The Sisters of Civil Rights Get Their Due

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William J. Smith / AP

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, MS, speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, September 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenger to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives.

Many have never heard the names of all the Civil Rights Movement’s heroes. History remembers the “Big Six”—Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. But behind the scenes is an extensive list of names that often gets overlooked: women.

That’s why the Black Women’s Roundtable, an initiative of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, led a conference on Thursday to honor the women of the 1963 March on Washington. “We know our brothers did great work 50 years ago,” Melanie Campbell, NCBCP president and conference convener, told some three hundred women gathered at the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency. “But we know, in Melanie’s opinion, our sisters did even greater work.”

Panelists from a range of women’s organizations shared stories of the African-American women behind many of the movement’s most pivotal moments. Martin Luther King, Jr. and fellow civil rights leader Andrew Young, for example, only met because their wives, Coretta Scott and Jean Childs, knew one another, and that connection eventually inspired their Birmingham Campaign. “Women were the backbone of the civil rights movement during a time when that was more the acceptable role,” says Ingrid Saunders Jones, chair of the National Council of Negro Women and former senior vice president at Coca-Cola Company. “When women convene powerful things happen.”

The most famous unsung heroine, most panelists agreed, was Dorothy Irene Height. President Obama called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement” and gave her a place of honor on the platform at his first inauguration. Height fought the “slave markets” of black women in New York City who worked as day laborers for 15 cents an hour. She was the president of Delta Sigma Theta, an international sorority of black women, and brought hundreds of Deltas to the March on Washington. Thelma Daley, a Delta who came to the March and who now chairs the Women in the NAACP, told the women at the conference that she and her fellow Deltas marched under the impression they would get to hear Height speak. “We didn’t know the dynamics then, we didn’t know the inner workings,” Daley remembered. “She was too much of a diplomat to tell the group ahead of time [that only men would speak]…but we looked at her stature on the stage, with great dignity, with great power.”


Chicago Sun-Times / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago.

Other black women around the country were similar powerhouses in their own communities. Mamie Till made the decision to have an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son Emmitt, who was murdered in 1955 after being accused of inappropriate interactions with a white woman. His face and body was brutally destroyed, but she refused to let the undertaker do any cosmetic work on his corpse. “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. Pictures of the funeral, and outrage about Till’s death, spread though news outlets across the country and into Europe.

One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama, and her efforts launched the Montgomery bus boycott. Soon after that, Daisy Bates, then-president of the Arkansas NAACP, accompanied the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school in 1957 and opened her home to their families because they had to travel far to attend their new school. She and her husband published desegregation violations in their newspaper, the Arkansas State Press.

Ella Baker organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, the group that helped birth the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer. She ran numerous voter registration campaigns with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

L.C. Bates

William Straeter / ASSOCIATED PRESS

L.C. “Daisy” Bates in 1958

Amelia Boynton Robinson was the first African American woman to run for Congress from Alabama in 1964, and the first woman to run on the Democratic ticket in the state. She received 10% of the vote and spread the motto, “A voteless people is a hopeless people.” King used her home as his headquarters and office in Selma, Ala., to plan civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s and to craft language for a Voting Rights Act. Robinson also marched from Selma to Montgomery on what became known as 1965’s Bloody Sunday. She—like John Lewis—was clubbed and tear-gassed, and a wire photograph of her lying on the Edmund Pettus Bridge spread on the evening news. Six months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

There are countless others. Daisy Lambkin recruited future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Committee in 1938 and helped to lead the NAACP effort to pass national anti-lynching legislation. Edith Sampson was one of the earliest African American lawyers in the country and became the first African American woman to serve as assistant state’s attorney in Chicago’s Cook County. Fannie Lou Hamer, known for being “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” challenged a 12-term white male incumbent for Congress in 1964. Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to US Congress in 1968, and four years later she was the first black woman to run for president.

And, in the end, it was Mahalia Jackson who inspired MLK Jr. to improvise the “I have a Dream” section of his famous March on Washington speech.  “When you look at the civil rights movement, there are women, who if it had not been for them, so much of what occurred would not have occurred,” says Angela Rye, co-founder of IMPACT Strategies and conference panelist. “It is time to start celebrating that and remembering the tremendous strides that women have made as well.”

(SPECIAL: One Dream: Explore MLK’s Historic Speech 50 Years Later)