Women Of The Civil Rights Movement
Behind MLK stood the women of the civil rights movement: Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, who founded the SCLC. They worked in the Nashville March, Montgomery's Bus Boycott, voting drives, and more.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was to become and remain the symbol of the the 1960s civil rights movement, once told an audience, "Behind every great man is a great woman." King may or may not have realized just how truly these words applied to him. While he and other male spokesmen for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference traveled the country and met with officials, little attention was paid to those orchestrating the movement from behind the scenes.
King is most often identified with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, which was to plan many of the marches and campaigns, including those of Selma and Birmingham. However, these campaigns were as much a product of his advisor, Ella Baker, who had been instrumental in founding the organization in the 1950s.
After moving to New York City, Baker became involved with the NAACP, working as a field secretary and then a national director. In 1955, she co-founded the fundraising organization In Friedship, which worked to raise money for current civil rights campaigns. Shortly afterwards, she helped found the SCLC. After King became the organization's figurehead and official leader, she was to advise him until leaving to direct the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. For years, Baker would balance word with both committees, particularly focusing, however, on the youth movement. She became known to the next generation of civil rights activists as "Fundi", a Swahili word meaning "passes skills to the next generation."
Among that next generation, one woman who stood out was a Yankee named Diane Nash. Still a teenage college student, Diane became involved with the movement when Jim Lawson began holding seminars on nonviolent action in Nashville. She and Lawson organized teach-ins from 1959 to 1961, as well as numerous sit-ins, including the Rock Hill, South Carolina, episode of civil disobediance. When the southern Freedom Rides, a movement to integrate interstate bussing, were threatened, Diane herslef took the place of riders who could not continue the rides. She later became the Direct Action Leader for the SNCC. However, Nash was largely content to allow the males in the movement the official leadership positions, even those for which she was arguably the most qualified, as her co-workers would later reflect. One of her most public moments came when, during the Nashville March for Civil Rights in April of 1960, she publicly challenged Nashville's mayor, Ben West, regarding his own feelings about integration. West admitted his anti-segregation stance and shortly after gave in to the marchers' demands.
Among the ranks of the SNCC were countless other women working in various capacities, some at its highest posts. Still others directed individual campaigns, such as the voting drive in Mississippi, headed by women such as Prathia Hall, Martha Norman, Annie Avery, and Ruth Howard.
Action in the movement was not limited by age or education, either. Among the most vividly- recalled acts of civil disobediance came from two young girls. The first, a young woman Authorine, became the first black student to enter a university when she enrolled in the University of Alabama. walking through jeering crowds to register for classes. The other, six-year-old Ruby Bridges, was the near-legendary child depicted in the Rockwell painting as she entered William Frantz Elementary.
Interestingly, one of the movement's most prominent symbols, Rosa Parks, became famous for her refusal to stand on a Montgomery bus, but has been largely ignored for the more extensive role she played in the movement. Parks had served on the NAACP as a secretary and advisor to the youth council long before her actions that started the Montgomery bus boycott. The idea of a boycott had, in fact, come up in her work prior to her refusal to stand. Her spur-of-the-moment, one-woman act of noncompliance with segregation would spur one of the most memorable campaigns of the entire movement -- a 381-day bus boycott that led to the Supreme Court ruling against segregated bussing.
Another, only slightly less known activist, Fannie Lou Hamer was born and grew up a sharecropper. She worked as a preacher and singer before her 1962 attempt to register to vote. Shortly afterwards, Hamer was thrown off of the farm on which she worked. She became a field secretary for the SCLC in 1964. Shortly afterwards, she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and led the organization to the Democratic National Convention in an effort to break up the "Dixiecrat" hold on the Democratic Party in the South.
As the movement developed, particularly after King's 1968 assasination, it bacame increasingly male. As Stokely Charmichael and others took hold, females in the SNCC and SCLC began to feel increasingly unwelcome. Many moved on to take up the causes of women and the poor, and most have been largely forgotten by he public. However, like all those who worked for change in the 1960s, their legacy lives in the freedom persons of all colors enjoy in America today.