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Nevertheless They Persisted: Black Women & The Fire Within Them (Essay)

February 8, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Image by © Benjamin E. “Gene” Forte/CNP/Corbis

Examining the Legacies of Ella Jo Baker, Septima Poinsette ClarkFannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Irene Height, & Coretta Scott King

“Too long have we been silent under unjust and unholy charges; we cannot expect to have them removed until we disprove them through ourselves.” –Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Black women have historically been actively involved in political and social action. During the early days of the Women’s Movement, even though their participation was not always included in the history books, they were at the meeting tables helping to organize, fundraise and demonstrate for change.[1] Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper are just a few of the 19th Century Black women who raised their voices and their pens against racial and gender inequality.[2] They are the forerunners for the 20th Century Black women who continued to work to eradicate and document these inequalities. In 1896, the National League of Colored Women and the National Federation of Colored Women joined forces, forming the National Association of Colored Women. This organization was the foundation upon which the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), founded in 1935, and the four Black sororities, founded between the years of 1908 and 1922, were built.[3] The women in these organizations played a major role in the struggle for civil rights.

The years 1954-1972, more commonly know as the modern Civil Rights Movement, were a time when Black people increased their effort and pressure to force the government to end segregation, both in theory and in practice.[4] Similar to their work during the antislavery movement of the 19th Century, Black women were instrumental in the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Although their contributions and struggles may not be a part of the greater discussions, they must be noted and recognized in order to gain a true understanding of the role women played to advance the cause of civil rights.[5] Though there are a number of Black women from the Civil Rights Movement who could (and should) be profiled—Ada Sipuel, Diane Nash, and Gloria Richardson immediately come to mind—this document will specifically narrow the scope to look at those women whose contributions were so extensive that any civil rights conversation that does not include them is not accurate, complete, or exact.[6] These women, in a sense, are the lenses through which one can see how the Civil Rights Movement was shaped and nurtured by the commitment and contributions of Black women, as a whole. Two of the women, Dorothy I. Height and Coretta Scott King are familiar names, but their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement may not be as well-known as they should be.[7] The other three, Ella Jo Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer are names that may not be as familiar, but their contributions must be included (evaluated and critiqued) in the greater discussion about the Civil Rights Movement.[8]

Ella Jo Baker

Ella Josephine Baker, (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986), worked as a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), acting executive director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and as a mentor for the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903, Baker was the granddaughter of slaves, and the daughter of a waiter and a teacher. In 1927, after challenging school policies and procedures, she graduated at the top of her class from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and moved to New York City. She quickly became involved in the struggle for Black political and economic equality and later joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL). One year later, she was elected as the league’s first national director. In 1941, Baker began working as the assistant field secretary for the NAACP. Two years later she was promoted (without her knowledge) to the position of the director of Branches. While there, she primarily worked on trying to shift the NAACP’s focus away from legal intervention to community-based activism. Additionally, as the first woman to head the NAACP’s New York branch, Baker led the fight to desegregate New York’s public schools. In 1953, Baker resigned from the NAACP to run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket. After losing the election, she chose to return to the NAACP as the chair of a special committee,  later working with Bayard Rustin to establish the “In Freedom” organization, which was committed to raising monies for civil rights activities in the South.[9] In 1958, Baker relocated to Atlanta to work as the executive secretary for the SCLC and the Crusade for Citizenship voter registration campaign.[10] Although Baker spent two years with the SCLC, she never completely accepted their goal of working to establish a strong leadership base rather than building a grassroots network.[11] Like many Black women in the Movement during this time, Baker recognized that “from the beginning that as a woman… in a group of ministers who [were] accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for [her] to have come into a leadership role.”[12] Rather than defining herself in terms of her gender, Baker wrote, “I don’t think I have thought of myself largely as a woman. I [have] thought of myself as an individual with a certain amount of sense of the need to participate in the movement.”[13] In 1960, after the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, Baker invited the student leaders to an organizing meeting at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting, SNCC, which later became the grassroots arm of the Civil Rights Movement, was founded. James Foreman, former executive director of SNCC, stated, “there would be no story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” without the work of Baker.[14] In addition to serving as SNCC’s unofficial political adviser, role model, fund-raiser, and mentor, Baker also worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) campaign to replace the all-white delegation from Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although she has been called an “unsung hero for the Civil Rights Movement” and her name is slowly being added back into the annals of Black women’s history, Ella Jo Baker’s name and contributions are not routinely taught or included in discussions about Black history.[15]

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark, (May 3, 1898–December 15, 1987), a close friend of Baker, is another noteworthy activist whose contributions are not known and discussed. Born in 1898, Clark was the second of eight children born to Peter Poinsette, a former slave from a low-country plantation, and Victoria Warren Anderson, a freeborn Black woman who had grown up in Haiti. Clark grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and attended the Avery Normal Institute (graduating in 1916), which had been established by missionaries with the goal of educating Black children. In 1918, she joined the NAACP, worked as their field secretary and sought to educate adults on citizenship and literacy, so that they could then register to vote. After graduating from Benedict College in 1942, Clark went on to earn a Masters degree from the  Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1946. She routinely held literacy classes for adults working with  numerous organizations including  the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Council of Negro Women, and, the NAACP. In 1956, after South Carolina banned membership in the NAACP, Clark lost her teaching job and pension when she refused to comply.  Soon after, she was hired as the director of Workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a biracial training center for community activists. Clark, along with her cousin Bernice Robinson, developed citizenship schools, which taught adult literacy, basic life skills and encouraged and assisted with voter registration. In 1961, the program was transferred to the SCLC and, by 1970, the project had established over 800 schools and had over 100,000 graduates, many of whom became involved in the grassroots efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. One of her most well known students at Highlander was Rosa Parks, who attended a desegregation workshop in 1955, months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus.  Even with all of her work and accomplishments, Clark felt that women, as a whole, were not taken seriously in the struggle to advance civil rights. She stated that, “those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever.   I was just a figurehead… whenever I had anything to say I would put up my hand and say it. But I did know that they weren’t paying attention.”[16] Carter wrote and published two autobiographies  Echo in My Soul (1962) and Ready from Within (1986). In 1979, Septima Poinsette Clark, who was once called the ‘‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’’ by Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Living Legacy Award and though her name is not well-known, it should be, along with information about her dedication to raising Black adult literacy rates, increasing the number of southern Black voters, and working in the Civil Rights Movement.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Townsend (Hamer), (October 10, 1917-March 14, 1977), a sharecropper from Mississippi, a field secretary for SNCC and a  member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), was born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. The youngest of nineteen siblings, she spent most of her life working alongside them in the cotton fields. During that time, she attended school for only six years and lived in a home where there was no heating or plumbing system and no adequate nutrition. She also suffered from an accident, which went untreated, and left her with a life-long limp.  In 1962, when SNCC began their voter registration drive in her area, Hamer joined them and later, along with seventeen other volunteers, tried to register to vote at the county seat. Even though they failed the registration test, Hamer was determined to be actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement. This simple but complicated act of trying to register (and therefore actively challenge the racist political system), led to her losing her home and her job as a record keeper at a local plantation, being shot at by night riders, and suffering constant harassment by local authorities. One year later, Hamer was unfairly arrested and severely beaten after attending citizenship classes in Winona, Mississippi. In 1963, the MFDP was founded and helped to register 60,000 black voters across the state. One year later, Hamer led the delegation to the Democratic National Convention, where they challenged the legitimacy of the all-white Mississippi delegation. They also demanded that the MFDP delegates be seated and recognized as official delegates. At the same time, she launched her campaign to be elected to Congress as the MFDP candidate. Although she did not win, her campaign did bring national attention to her and to the MFDP. Hamer was the only woman to speak at the convention on behalf of the MFDP and many called her presentation “spellbinding,” as she described  how she was beaten and tortured for three days under the orders of a Mississippi State Highway Patrol. She declared to the world that as a black woman she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”[17] While Hamer’s contributions may not be as well known, her work at the Atlantic City convention did lead the integration of the Mississippi delegation and the 1968 election of Robert Clark to the state legislature. From 1968-1971, Hamer served as a Democratic National Committee Representative, later running (unsuccessfully) for the Mississippi State Senate in 1971 and serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972. Peter Levy in his book, The Civil Rights Movement, writes that Hamer and Baker both challenged the notions of domesticity by involving themselves actively in the struggle. He goes on to say that they were “strong women who defied the notion that assertive women were not real women”[18] Like Ella Jo Baker and Septima Poinsette Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer’s contributions to the struggle for civil rights should be noted and routinely discussed.

*Watch Fannie Lou Hamer’s MFDP Testimony

Dorothy I. Height

Dorothy Irene Height, (March 24, 1912–April 20, 2010), a noted civil rights activist, served as the president of the  National Council of Negro Woman (NCNW), one of the country’s largest and most influential Black women’s groups of the twentieth century, from 1957 to 1997.[19] Born in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia, Height grew up in Rankin, Pennsylvania, and graduated from New York University with both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in educational psychology. She also studied at the New York School of Social Work before becoming a social worker in Harlem, and a member of the United Christian Youth Movement (UCYM). Height’s work with the UCYM provided her with an opportunity to work and travel with Eleanor Roosevelt. At the age of 25, she began working with Mary McLeod Bethune at the NCNW, where she continued to serve, even while working for other organizations. Over the years, Height held significant leadership positions with the National Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), as their Associate Director for Leadership Training Services; with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., as their President; and with the National Council of Women of the United States, as their vice-president. In 1956, after she had worked on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, Height was appointed to the Social Welfare Board of New York.[20] One year later, Height became the president of NCNW where she traveled the world working to secure equal rights and justice for women and people of color. Her special focus was on elevating the economic and educational status of African American women and strengthening the black family. In 1960, the Committee on Correspondence sent Height to five African countries to research and write a study on their women’s organizations.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Height was one of the major strategists. In 1964, she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a historic forum for a series of open dialogues about race between Black and white women from the North and South. She marched with Dr. King, met with SNCC organizers, and worked with Rosa Parks. She was also the only woman who worked directly with the Civil Rights Big Six and was there when President John F. Kennedy met with the members to organize the historic Civil Rights March on Washington.[21] Despite her position as the leader of a major organization, Height found that she could not convince her male colleagues to include a woman on the roster of speakers for the march. Height described some of the difficulties in getting women’s contributions recognized, “It was hard sometimes for them to realize, as in the March on Washington, the importance of women’s rights. I think that we were so absorbed in the racial situation and racism, and if you remember at the March on Washington, despite all of our efforts, and many women joined me, we were not able to get a woman to speak for any length of time. The only female voice heard was a singer, Mahalia Jackson.”[22] Even though she received dozens of honorary degrees and countless awards, including both the 1994 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2004 Congressional Gold Medal for her civil rights activism; and she created a nationwide annual celebration, “The Black Family Reunion,” with gatherings across the country, Dorothy I. Height is still considered by many to be an unsung heroine of the Civil Rights Movement.

*Post-note: the U.S. Postal Service recently announced that Dorothy I. Height was selected to be featured on the 2017 40th stamp in the Black Heritage series.

Coretta Scott King

Unlike Ella Jo Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, or Septima Clark, Coretta Scott King’s(April 27, 1927–January 30, 2006), name is as well-known as her husband’s, Martin Luther King, Jr. Working alongside him, she organized, supported and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Although her husband wanted her to stay at home and focus on raising their children, King often marched beside him and even read his speeches when he was unable to attend a civil rights rally. While he was actively working to challenge legalized segregation, Coretta Scott King was in many ways solely responsible for meeting the demands and needs of their children. Often seen as simply the wife of a great man (which was not a small accomplishment) her personal accomplishments and contributions often go overlooked. Born in 1927, in rural Alabama, Coretta Scott King was the second of three children of Obadiah and Bernice Scott. Growing up, she attended a one-room elementary school and was later bused to Lincoln Normal School (her mother was the bus driver). While there she played trumpet and piano, sang in the chorus, and participated in school musicals, graduating as valedictorian in 1945. She went on to attend  Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (having enrolled there during her senior year at Lincoln ) where she joined the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the college’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees.  In 1948, she debuted as a vocalist at Second Baptist Church and later performed with Paul Robeson.[23] Three years later, she won a scholarship and transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was there that she met and married her husband and after graduating from the Conservatory, she moved with him to Montgomery, Alabama. At that time, Rev. King was not a well-known figure; his national and international achievements came later when he was fully immersed in the struggle for civil rights. The fact that Coretta kept the home and protected the children accorded him a certain amount of freedom to focus his attention on the struggle.[24] According to Representative John Lewis (D-GA), “She was the glue that held the movement together.”[25] In 1966, after helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King criticized the sexism of the Civil Rights Movement in New Lady magazine. She felt that, “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” Two years later, she joined 5,000 women at the capitol of Washington, DC at the S Women Strike for Peace protest.

After her husband was assassinated in 1968, King became even more actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Two days after his death, she spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Soon after that, she took his place at a peace rally in New York City. Although she used the notes he had written before his death, she wrote her own speech and really begin to secure her place as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She originally approached singer and entertainer Josephine Baker about taking the helm but when Baker declined, King stepped up and took it herself. She eventually expanded her work beyond civil rights to focus on women’s rights, LGBT rights, economic issues, apartheid, and world peace, to name just a few. By 1969, she had founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia.[26] In addition, she continued to organize and lead major demonstrations for the rights of the poor; she organized the 20th Anniversary March on Washington; and, she traveled across the world protesting and speaking out against injustice. In 1986, after her tireless campaign, her husband’s birthday was finally celebrated as a federal holiday.[27] She has received numerous awards, tributes, and honors for her work as a civil rights leader but in many respects, she is still talked about as if she was just the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. Her contributions and accomplishments as a civil rights leader, in her own right, have earned her the right, along with Dr. Height and others, to be an integral part of the greater discussions about the Civil Rights Movement.

*Watch Coretta Scott King’s NVLP interview

Recording Herstory

It is important to know and understand the accomplishments of Black male leaders during the Civil Rights Movement, and it is equally important to recognize and highlight the achievements of the women who, while they were not always recognized as leaders, stepped forward to organize and direct when there was work to be done. They blazed trails, they pushed forward, they spoke when others wanted them to remain silent: they persisted and they should not be forgotten. As the civil rights history continues to be written, debated and discussed, the conversation must be broadened to finally and completely include the successes (and failures) of everyone, male and female, who was involved and who committed their lives to working for justice.


[*] On February 7, 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the Senate floor in the debate over the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Senator Warren was reading a portion of Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Sessions to the Judiciary Committee from 1986. King argued that Sessions, due to his racist behavior, should not be rewarded with a federal courtship. McConnell evoked (a rarely used) Senate Rule 19 and later stated “She [Warren] was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The next day, I asked my students to tell me about the life of Coretta Scott King and all they knew was that she was the widow of Dr. King, this led to the creation of the #CorettaTeachIn and #MoreThanJustHISWife.

[1] In 1883, of the eighteen women who signed the constitution of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, seven of them were Black and at the 1837 Convention of American Women, one out of every ten women was Black. At the latter convention, Grace Douglass, great granddaughter of Paul Robeson, was elected as the Vice-President. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Sterling, Dorothy, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, (1984), 114

[2] Maria Stewart was the first Black woman and the first American woman to give a public lecture and to speak to a mixed audience (men and women). Ibid, 154; Isabella Baumfree was a former slave who became a preacher and a Women’s Rights activist who traveled and spoke across New England and the Midwest. In 1851, she supposedly asked the question “Ain’t I a Woman?,” as she bared her breasts to a group of proslavery auditors who openly questioned her gender. (Note: the accuracy of the event, as retold by white reformer Frances Dana Gage, twelve years after it happened, has recently been questioned by historians.) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., eds. New York: Perseus Books Group, (1999), 1889; Mary Church Terrell was a civil rights leader and women’s rights activist who was the first Black woman to serve on the Washington, DC school board and was primarily responsible for helping to found the National Association of Colored Women. She remained active up until her death in 1954.; Born free in Baltimore, MD in 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an antislavery and women’s rights activist, lecturer and author.

[3] Founded on the campus of Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha was established in 1908; Delta Sigma Theta in 1911 and Zeta Phi Beta in 1920. Sigma Gamma Rho was established in 1922 at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.

[4] See Integrating With All Deliberate Speed lesson plan for a greater discussion of the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

[5] This is important to note because current national Social Studies curricula do not have a separate unit on Black women, nor do they extend the required conversation beyond the work of Rosa Parks and Harriet (although this has been changing with teachers adding information about Oprah, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé, to name just a few). The conversations tend to include information about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC); Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the work of the Council for Racial Equality (CORE), particularly the Freedom Rides and the Sit-In Movement. See either the National Council for Social Studies’ Content Standards or the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) History Standards (accessed July 23, 2006) for further information.

[6] Ada Sipuel was the first black woman to integrate the University of Oklahoma’s Law School. The United States Supreme Court decided her case, Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma, in 1948 (though this is six years before the “start” of the Civil Rights Movement, the decision helped to draft the arguments for the Brown case).; Diane Nash Bevel was one of the co-founders of SNCC, a civil rights activist and a co-recipient, along with her husband, of SCLC’s Rosa Parks Award in 1965.; Gloria Richardson was the head of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), which was the adult affiliate of SNCC.

[7] For example, Mrs. Coretta Scott King’s biography in the Africana starts by stating that she is the widow of Dr. King and then explains who he was. Ibid, 1095  In Black Saga, Dr. Height’s name is not included in any of the events that happened during the Civil Rights Movement up until 1991. Christian, Charles M. Black Saga: The African American Experience. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

[8] The argument is not that they are not known but that they and their contributions are not as well known as their male counterparts.

[9] Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist, was one of the leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which sent freedom riders into the South on buses. This freedom ride served as a model for the 1961 freedom rides.

[10] In 1957, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and other Black ministers, with the purpose of consolidating the efforts of all of the existing civil rights organizations, founded the SCLC.

[11] Africana, 165

[12] Birnbaum, Jonathan and Taylor, Clarence, eds. Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle. New York University Press, (2000), 470

[13] Olson, Lynn. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York: Simon & Schuster, (2001), 471

[14] Hampton, Henry and Foyer, Steve. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

[15] Africana, p165

[16] Olson, 221

[17] Levy, Peter B. The Civil Rights Movement. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998. p133

[18] Ibid, 116

[19] Founded by Mary McLeod Bethune, NCNW, currently has an outreach to over four million women in the United States, Egypt, Senegal and Zimbabwe.

[20] General George C. Marshal appointed Dr. Height to the Committee, where she served from 1952-1955.; Dr. Height was appointed by Governor Averell Harriman and reappointed in 1961 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

[21] The members of the “Big Six” were Dr. King, SCLC; James Farmer, CORE; John Lewis, SNCC; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, NAACP; and Whitney Young, National Urban League.

[22] Online News Hour. Open Wide the Freedom Gates: Gwen Ifill talks with Dorothy Height, a legend of the civil rights movement and former head of the National Council of Negro Women, about her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. (accessed 10 July 2006)

[23] Paul Robeson was a civil rights activist and internationally renowned singer, actor and speaker.

[24] Black Saga, 427

[25] Applebome, Peter, “Coretta Scott King, 78, Widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dies“. The New York Times , 31 January 2006. (accessed 10 July 2006); Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement.

[26] The primary purpose of The Center was to train people in how to organize and participate in nonviolent social protest. (accessed July 22, 2006)

[27] In 1970, Black and white leaders from across the nation celebrated the anniversary of Dr. King’s death and committed to working to establish his birthday as a national holiday. Mrs. King led the fight that lasted for sixteen years.

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