I continue to be impressed and inspired by Shirley Sherrod who, in the face of adversity, is taking us all to school, and doing it with tremendous grace. Today, she appeared at the National Association of Black Journalists convention and said that we all need to know more about civil rights history. (You can see the plenary with Sherrod here.)
There’s a good bit of scholarship on the civil rights movement which documents the ways that women have been written out of civil rights history. So, in honor of Ms. Sherrod and to remind people about women’s influence in civil rights history and the struggle for racial justice, I’ve assembled a short list of women who might be called civil rights heroes. Do you know these courageous women?
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a journalist and anti-lynching activist and suffragist who led the way in the struggle for racial justice at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Many people believe that the foundations of the civil rights struggle were laid down in the fight against lynching. (Factoid for sociology geeks: Troy Duster is a descendant of Wells-Barnett.) You can read more about Wells-Barnett here.
- Claudette Colvin is a African American woman from Alabama sometimes referred to as “The First Rosa Parks.” In 1955, at the age of 15, she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person, in violation of local law. Her arrest preceded Parks’ (on December 1, 1955) by nine months. You can read more about Colvin here.
- Ella Baker was perhaps the consummate organizer within the civil rights movement. She began her organizing career in the 1940s with the NAACP. In the 1950s, she helped Dr. King organize his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And, in the early 1980s, when she wanted to assist the new student activists she organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. In many ways, SNCC was the forerunner of the Black Power and Black Panther movements. You may have heard SNCC mentioned in recent days as Ms. Sherrod’s husband was a member of this organization. You can read more about Ella Baker here.
- Mamie Till-Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who looked at a white woman (some say whistled at her) and for that was lynched in 1955. Mrs. Till-Mobley made the heroic decision to have an open-casket funeral. At the time of her death, Jesse Jackson remarked about this decision: “She was a very articulate teacher who saw the pain of her son and did a profound, strategic thing.When they pulled his water-soaked body from the river, most people would have kept the casket closed. She kept it open.” The press took pictures of Till with a bullet in the skull, an eye gouged out and his head partially crushed. His body had been found floating in the Tallahatchie River, identifiable only by the ring Till wore that belonged to his late father. These photos were widely published and attributed with helping to galvanize the civil rights movement. You can read more about Mamie Till-Mobley here.
- Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, who became one of the most dynamic speakers of the civil rights movement. She is widely known for the phrase “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Hamer became active in the movement when members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Mississippi. She worked on voter registration drives in the South. She was among several workers stopped by officials in Winona, Miss., on June 9, 1963. She and other workers were jailed and beaten. SNCC lawyers bailed her and the others out and filed suit against the Winona police. All the whites who were charged were found not guilty. She continued to work on grass-roots anti-poverty, civil rights, and women’s rights projects into the 1970s.
- Daisy Bates was a mentor to the Little Rock Nine, the African-American school children who integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. She and the Little Rock Nine gained national and international recognition for their courage and persistence during the desegregation of Central High when Governor Orval Faubus ordered members of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the entry of black students. She and her husband, Lucious Christopher (L. C.) Bates, published the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper dealing primarily with civil rights and other issues in the black community. You can read more about Daisy Bates here.
- Violet Liuzzo was a civil rights activist from Michigan and mother of five who left her home to become involved in the civil rights movement. She was inspired to act after seeing protesters assaulted by police in Selma, Alabama and reportedly told her husband, “this is everyone’s struggle.” While driving protesters in Alabama, was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members. You can read more about Violet Liuzzo here.
- Angela Y. Davis was an early pioneer in seeing the connections between the struggle for racial justice, gender equality and the prison-industrial complex. Her book, Women, Race & Class in many ways launched what we think of today as “intersectionality” studies. Davis is probably most widely known for the fact that in 1970, she became the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. She evaded police for two months and was eventually arrested. She was tried and acquitted of all charges eighteen months after her capture. Her trial became a focus of the Black Power movement as people wore buttons with her iconic afro with the words “Free Angela” around it. Years later, she would write “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia,” (Critical Inquiry, 21(1):37-45), in which she would bemoan the fact that people remember her as simply “the afro” and critique the fact that “a politics of liberation could be reduced to a politics of fashion.” You can read more about Angela Y. Davis here.
- Beulah Mae Donald‘s son, Michael, was lynched by two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. Upset about the verdict in a trial of an African American man for the murder of a white cop, KKK members Henry Hays and James Knowles spotted Michael Donald walking home from getting his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to a secluded area in the woods, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. They wrapped a rope around his neck, and pulled on it to strangle him, before slitting his throat and hanging him from a tree across the street from Hays’ house. Local police first stated that Donald had been killed as part of a drug deal gone wrong, despite his mother’s insistence that he had not been involved in drugs. Beulah Mae Donald then contacted civil rights leaders and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Eventually, the SPLC won a civil victory against the KKK. In 1987, Ms. Donald won a judgment in the amount of $7 million dollars against the KKK and as a result, the group was forced to turn over its headquarters to her. The verdict marked the end of the United Klans, the same group that had beaten the Freedom Riders in 1961, murdered civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965, and bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. You can read more about Beulah Mae Donald’s successful case against the KKK here.
These are just a few of the people who’ve struggled to bring about racial justice. Did you know all the names?