Saturday, February 22, 2014

Black History Month: Women's Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

The theme of this year's Black History Month is "Civil Rights in America."  Today I want to celebrate by showcasing some of the voices of Black women who spoke during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Women civil rights leaders did not receive the recognition that men did in the movement, so it's important to me to do what I can to be sure they are remembered.  

I also want to acknowledge that women of color don't need me to speak for them.  That's why today's post is not about what I have to say, but simply about giving room in this small space for their voices to be heard by my mostly white readership.  These voices from decades past should never be forgotten.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was a Civil Rights organizer and spokeswoman from 1962 to 1972.  Jailed and beaten in prison for breaking a restaurant's "whites only policy," she went on (though permanently disabled from the beating) to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and to spearhead a lawsuit against Sunflower County for school segregation.  She also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative and helped found the National Women's Political Caucus, and authored two books. She is known for leading her fellow activists in Christian hymns such as "This Little Light of Mine."

Here is her story in her own words (from About.Com Women's History):
• One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn't want in office, we thought that wasn't right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote. 
• When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it high up as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd've been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. 
• The landowner said I would have to go back to withdraw or I would have to leave and so I told him I didn't go down there to register for him, I was down there to register for myself. 
• I am determined to get every Negro in the state of Mississippi registered. 
• They just kept beating me and telling me, "You nigger bitch, we're gonna make you wish you were dead." ... Every day of my life I pay with the misery of that beating.
And here is a portion of her "We're on Our Way" speech given in 1964 at the Negro Baptist School in Indianola, Mississippi:
We want people, we want people over us that’s concerned about the people because we are human beings. Regardless of how they have abused us for all these years, we always cared what was going on. We have prayed and we have hoped for God to bring about a change. And now the time have come for people to stand up. And there’s something real, real peculiar but still it’s great: there used to be a time when you would hit a Negro—a white man would hit a Negro—the others would go and hide. But there’s a new day now, when you hit a Negro, you likely to see a thousand there. Because God care. God care and we care. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we can’t sit down and wait for things to change because as long as they can keep their feet on our neck, they will always do it. But it’s time for us to stand up and be women and men. Because actually, I’m tired of being called “Aunty.” I wondered in life what actually time would they allow for me to be a woman? Because until I was thirty-six I was a girl: “Girl this.” And now I’m forty-six and it’s “Aunty.” But I want you to know tonight: I don’t have one white niece or nephew. And if you don’t want to call me Mrs. Hamer, just call me plain “Fannie” because I’m not your aunt.

Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates and her husband operated the Arkansas State Press, a weekly African-American newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In 1957 she became the advocate and champion of the "Little Rock Nine," nine students who became the first to attend the all-white Central High School.   President of the Arkansas Chapter of the NAACP, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.   Here is the gist of her short speech:

[T]o Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and all of you fighting for civil liberties—that we will join hands with you as women of this country. Rosa Gregg, Vice President; Dorothy Height, the National Council of Negro Women; and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; the Methodist Church Women, all the women pledge that we will join hands with you. We will kneel-in; we will sit-in until we can eat in any corner in the United States. We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-on and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women and one of the organizers of the March on Washington. She directed the integration of the YWCA in 1946 and founded and ran its Center for Racial Justice from 1965 to 1977.  She was a gifted orator and held a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in psychology.  She helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971.  President Obama called her the "godmother of the civil rights movement" before she died in 2010.

Here are some of her words from a speech she gave at the first Scholarly Conference on Black Women in 1979

I had to say what it meant to black women that we were a part of the whole civil rights movement, that we were a civil rights organization, really, under the leadership of women. And that we had had a major hand in that whole beginning with the significant male leadership. . . Because as women, we could not see our children and our youth struggling and have them on the outside of our effort. . .
But when you ask me the question about race and sex, I want to add something else that I saw recently in a poster. And that poster was a woman who had two chains; she was chained down with two very heavy pieces of stone, with chains on her legs. And the heading underneath was "Double Trouble." And the idea that it reflected was, take one away – one said "racism" and the other said "sexism" – take one away and she is still tied down. Take the other away and leave that one, she's still tied down. The only way she will make it: they both have to be eliminated.

Ella Baker 

Ella Baker helped Martin Luther King, Jr., organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and became its executive director. She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship. She was the catalyst behind the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which assisted student activism in civil rights throughout the South.   She was involved in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and was one of the little-noticed women leaders of the March on Washington. 

Ms. Baker's speech to a conference of student protest groups in Raleigh, North Carolina-- the conference that led to the formation of the SNCC-- was entitled "More than a Hamburger"  and focused on how sit-ins at lunch counters were only the beginning of what would become a sustained movement.  Though the speech was not recorded, here is a portion of how she reconstructed the event in her personal notes:
The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins
and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger that a hamburger or even a giant-sized COKE.
Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination - not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life. In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, NC were echoed time and again: 
“We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship. By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the moment was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the "whole world" and the "Human Race." This universality of approach was linked with a perspective and recognition that "it is important to keep the movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership."
These are by no means all of the women who should be remembered.  Evelyn Lowry (who just died last September at the age of 88), Patricia Stephens Due and her sister Priscilla Stephens Kruize, and Myrlie Evers are among the other heroines who should be commemorated for their dedicated sacrifice and leadership of the Civil Rights Movement at its inception.

And the best thing we can do to honor all of them is to recognize that the issue of civil rights for African Americans is far from resolved.

Please check out this article on the By Their Strange Fruit blog to see how systems of racism are still ingrained in American society. and this article to see how basic civil rights are still being abridged in our culture.   Pastor Jonathan Brooks also has an article this week on Red Letter Christians called Ok, White Folks, here's how you can really help!

Black History month is about seeing the perspectives and hearing the voices of those who have been marginalized in American history because of race.  Let it be a catalyst to also hear the voices of those who are marginalized because of race today.  I firmly believe this is part of what the kingdom of God is all about.

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