political concern.
Moreover, Black women were relegated to the background despite playing an active role in establishing and organising many of the campaigns we know of today. Ella Baker, one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was discouraged from seeking leadership within the organisation.
“As a woman, an older black woman, in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role.”
Civil Rights activist Dorothy Cotton substantiated the sexist, hierarchical structures within civil rights organisations in her assertion that Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) preachers were “chauvinistic”.
The Civil Rights Movement would not be what it was if it was not for Black women working tirelessly to galvanise people into action. By occupying roles that encouraged local participation, forming alliances with grassroots organisations along with campaigning on a solitary basis, Black women were the engine that kept the movement alive.
Though their contribution has been overshadowed by men, who were falsely given credit for their work, Black women were pivotal in empowering Black people across America to fight for equitable social change.