Step aside, sister

Two articles snagged my attention regarding the role, and the perception of the role, that dedicated black women played in the civil rights movement. The core message was that while women were just as committed and involved as men, they were often shuttled aside for the “big events”. They may have played key leadership roles but were not perceived to be leader with the same stature and credentials as the men. An interesting article also offers recollection about the role that white women played in the Civil Rights movement. It is worth a full read and I think the dynamics of how and why white men and women also felt compelled to add their voices deserves an analysis.

Gail Collins illustrates the tendency of women in the Civil Rights movement to mysteriously disappear during the “big moments.” When Dr.Martin Luther King went to Washing ton to give his most famous speech, prominent female activists had to walk with the wives far from the cameras Obviously, this is a factual statement but it does make me wonder: would wouldn’t the “wives” be considered legitimate spokespersons for the Civil Rights movement? I can’t imagine what sort of courage, patience, faith, and vision it must have taken to be the “wife” of a male civil rights activist. Interesting that Collins did a good job of providing examples of women but didn’t think much about the “wives.” She also makes a bit of an apology for her hero, Susan B Anthony, while claiming that we have all learned to be clear eyed about the flaws of those we admire. Collins states I know she broke her old friend Fredrick Douglass’s heart she lashed out at a government that would give the vote to “S***o” and ignore well educated middle class white women. Hmmm… Broke his heart? No, she revealed herself, apparently Collins believes feminists cannot critique feminists when they cover their disappointment with racist assumptions.

According to Collins several women asked that at least one woman be included in the speeches that day. They were told that there was female participation because Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to sing. The women wanted Diane Nash to provide a voice.

Nash is the young woman wearing glasses.

Nash was a clever tactician recruiting white women to sit with black men at lunch counters. No doubt she realized the local potential for violence might be diminished.Nash was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Ghandi. She specified in a speech that the idea of “non-violence” did not fully explain the intent of acting peacefully for change. Nash argued that the foundations of the civil rights movement were driven by a Agapic energy which was a force based on a “love energy” that acts to heal of teach the opponent. Years after Diane Nash was relegated to the back of the procession in Washington she received a Distinguished American award from the Kennedy Library. Dr.King himself presented Diane Nash with the Rosa Parks award from the SCLC in 1965. Nash actually helped plan the very march where she wasn’t considered important enough to speak at. In addition, she helped put together the strategy for the right to vote movement in Selma that in itself lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Women were very much aware that while they were valued, they did not receive the corresponding recognition from men in the civil rights movement. A position paper from SNCC written anonymously details some of the concerns they had. The anonymous nature of the statement might indicate that women in  SNCC were caught between wanting to have a voice and wishing to avoid public dissent that could undermine the goals and give ammunition to potential adversaries. Their concerns were basic but real and telling.

Capable, responsible, and experienced women who are in leadership positions can expect to have to defer to a man on their project for final decision making.

One of SNCC’s main administrative officers apologizes for the appointment of a woman as a interim project direct in a key Mississippi project area.

Any woman in SNCC, no matter what her position or experience, has been asked to take minutes in a meeting when she and other women are outnumbered by men.

The paper finishes by hoping that there will be a day when the movement will start the slow process of changing values and ideas so that all of us gradually come to understand that this is no more a man’s world than it is a white world. Would any of these women have called themselves feminists? Does it matter? They articulated the basic constraints women felt and experienced as the 1960’s pressed on. This particular paper was published in 1964. It certainly helps puncture the idea that the women’s movement was about white female discontent and assertion.

Ella Baker, was past over for the directorate of the SCLC because in her own words,I was female,  I was old. I didn’t have a PHD.

Baker was a consummate organizer and interestingly enough might have directly helped to inspire Rosa Parks. Parks attended a training work shop where she met Baker. Baker personally resisted the concept of  authoritative leaderships saying,strong people don’t need strong leaders. Of Martin Luther King she said,You see, I think to be very honest,the movement made Martin, rather than Martin making the movement.That is not a discredit to him. This is, to me, as it should be. Susan Glisson, Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi states that Baker confronted the leaders, white and black, primarily male, who would have the masses look to them to solves their problems. Baker’s primary interest was in grassroots organizing not “identity leadership.” Baker continued her path as an organizer until her death in 1986.

I have neglected to highlight a number of women who contributed heavily to the civil rights movement either by example or deed. Among them are Daisy Bates who played a role in the Little Rock Nine. Dorothy Height an educator and activist with numerous awards of recognition. Jo Ann Robinson, who played a role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Septima P Clark, also a prominent educator and activist.

Katherine J Kennedy, of the Howard Thurman Center, says that most of the women in the civil rights movement were volunteer in church who made meals, cleaned up and made preparations for the next event. The truth is we don’t know. We don’t know how many women did that and more. We can’t assume either, given that even female activists with some name recognition were not always granted the spotlight. It seems they got recognition, awards, and thanks you after the fact. But when the movement was moving, nobody was allowed to stop and shine. It is ironic that many democracy based, change oriented movements must adhere to the appearance of a tradition power structure in order to get recognition. We still want a movement to have a readily identifiable “personality” that we can develop a symbolic relationship with, a heroic myth making fantasy that leaves little room for the acknowledgment of others.

To the women whose names I do not know, but who are not nameless, who cooked cleaned, marched, carried signs, prayed, wept, voted, tried to vote, were subjected to beatings and humiliations, and saw family members and friends subjected to the same, who had aspirations denied and who got involved to change future aspirations I say this: you are not forgotten. You deserve applause.

And we must always end with music…


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  1. make an apt companion piece to the diary I did about Fannie Lou Hamer.

  2. And your analysis is great, too.

    Claudette Colvin was to have taken the role Rosa Parks eventually did.  Problem was, she was pregnant and unmarried, so they picked Rosa.

    All of this was strategized and planned on the political level, I think.  

    I’m curious as to what those men thought about not having women civil rights leaders up at the podium with Martin Luther King.  Was it political strategy, as during those times women weren’t often in positions of leadership?

    I wonder if they thought about it much at all before coming to the conclusion women wouldn’t be seen in positions of power.

    Thank you for giving overdue attention to these fine women.  I hope you will make this a series.

  3. I think we are going to have to accept that this grand mess of a world is now in our hands and only out hands to fix.

  4. in history leasons, we girls come upon a couple of kiss my ass MLK, or JFK, or RFK moments 😉  We’ve come a long way Baby but only most recently have we addressed this “I’m not your Baby” shit 😉

    • kj on December 3, 2007 at 16:03

    no time to read this right now, UCC, but wow. Substance here!

    On NL’s essay some of us are talking about a regular feature highlighting local women, historical women, just women! who are or have made a difference. Maybe as part of a regular feature about race issues as well?

    Please weigh in!!!  🙂

  5. Thanks for taking me to “school” again. We have so much yet to learn about our herstory!!

  6. to just about anyone’s pov. So I am going to take a time out to have a think. One of my objectives is to help this site amd community thrive and take some pressure of Budhy. That’s why I thought his input would be a good idea.  

  7. This sends me way, way, way back to long, frustrating discussions as late as 1973 in Mississippi.  And that was a decade after the discussions began.

    Thanks very very much for a great diary.


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