The Role of African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

By Xiaohan Yi 

The American Civil Rights Movement is a brilliant chapter in the history of African Americans’ long-time struggle for freedom. In order to end racial inequalities and segregation, since the 1950s (and even before), African Americans have fought for their equal rights against violence, exploitation, disfranchisement and discrimination. Due to the consistent efforts of African Americans, finally in 1964, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to eliminate discrimination against people of color in public places like schools and workplaces, and since then the condition of African Americans has been greatly improved (“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–68)”).

During the Civil Rights Movement, the contribution of a special group of people cannot be ignored. They devoted much of their time and effort to fighting for equal rights for African Americans not only with their actions but also with their wisdom. They provided goods and resources as well as moral support to each other, and they were an important component of the Civil Rights Movement. The group I am referring to is African American women (Wu 5). “These women had played vital roles in the struggle for human rights and justice in the South and the nation,” states Vivan Malone Jones, the first black female director of the nonpartisan Voter Education Project (“Black Women” 8). From the very beginning of the movement, black women organized demonstrations at the risk of being killed and taught illiterate people how to read and write so they could struggle for liberation and freedom, while others took further steps to fight for justice and equal rights (Aldon 5). They were actively involved in different organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked to improve the situation of black Americans (Joseph).

Why did black women become the “backbone of the Civil Rights Movement” (“Black Women”)? Under historical circumstances, these women suffered greatly, and the cruel oppression exerted on them produced a strong determination to make a difference for their own lives (Aldon 5). Also, for black Americans, racial discrimination had a huge influence and they made up their minds to get involved in the movement. They were tired of being treated unequally when searching for jobs and houses and being segregated in public facilities with white people (Joseph). Also, because of the tradition that black women were leaders of family and had control over the leadership of religion, black women took for granted that it was their responsibility to look after and protect the whole community, so they joined the movement without any hesitation for the sake of all African Americans (Wu 5).

Among these black women, there are some very important figures that cannot be ignored. One of them is Rosa Parks. Although Parks was a working woman, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to work on behalf of African Americans and soon became a famous activist for civil rights throughout Alabama. On Dec.1st 1955, after a whole day’s work, Parks got on a bus to go home. Discovering that the black section was full, she then sat in the seats reserved for whites. Later, when a white man boarded the bus and rudely asked her to give up her seat to him, Parks did not submit and she was arrested because of her refusal to compromise (Lee). Rosa Parks became the symbol of African Americans who struggled for equal rights and freedom and she was known as “the mother of freedom.” “Some people said I was just tired or old so I did not offer the seat, but I was neither tired nor old on that day, I was just tired of making a concession,” Parks said. “Tired of making a concession” is the first step in the fight for equal rights and African Americans worked together to claim equal rights for themselves after centuries of discrimination and violence. As an ordinary black woman, Parks used her own action to illustrate the importance of black people fighting for their own rights and she became a symbol for the movement (Shen).

Another guiding figure during the Civil Rights movement was Ella Baker. Baker made a great effort to fight for the rights of black people throughout her adult life. Not only did she involve herself in many organizations fighting for liberation and social change, but she was also one of the founders of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During the time she spent in the SCLC, she effectively inspired and persuaded women and young people to get involved in the movement and she also organized a Northern support group to raise money and other useful materials to help people from the South. “Baker was the pillar of strength and good sense to lean on. Ella came across as just being such an honest, open, wise person with unending resources.” said Diane Nash-Bevel, who was also a leader during the movement. Baker set a good example for women and teenagers during the Civil Rights movement and strengthened their resolution to fight for their own rights (Aldon 5).

There is also a very important black woman called Septima Clark who sacrificed a lot during the movement. Being a member of the NAACP, Clark noticed that many whites from the South used the illiteracy of the blacks to ban them from voting. Beginning in 1956, Clark designed a special program uniquely for black people to teach them to read and write. She taught them to write by spelling their names and taught them math by counting the seeds they needed for their crops. It was incredible that a large number of black adults successfully learned to read and write through Clark’s teaching method because the public schools had failed to educate these black adults successfully. So as soon as these black people knew how to read and write, they could try to vote and pursue their own rights. The reason why Septima Clark is a significant person during the Civil Rights Movement is that she not only designed a good way to educate African Americans, but she also helped the people to fight for their own rights, pursue their own dreams and have a different perspective towards the world around them (Aldon 5).

Though these three black women made huge contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and changed the lives of many African American people, there were many other black women whose names we do not know but who dedicated a lot to the movement. In 1965, a 78-year-old black widow in South Salma turned her house into a campsite where activists could take a rest. Another black woman in this region spent sixteen hours a day preparing food for activists. Due to their selflessness and kindness, these black women became heroines in the hearts of activists. These women not only provided goods and useful resources, they also provided spiritual support to the activists. During the movement, black women often sang songs about freedom and human rights in churches to show the hope and resolution of African Americans. Though the lyrics were simple, they expressed the strong links between the hearts of black people and emphasized the strength of persistence. These songs also gave support and courage to activists and encouraged them to work harder on the road to pursuing freedom (Wu 5).

The Civil Rights Movement became hugely successful with the support of black women. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black women themselves received long-term benefits and rights that they had never dreamed of before. Because of equal rights, some black women entered the professional fields that white women worked in and some well-educated black women gained positions in business and science. Although compared with white men, white women and black men, black women may continue to feel the farthest away from the dominant society, they still actively take part in voting and other political affairs (Wu 5).

Black women provided basic strength, organized different activities and created various new concepts during the Civil Rights Movement. They ignited the torchlight of resistance and struggled for all African American to pursue freedom and liberation (Shen). Black women used their strength to assist the movement wherever necessary. Although because of their race and gender disadvantage they did not have institutional power, their roles as mothers, housewives, workers, movement helpers and organization leaders still made it possible for them to use different forms of resistance to fight for their own benefit and to receive education and obtain more civil rights (Joseph). Without the help of these African American Women, the Civil Rights Movement would never have achieved such huge success.

Works Cited

“Black women: Backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.” Tri – State Defender (1959-1989) Oct 1. 1977: 8. Web. 17 November 2013.

Morris, Aldon. “Black Women Crucial to Success of Civil Rights Movement.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001) 14 Feb 1986: 5_D. Web. 17 November 2013.

Xinyun, Wu. “Black Women in American Civil Rights Movement.” Women Study Discussion Group, 2001:5. Web. 17 November 2013.

Rui, Shen. “Black Women and Civil Rights Movement.” China Women Newspaper (Sep 2013). Web. 17 November 2013.

Johnson, Charles. “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) 05 May 1985: q13. Web. 17 November 2013.

Tiffany D. Joseph. “Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement: 1960-1970.” Brown University. Web. 17 November 2013.

Chana Kai Lee. “Parks, Rosa” American National Biography Online. October 2006 Update. Web. 17 November 2013.

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