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Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

With Black History Month coming to and end, Women’s History Month is just beginning. When it comes to women leaders, we tend to associate very few to these movements, such as Rosa Parks or Susan B. Anthony (who was incredibly racist and only catered to white women’s rights, might I add). And especially in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X receive most of the attention, understandably.

But, how about the forgotten women leaders who fought for civil rights? We’ve discussed the known, now let’s talk about the unknown. Here are some you might’ve not learned about:

1. Ella Baker

Ella Baker played a key role in establishing some of the most influential organizations of the time, such as the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Fighting against Jim Crow Laws, running a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship, and organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, she earned the nickname “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation.

2. Dorothy Height

Said to be the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement” by Obama in 2010, Dorothy Height was a leader to be reckoned with. President of the National Council for Negro Women for 40 years, Height was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., even standing on the stage as he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. She was also a staunch feminist, organizing workshops to assist freedom schools and provide for low-income families.

3. Septima Clark

Once dubbed the “Mother of the Movement” by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, Septima Clark was a teacher and leader in the education realm. The South Carolina native began volunteering for the NAACP in 1919, going on to lead civil rights workshops in Tennessee. As an educator herself, she worked with Thurgood Marshall on equal pay for black teachers, even accompanying MLK to his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

4. Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama was an ally and leader in her own right; the Japanese-American activist met Malcolm X in 1963 after getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement, using her home as a hub for other activists’. These actions radicalized Kochiyama, FBI files later describing her as a “ring leader” of black nationalists and a “Red Chinese agent.”

5. Jo-Ann Robinson

After Rosa Parks was arrested for famously not giving up her bus seat, Jo-Ann Robinson jumped in to organize support for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955. She created thousands of flyers spreading the message of the boycotts to African-Americans all over Alabama. A crucial member of the movement, she also assisted with carpools that took people to and from work during the boycotts.

6. Fannie Lou Hamer

This civil rights activist fought for the right to vote, encouraging and recruiting people in her native, Mississippi, and all throughout the South. At one point, her activism resulted in her arrest and thrown in Montgomery County Jail, where she and her comrades were viciously beaten. She continued on, helping to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which raised national attention on the deep discrimination in the South. Her true spotlight came at the 1964 convention, where she spoke of her harrowing experiences in Mississippi and chastised leaders for ignoring the way black people were murdered for trying to exercise their rights. “Is this America?” she asked. President Lyndon B. Johnson, not happy about her testimony’s potential to stir controversy, called a last-minute press conference that effectively distracted the press and any live TV coverage Hamer was getting. However, Hamer’s stirring speech was aired on news programs anyway, sparking big support for the MFDP. Listen to her speech here.

Many more also contributed: Johnnie Carr, Dorothy Cotton, Georgia Gilmore, Thelma Glass, McCree Harris, Shirley Sherrod, Diane Nash, and among others, were grass-roots and behind-the-scenes powers. Many still haven’t been given their due. As Bernice McNair Barnett says, these Southern black women operated under the “triple constraints” of gender, race, and class, which made them all but invisible during the Civil Rights struggle—none was ever a “spokesmen”—and for a long time in the history written about the era itself.

These women paved the road for others to walk and fight for their freedom, but they are rarely given credit where credit is due; it is up to us to not cast aside these groundbreaking pioneers during Women’s History Month.

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Brianna Needham
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Brianna is a 16-year-old girl from Texas who has a passion for writing and social justice. For fun, she enjoys dyeing her hair, watching anime, and sharing vegetarian values.

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