Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is around the time that we begin to reflect on the people and events of the Civil Rights Movement. We highlight the speeches and voices of important male leaders, but seldom focus on the important contributions of women.
Because of the real and present danger of corporeal violence (lynching) against African Americans, Black men in particular, the women were often tasked with being on the front lines of the movement. Women such as Ida B. Wells, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, and Claudette Colvin were the brains and bodies used to advance the human rights of African Americans in the United States.
Ida B. Wells was a passionate and effective voice for African Americans who were being lynched. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson wrote her memoir, Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, and set it in the midst of the struggle. And Claudette Colvin, a dark-skinned, pregnant teenager represented African Americans on the bus before Rosa Parks. Parks was not only the face of the bus boycott, but was an advocate for domestic workers who experienced sexual assault. Other female voices often forgotten are Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Like Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Ella Baker was a behind the scenes organizer, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the person to recruit Martin Luther King, Jr. into the Civil Rights Movement. And Fannie Lou Hamer, one of 20 children born to sharecroppers, was the voice for laboring African Americans in the southern region of the U.S. Mrs. Hamer joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked to teach literacy to African Americans. It was important for African Americans to be able to read and write, as local government agencies used tests as an obstacle to their right to vote.
Lastly, I would like to include an important person behind the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin. As important female voices in the history of the Civil Rights Movement have been suppressed, so to have the voices of the LGBTQ community. Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man, organized the March on Washington. Similar to the ways in which Black women experience interlocking oppressions, Rustin experienced intersectional oppression because of his sexuality.
To learn more about the women of the Civil Rights Movement, check out one of these books from the Prairie State College Library today!