My Women’s History course is moving along nicely. This past week we discussed issues relating to black feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. I offered a few reflections yesterday morning on our tendency to see the Civil Rights Movement along gendered lines. Most of our images are indeed centered on men such as Martin L. King, Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, etc. I suggested that even the prominent place of Rosa Parks in our national narrative is in part a result of the fact that it led to King’s emergence as a national leader. Would we remember Parks if her arrest was not followed by a city-wide boycott of the buses? I enjoyed our discussions because it gave me a chance to think a bit more about the connection between gender and race as factors in how our national narrative has been constructed throughout much of the twentieth century. I’ve never thought much before this class about how gender has shaped our understanding of this particular event. Luckily our textbook does a fabulous job of providing an overview of both black and white women and the issues that they faced in various organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, and the SCLC. I supplemented the text with a few readings including a primary document authored by Mary King who reported on the position of women in SNCC in 1964. We also discussed a short article by Beverly Guy-Sheftall titled "African American Women: The Legacy of Black Feminism" which is contained in a collection edited by Robin Morgan called Sisterhood Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium.
Specific women that were discussed include Ella Baker who was active in the NAACP and was later appointed "acting" executive director of the SCLC. She was one of the founders of SNCC following the Greensboro sit-ins and organized numerous voter registration drives throughout the South. Diane Nash also worked with SNCC and organized the Nashville sit-ins; she is best known for pushing for continued Freedom Rides following the violence of Anniston and Birmingham in 1961. One of the most interesting stories for me involves Fannie Lou Hamer who grew up on a large cotton plantation. Although she only managed to work through the sixth grade Hamer eventually joined SNCC and succeeded in registering to vote in 1963: "We just got to stand up now as Negroes for ourselves and for our freedom, and if it don’t do me any good, I do know the young people it will do good." Hamer organized voter registration drives in Mississippi. She died in 1977 as a result of a brutal 1963 beating she received as a result of her political activism. We also talked about the challenges posed by the presence of white women in these organizations such as Virginia Foster Durr and Anne Braden.
The final group of women we discussed were those who took the initiative to break the color barrier in colleges and universities throughout the South. They include Autherine Lucy who became the first black student to be admitted to the University of Alabama in 1956. She was expelled three days later "for her own protection" against threats from white students. Seven years later Vivian Malone and another male black student were admitted to the school. Charlayne Hunter took the important step of integrating the University of Georgia in 1961. There are, of course, others.
One of the interesting questions for discussion centered on the unique challenges that being both black and a woman posed for those interested in political activism in the 1960s. Mary King states the following in her evaluation of SNCC in 1964: "Most men in this movement are probably too threatened by the possibility of serious discussion on this subject. Perhaps this is because they have recently broken away from a matriarchal framework under which they may have grown up." Guy-Sheftall lists a number of points in an attempt to show that the perspective and challenges of black women in America are unique, and as a result, cannot be ignored:
1. Black women experience a special kind of oppression in this country, one that is both racist and sexist, because of their dual racial and gender identities.
2. This "double jeopardy" has meant that the problems, concerns, and needs of black women are different in many ways from those of both white women and black men.
3. Black women’s unique struggles with respect to racial and sexual politics, their poverty, and their marginalized status have given them a particular view of the world.