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Women Leaders in the African American Civil Rights Movement in the US

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The Civil Rights Movement was a time dedicated to activism for equal rights and treatment of African- Americans in the United States. During this period, many people rallied for social, legal and political changes to prohibit discrimination and end segregation. Many important events involving discrimination against African- Americans led up to the era known as the Civil Rights Movement. The enslavement of Africans is perhaps the biggest example of inhumanity in United States history. The abolishment of slavery did not change the issues that allowed discrimination to continue. Many great leaders came about from the Civil Rights movements such as, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson

It takes the courage and dedication of people to get positive changes in a country.

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Many women played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement, from leading local civil rights organizations to serving as lawyers on school segregation lawsuits. Their efforts to lead the movement were often overshadowed by men, who still get more attention and credit for its successes in popular historical narratives and commemorations. Many women experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the movement and later turned towards the feminist movement in the 1970s. The Civil Rights History Project interviews with participants in the struggle include both expressions of pride in women’s achievements and also candid assessments about the difficulties they faced within the movement. Lonnie King was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta. He remembers meeting other students from the Nashville movement when SNCC became a nationwide organization in 1960. He recalls his surprise that Diane Nash was not elected to be the representative from Nashville, and echoes Simmons’ criticisms about male privilege and domination: “Diane Nash, in my view, was the Nashville movement and by that I mean this: Others were there, but they weren’t Diane Nash. Diane was articulate; she was a beautiful woman, very photogenic, very committed. And very intelligent and had a following. I never did understand how, except maybe for sexism, I never understood how [James] Bevel, Marion [Barry], and for that matter, John Lewis, kind of leapfrogged over her. I never understood that because she was in fact the leader in Nashville. It was Diane. The others were followers of her… I so never understood that to be honest with you. She’s an unsung... a real unsung hero of the movement in Nashville, in my opinion.” Ekwueme Michael Thewell was a student at Howard University and a leader of the Nonviolent Action Group, an organization that eventually joined with SNCC. He reflects on the sacrifices that women college students at Howard made in joining the struggle, and remarks on the constraints they faced after doing so: “It is only in retrospect that I recognize the extraordinary price that our sisters paid for being as devoted to the struggle as they were. It meant that they weren’t into homecoming queen kind of activities. That they weren’t into the accepted behavior of a Howard lady. That they weren't into the trivia of fashion and dressing up. Though they were attractive women and they took care of themselves, but they weren’t the kind of trophy wives for the med school students and they weren’t—some of them might have been members of the Greek letter organizations, but most of them I suspect weren’t

So that they occupied a place outside the conventional social norms of the whole university student body. So did the men. But with men, I think, we can just say, ‘Kiss my black ass’ and go on about our business. It wasn’t so clear to me that a woman could do the same thing.”

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They also refused to give seats to White passengers in buses, “I am not going to move out of my seat…I got the privilege to sit here like anybody” (Hendrickson 294) as a way of initiating protests. In addition, Black women with fair skin also used the sneering strategy; reminding the Whites who thought and treated them as Whites that they were not different from Blacks, “was a member of the darker race” (Hendrickson 293). Conspicuously, Black women such as Mrs. Gilmore formed clubs that sought money to finance the movement (Barnett 168). In addition, they sought after the personnel that the movement required

For instance, the Albany Movement had a woman leader who organized young people to attend demonstrations and meetings (Barnett 168). However, despite their paramount contributions, sometimes more than men “and it was women more than men” (Hendrickson 289), Black women remained invisible in reference to their recognition as leaders in the movement, except for a few such as Rosa Parks. Evidently, Black women were not under any male leaders’ directives, including the most influential male, Martin Luther King, a clear indication that they deserved recognition on their own. The Black women took their own initiatives. This is because they “shared a common desire for freedom from oppression” (Barnet 163) that made them have the courage to start their initiatives without relying on men directives. They were angered by the unjust segregation laws that made them victims of racialism, and unjust treatment by officers and in the public (McGuire 59). Hence, they took their own initiatives because they “wanted better treatment” (290) which they would get if they cooperated with the Black people in the movement. The key factors that left the Black women unrecognized or led to recognition of just a few of them as leaders are class, race and gender biases (Barnet 163). In terms of gender bias, focus on Civil Rights Movement research was on the elite Black male professionals such as Martin Luther King and ministers, not the women.

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All things considered, the life lessons from the women leaders I interviewed are consistent in their authenticity, courage, and purpose—the three main themes illuminated by my research. It was an immense honor to interview the nine participants and to hear them speak, to try to lift up their voices as leaders

No written narrative can fully capture their cadences and thought patterns, the verbal and physical windows to their personalities and souls. Much more remains to be learned from them as leaders and as human beings who came to terms with a society where they might have succumbed to anger and immobilization caused by invisibility and marginalization. I, for one, am eager to hear more. I hope that my research encourages other academic researchers to expand work in the area of civil and human rights leadership.

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Barnett, Bernice McNair. “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class”. Gender and Society, 7.2 (1993):162-182. Print.

Hendrickson, Paul, “1944-The Ladies Before Rosa: Let Us Now Praise Unfamous Women”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8. 2 (2005): 287-298. Print.

McGuire, Danielle L. “At the Dark End of the Street”. Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 40-67. Print.

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