Women Were the Foundation of the Civil Rights Movement
by Jo Freeman
Women were the secret weapon of the civil rights movement. For the most part, the men made the speeches and did the press interviews, and the women did the work. If they hadn’t, all those great plans would not have gotten past the talking stage.
At the luncheon for Women Who Dare to Dream, a part of the MLK memorial celebration, Memorial Foundation CEO Harry Johnson Sr. acknowledged that women’s contributions to the movement were often overlooked.
As more biographies and histories are written, the contributions of women are becoming better known. Ella Baker’s work as a founder of both SCLC and SNCC has finally been acknowledged, as has the importance of Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks.
But the women who refused to give up their seats on the segregated Montgomery buses before Parks live on only as plaintiffs in the court case that finally resulted in a Supreme Court decision that segregation had to go. The role of the Women’s Political Council in bringing about the boycott has similarly received little attention. And the thousands of women who worked in their own communities to talk their neighbors into registering to vote and other acts of defiance will probably go unrecorded.
Few know that the groundwork for the civil rights movement was laid by the citizenship schools that started in South Carolina in 1954. The idea of teaching adults to read and to fill out the complicated forms necessary to register to vote was taken up by Septima Clark. After she was fired from her job as a Charleston elementary school teacher for the crime of belonging to the NAACP, she ran the program from the Highlander Folk School.
When Highlander was closed by a vengeful State of Tennessee in 1961 for practicing and preaching integration, SCLC picked up the program and brought it to Georgia, where it was placed under a new Director of Education, Dorothy Cotton. Funded with foundation grants and run by women, the Citizenship Education Program brought 10,000 people from all over the South to be trained to teach literacy back in their home counties.
They formed the popular base of the movement — the ones who made repeated trips to the county Board of Registrars. Their willingness to stand in line for hours, endure loss of jobs and homes, and still keep coming back demanding to vote, created the record needed to persuade Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Images: Ella Baker; Bottom: Fannie Lou Hamer. Both images from Wikimedia
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