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Spotlight: Women Civil Rights Activists in Modern U.S. History

As we are exploring the heroes of civil rights movement in America, the names that usually come to mind include Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

However, we cannot forget the role of many women who made countless sacrifices in advancing the movement for us today.


The Relationship Between Women Activists and the Civil Rights Movement

When the African Americans started the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement that originated in the 19th century was still in a tepid state. Most Americans at that time still believed that women’s focus was on the family, and their main responsibility was to nurture the next generation. Although the Second World War brought more women into professional fields, their work was still limited to auxiliary industries such as nursing and secretarial work. Moreover, at the end of World War II, a large number of American soldiers retired and regained the job market, and many women returned to their families again. 

"World War II" played a tremendous role in advancing the civil rights movement. However, the civil rights movement had a distinctive male-dominated color from the beginning. By comparison, after the end of World War II, American women's social participation fell into the lowest point of the 20th century. The civil rights movement did stimulate the feminist movement to a certain extent, but the civil rights movement and the feminist movement were not synchronized. From today's perspective, many civil rights leaders at that time expressed statements that would not be welcomed by the feminist movements today.

For example, Martin Luther King once said that women’s primary responsibility is to be a mother; at the executive committee meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he often ignored the statements and comments of female members such as Ella Baker and Septima Clark. Many treated women as assistants rather than colleagues. Clark even believed that the biggest disadvantage of the American civil rights movement is that women cannot be treated equally.

In addition to facing the contempt and resistance of male colleagues in public activities, women who participated in the civil rights movement also had to overcome the pressure from their families (especially their husbands).

Rosa Parks, known as the "Mother of Civil Rights" and her husband were both active members of the Montgomery Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But Mr. Parks did not agree with his wife “just running around all day”. But eventually, he understood what Mrs. Parks was doing for activism and silently assumed the task of caring for his family.

Two Southern white ladies who have long been involved in the civil rights movement, Virginia Dour, and Anne Braden, also received the understanding and support of their husbands. Both their husbands were lawyers who used their legal knowledge to help black people and persecuted minorities fight for their rights. Although some women activists like Parks, Dour, and Braden were able to receive support from their families, most women activists faced strong opposition.

But today, we remember them for their great contributions to the cause because they were not afraid to stand up (even against those closest to them) for what was right.

In this article, we will highlight key women activists that inspired many in the civil rights movement.


Ella Baker

The first figure we wanted to address is Ella Baker.

Ella Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. However, Ella spent a significant amount of time in her early childhood with her grandmother in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ever since she was little, her grandmother had a strong influence on her interest in social justice issues by sharing stories about slavery and mistreatment during the grandparents’ generation. Some notable stories that strongly influenced Ella were regarding how her grandmother was strongly mistreated because she refused to marry a man her slave owner chose for her to marry.

All the stories she heard gave her a new perspective on the injustice and discrimination that African Americans faced at that time. Ella attended Shaw University and graduated with valedictorian honor. During her time in college, she faced much discrimination and disagreed with many policies from the University. As a result, Ella moved to New York City after graduation and started being involved in organizing community events on radical political issues.

In 1927, she took a job as a journalist for American West Indian News. A few years later, she eventually became the office manager at the Negro National News. 1930 is also the year Baker and George Schuyler co-founded the Young Negroes Cooperative league or known as YNCL. She assumed the role of the secretary-treasurer. Through her passion and strong leadership, Ella quickly became YNCL’s national director. She then joined National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During her time in NAACP, Ella mostly worked as the assistant field secretary. She also spent a lot of time as the advisor for the New York Youth Council of the organization.

One of her notable work included organizing a group called In Friend. In Friends later fundraised and contributed to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Ella enjoyed working with young people and she coordinated and organized many conferences with the youth. Ella Baker was a highly respected civil rights women leader who supported and advised highly acclaimed figures such as WEB Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks.

Baker’s remarks clearly encouraged young students to go beyond the "leadership centered" movement model of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Encouraged by Baker, this group of young students sets up a student non-violence coordination committee. Soon, they began a voter registration campaign in southern hinterland such as Mississippi, encouraging black people to bravely register to become voters and change the local political environment by voting. Later, they launched the "Free Summer" campaign to establish free schools and education in the local area so that more black people could learn to read and improve their job prospects.

Baker was not only the “leader” of the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee but also provided the main source of funding for the Committee. Through her contacts with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other organizations, she raised a lot of money for the non-violent protests. Among them, the annual funding for the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee included her Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). The Southern Conference Education Foundation was a Southern organization dedicated to persuading white people to support the black people's rights movements as allies. Braden and her husband Carl Braden were both members of this organization. Baker later joined the foundation to work for it.


Anne Braden

Like Baker, Anne Braden is also a hidden figure in the American civil rights movement. As a Southern white woman, she advocated for the rights movement during the most difficult years of the civil rights movement and in the middle of a hostile social atmosphere. Despite the difficulties, Braden has always firmly supported Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

When American scholars "discovered" Baker’s contributions to the cause, they could not ignore the role of Anne Braden. In 2002, Catherine Fosl, a historian specializing in the study of gender and women’s history at the University of Louisville, published a biography of Anne Braden, placing her life and activism in the context of the global cold war and racial relations. In the tense environment of the South, amongst the dominant community of anti-communist whites, Braden, who advocated for racial equality, was called "a subversive southerner."

In 2003, Barbara Ransby, a historian who also specializes in gender and (black) women’s studies, published a biography of Ella Baker. This biography starts from Baker departing Virginia to her early years in North Carolina. The biographer discusses the origins of Baker’s “rebellious” thoughts during high school and college. At the university graduation ceremony, Baker received the honor of giving speeches on behalf of the graduates. In the decades since, her speech and organizational skills enabled her to play a huge role in many national civil rights institutions, including the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee. Her non-violent struggle strategy has also affected a generation of young students, including Julian Bond who was an American social activist and leader of the civil rights movement.


Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4th, 1913. Her parents were James McCawley and Leona Edwards. They were carpenters and teachers respectively.

Rosa was of African-American Cherokee-Crick and Scottish-Irish origin. Rosa Parks' grandmother was Scottish-Irish. When she was young, Rosa Parks suffered from chronic tonsillitis and suffered greatly from this physical condition. When her parents separated, she moved to Pine Level with her mother, just outside Montgomery, Alabama. She lived on the farm with her grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester, and grew up there.

Later, she began her lifelong membership in the Protestant Anglican Church of African Descent. Before eleven, her mother taught her to study at home. After that, she entered the Montgomery Women's Industrial School and took academic and vocational courses. Parkes continued to an experimental school for secondary education founded by Alabama Black Teachers University, but in order to take care of her grandmother and her mother, she had to drop out of school after they both fell ill.

In 1955, the law clearly stipulated that blacks and whites must be separated in public places such as buses and restaurants, and blacks must make room in public places for whites. In the North, racial discrimination that was recognized by law also kept black people out of many industries and communities.

Rosa, however, rejected the driver's request on the segregated city bus and refused to give up her seat when the bus driver tried to extend the “whites only” section and give occupied seats to white passengers. Although earlier in the year, two black women in Montgomery were arrested for the same encounter. There were no exceptions this time. Park was imprisoned and fined $10. Her arrest triggered a 381-day black boycott of the buses in Montgomery, called the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The organizer was Martin Luther King Jr.

The result of this movement was the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that banned "black and white segregation" on buses. Later on, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 introduced a policy prohibiting apartheid and racial discrimination in public places. Parks has since been regarded as the "mother of the civil rights movement" in the United States. Thirty years later, she recalled that year: "I didn't expect it to be like this when I was arrested. It was only a very ordinary day, and it was only because of the participation of the general public that it made it extraordinary."

She died on October 24th, 2005. On the 30th, her body was transported to the United States Capitol in Washington, where she was placed in the hall for the public to observe. American political leaders, including President George Walker Bush, attended the installation ceremony with thousands of people. The Senate pastor led everyone to pray for her. A college choir came to sing the patriotic song "The Battle Hymn of". the Republic". She was the first woman in American history to receive the honor of having her body placed in Congress for public respect. The President also ordered that Parks’ funeral be held in Detroit on November 2 when all public buildings across the United States were lowered to half-flag. Parks was therefore named the "Mother of Civil Rights" by the US Congress.

The words that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the memorial service are the most representative: "Without Parks, I would not be able to stand here as Secretary of State today." At the same time, Parks was also deeply loved by supporters of racial equality because her activism and the subsequent movements that arose from it shaped the spirit of social justice and justice in the United States, and their battle won a better living environment for many African Americans. 

Parks is respected as a huge figure in the U.S. history of civil rights because she proved that one person can change a world. To commemorates Rosa Parks, on February 28, 2013, the unveiling ceremony of the bronze sculpture of the pioneer of the American Black Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, was held on the 27th in the Washington Capitol. President Barack Obama and Congress leaders attended the ceremony. This is the first time the US Congress has placed a complete statue of an African-American woman in the statue hall of the Capitol.

Obama said, "Parks' life is full of dignity and elegance," she changed the United States and the world at a special moment. Obama said that placing the statue of Parks in the Capitol showed her place among the creators of American history. The US Postal Service also issued a stamp on February 4th, 2013, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Parks’ birth.


Daisy Bates

Another woman leader who also contributed greatly to the work of anti-discrimination was Daisy Bates.

Daisy Bates was born in Huttig, Arkansas on November 11th, 1914. Her biological mother was raped and murdered by a group of white men when she was three-year-old. The case was never investigated due to the lack of interest from the police department. Upon hearing the gruesome details of the death of her biological mother, Daisy was furious about the inequality and the treatment of African Americans. 

She spent the majority of her childhood in a foster home. Growing up, Daisy attended Huttig’s all-Black public schools, where she experienced firsthand the low quality and condition of segregated public schools. Daisy met Lucius Christopher Bates when she was fifteen and the couple eventually got married in 1942. Lucius worked as an insurance salesman and helped out with newspapers in the South and West.

In 1941, the couple decided to start their own newspaper publication and founded the Arkansas State Press. The newspaper publication focused on issues such as inequality and showcased the achievement of African Americans in the community. The Arkansas State Press also documented the road to desegregation in Arkansas. Bates was also a local civil rights activist and became chairwoman of the Arkansas branch of the National Association of Colored People in 1952. 

In 1954, after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People won the landmark case Brown v. Board requesting the end of school apartheid in the Federal Supreme Court, Bates, and her colleagues in the "Association for Progress" worked together to inspire black students to enter all-white schools. She played a big role behind the scene in the infamous Brown v. Board case in helping to enroll nine black students in an all-white public school in Little Rock.  Little Rock City Central High School hoped to force the local government to enforce the Supreme Court's "Brown Case" judgment. But the nine black students who tried to enter the Little Rock Center Middle School were blocked by the National Guard sent by the Governor of Arkansas. President Eisenhower, who was a soldier, was angry at this use of the National Guard and sent 101 airborne divisions to guard and guide the black students into the school building with a gun. 

Daisy Bates

Force was needed to implement the Supreme Court's "Brown case" judgment, but the event remains in people’s memories and in history as one of the most pivotal events in the American civil rights movement.

But behind the scenes, Bates sacrificed a lot of her personal life and relationships in order to achieve these great milestones. Because of external pressure, Bates had to divorce her husband, and her adopted child also left her temporarily. Daisy Bates is oftentimes praised for her effect to promote equality in education for black students, and for devoting her life to the cause. 

During the later years of Daisy’s life, she moved to Washington, D.C., and served under the administration of Lyndon Johnson for anti-poverty programs. She retired in 1965 and eventually returned to Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite her age and retirement, she still devoted much of her time working to improve the condition of the black community. 


Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer

Another woman leader we would like to highlight is Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer.

Fannie was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was born to Lou Ella and James Townsend. She was the youngest and the 20th child of her family. She grew up in poverty and started to work at the farm at the age of 6. Ever since Fannie was little, she enjoyed reading and writing. However, she had to leave school at the age of twelve in order to help and support her family. Because of her passion for reading and literature, she was one of the few plantation workers who were literate at that time. As a result, she often served as the record keeper at the plantation. In 1944, Fannie married a tractor driver named Perry Hamer. They were planning to start a family together but when she was undergoing surgery for a uterine tumor, her white doctor gave Fannie a hysterectomy without her consent. Apparently, this form of forced sterilization was a common practice in Mississippi to control the population of African Americans in their community. Later, the couple decided to adopt two girls: Vergie Ree and Dorothy Jean.

However, her daughter, Dorothy Jean, was diagnosed with internal hemorrhaging after she was denied hospital admittance to be treated for an illness. With all the events that took place in her life, Fannie decided to devote her life to fighting for racial justice and making the voice of African Americans heard.

At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Fannie’s speech was broadcast live on television to the national audience. Her deeds and fervent words spread throughout the country and became crucial to the 1964 "Freedom Summer" movement in Mississippi. Fannie became an important representative of the civil rights movement. If it were not for the black rights movement that affected the grassroots movement in the South, she would probably continue to work as her brother and sister in the cotton field. 


Dorothy Height

Furthermore, we cannot talk about the heroes in civil rights without discussing Dorothy Height. Dorothy is known as the "Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement" in the United States.

Born in Richmond, Virginia on March 24th, 1912, her father was a construction contractor and her mother was a nurse. Dorothy suffered from asthma when she was a child, and the family did not even expect her to make it to adulthood. However, frailty and sickness did not prevent Dorothy from embarking on the road of fighting for and defending the rights of disadvantaged black groups.

Since childhood, Dorothy was involved in the civil rights movement. As a teenager, she took to the streets to participate in a march, calling for black people to vote and ban lynching. In high school, Dorothy participated in a speech contest on the topic of "American Constitution." Dorothy was eloquent and successfully entered the national finals of the speech competition. She was the only black participant to enter the finals. In her speech, she addressed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the Constitution, which were designed to give the former U.S. slaves and their children the constitutionally protected civil rights. At that time, the judges of the debate were all white, but they gave Dorothy Height, the only black girl, the first prize. 

As a star student all throughout school, Dorothy was successfully admitted to Barnard College, a prestigious private all-girl college in New York City. However, in the summer of 1929, the Dean of the College approached her and told her that there was a problem: the school had a quota for admitting only two African Americans each year and the quota was already full. They could not accept Dorothy into their school. Dorothy was furious upon hearing this decision. She torn the admission letter from Barnard College and turned to take the subway to New York and attended New York University. In 1933, she received a bachelor's degree in education from New York University and received her Master’s in Psychology two years later. 

After graduation, Height became a social worker in the New York Welfare Department. One of her first jobs was to fight for the rights of African Americans earning 15 cents per hour. She delivered a speech in the city council calling for "banning underground black slave markets." She also established the "Race Equality Center" of the Christian Women's Union and acted as the spokesperson. In the 1980s, Height also led the "American Black Women's Association", which promoted the reunion of separated black families in the United States.

In her approach to better promote equality Dorothy liked to quote the abolitionist Frederick Douglas, to "agitate, agitate, and agitate again."

Over the years, even though Dorothy’s name has been hidden under the aura of more well-known civil rights leaders, she still constantly fought for the rights of the disadvantaged groups and strove for social equality. During her life, she did not create any material wealth or cutting-edge technology, but with her activism work, she was called the "National Treasure" by the American media, and was also hailed as the "source of American prosperity" by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

For decades, Dorothy was an advisor to the US President on Civil Rights. She has won two of the highest honors in the United States: the 1994 "Presidential Freedom Award" and the 2004 "US Congressional Gold Medal". 

Dorothy Height died on April 20th, 2010. In a statement mourning the death of Height, US President Barack Obama said: "Dr. Height dedicated her life to the cause of striving for equality. She has witnessed every parade and milestone in the history of the civil rights movement. She is the godmother of the American civil rights movement and is a multitude of American hero."

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, also expressed, “The efforts, compassion, tolerance and patriotism of Dorothy Height have made our country stronger. We will always remember her tenacity and tenacity for fighting for equality Perseverance. And equality is precisely the tradition and hope of our country."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton also issued a joint statement on the death of Height, "Her departure is a great loss to our country, but her life's contribution, the social process she promoted, and the people touched by her efforts, It makes the country richer."

Historians have listed the "six big names" leading the American civil rights movement, namely Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, Philip Rudolph, Roy Wiggins and Whitney Young. However, Height is often known as the unofficial seventh person.

The New York Times commented that if Height was not as well-known as her contemporary civil rights figures, it was because she was marginalized in both "race" and "gender". In the organization of the feminist movement, as a black woman, she had to work behind the scenes for a long time. In the racial rights movement, she stood behind her male partners because she was a woman. But in her career in life, Height always faced this situation with a calm and firm attitude, fighting social equality, no matter what recognition she was given (or not given).


Diane Nash

Another important woman who played vital role in the civil rights movement was Diane Nash. Diane Nash was a Chicago native.

Before she entered Fisker University in Nashville, Tennessee, she had not experienced the shock of segregation in the Jim Crowe-era South. The "white only" signs scattered throughout Nashville inspired Nash to become chairman of the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and she organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters throughout Nashville. Nash maintained the organization’s commitment to non-violence and took center stage in sit-in demonstrations, which proved to be very effective in ending discriminatory practices in restaurants.

The following year, Nash took over the responsibility for Free Ride, a protest against the isolated bus stops on Greyhound buses from Washington DC to Virginia. The “Freedom Journey” originally organized by the Racial Equality Congress encountered a group of angry segregationists when they entered Anniston, Alabama. They were beaten and unable to complete the route. Under Nash's guidance, SNCC continued to protest from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.

Before leaving with 10 students from Nashville, Nash received a call from Attorney General John F. Kennedy’s assistant John Segenthal, who tried to persuade her to end the Freedom Journey, insisting that if it continued, bleeding will continue. But Nash’s position was unwavering, and she told Segenthal that they knew the risks and that they had prepared their will before continuing the Freedom Journey.

In the later years of Nash’s life, she moved back to Chicago and continued to advocate fair housing policies for the low income and the African American community. Since then, her contribution to the success of the civil rights movement have been increasingly recognized. In 1995, historian David Haberstam described Nash as "smart, focused, fearless, and has an accurate intuition of correct tactical action at every stage of the crisis."


Septima Clark

Septima Clark is also a legendary woman in the American Civil Rights movement. She was a teacher and advocate for education. She taught in black schools in South Carolina for decades and worked for the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Because of her outspoken activism and her participation in the civil rights movement, she later lost teaching posts and pensions. She came to the Highland Civilian School in 1954, and soon became the school's main instructor. The civic education school she founded has trained a large number people to fight for black people’s rights. This group of civil rights workers went deep into the Southern hinterland, educated African Americans on civic education, and mobilized them from house to house to vote, laying a solid foundation for the civil rights movement. Therefore, Septima Clark is known as the "grandmother of civil rights" in the United States. As recognition for her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, she received the Living Legacy award in 1979 from former President Jimmy Carter.


Jo Ann Robinson

One of the most significant events during the Civil Rights movement was the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, an African American activist was the one who started all.

Jo Ann Robinson was born on April 17th, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia. She was youngest child of a family of twelve. Her parents owned a farm. Jo Anna always did well in school and earned the position of valedictorian in her senior class. She was the first attend and graduate from college in her family. After completing her degree and her master’s, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to teach at Alabama State College.

In 1949, an incident involving a segregated city bus sparked Robinson’s interest in advocating for civil rights. During this incident, Robinson was attacked because she was sitting in the “white only” section of the bus while all the other seats are full. Angry with the racist discrimination she faced on the bus, Robinson met with the major of Montgomery. However, the city was not interested in her issue. When she ran out of options from the city hall, Robinson started to form and organize boycotts on her own.

She was especially critical of the treatment of African Americans on segregated city buses and was an outspoken critic of the treatment of African-Americans on public transportation. On December 5th 1955, she led a successful city bus boycott that gained national attention. Jo Ann’s sense of justice and belief in nonviolent protest propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward and changed the course of history.


To wrap it up…

There are many other activists that we did not cover in the scope of this article, but were prominent and important contributors to the civil rights movement in the U.S. Although they may not have glamorous background stories, or as big of a name recognition as their male counterparts, it is valuable for us to honor and preserve the history of the work and sacrifices they have made for all of us.


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