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American women are on the forefront of a movement for change (Op-Ed)

March 10, 2017

Originally published in The Baltimore Sun March 9, 2017

There is a movement for change that is happening in this country, and women are at the forefront of it. It is an incredible time to be a woman and, by extension, to be a girl. It is also exhausting, and it is hard work. It is a time of high hopes and great expectations.

We are standing tall giving ourselves permission to jump at the sun and say out loud that we are brilliant, resilient and we are here, fully present and accountable to this moment in history. We are protesting, organizing and making our voices heard throughout this world. The last two social movements in this country were founded and organized by women: Black Lives Matter was founded by three black women, and both the 2017 Women’s March (the largest United States protest in history) and Wednesday’s “A Day Without a Woman” protest were organized by women. We are using our pens, our voices, our art and our wallets to confront and dismantle racism and sexism and poverty and despair and violence.

Though the momentum for change is new, the work we are doing is not. Women have been our own champions for decades, since before Abigail Adams, the wife and adviser to President John Adams, urged the Founding Fathers to remember the ladies (obviously they ignored her). Women’s history and women making history is American history and a vital part of the American story. The contributions and sacrifices of women are part of the mortar that holds and binds our nation together.

We are now in the midst of celebrating Women’s History Month, a time when we highlight and celebrate the contributions of all women to events in history and contemporary society. We remember the women who worked to end American slavery; who challenged William Blackstone’s 1765 document, “The Rights of Persons”; and who pressured Congress to pass and ratify the 19th Amendment finally granting women the right to vote in 1920. We remember the contributions of women who acted individually and collectively to advocate for equal pay, for equal say and for our safety. Women who showed us every day that we have to fight, sometimes in the face of anger and humiliation, to be heard. Women who remind us, as Angela Davis once said, that we have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.

The first Women’s History Week was celebrated in 1978 in Sonoma, Calif., and begin to spread across the country. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. The proclamation states in part that, “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.” By 1987, Congress issued a resolution designating March as Women’s History Month. Today, it is celebrated all over the world and corresponds with International Women’s Day (March 8).

At the same time, there is still so much work to be done. Even though women are 51 percent of the population and currently make up 57 percent of the students in colleges or universities, we are still fighting for basic rights:

• Women are paid only 80 cents for every dollar paid to men for full-time year round work, and for women of color, the wage gap is even larger;

• Only 20 percent of Congress, 27 percent of U.S. college presidents, and 33 percent of U.S. state and federal judges are female;

• And each year, more than 300,000 women are raped, 2 million are battered, and more than 1,000 women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

This must change, and this is how we do it: We recognize that men still run the world and work to change and confront that truth; we focus on closing the gender gap and breaking all glass ceilings; and we raise our daughters and our sons as feminists, help them to find their voices, and send them forward to change the world.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the creator of #ADayWithoutAWoman K16 Syllabus. A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station.


Women’s Empowerment (Learning How to Lift as We Climb)

March 8, 2017

Nichole Aguirre and Nekia Becerra

(edited by Alicia L. Moore, Ph.D)

Objective: In recognition of International Women’s Day, students will understand the contributions and impact that women make to and on our society.[1]

Grade Levels

  • Pre-K – 2nd Grade
  • 3rd Grade – 5th Grade

Essential Questions

  • Why do women matter?
  • Why do women’s rights matter?
  • What will you do to change your community?


  1. Empowerment: to permit; enable
  2. Women’s rights: economic, legal, and social rights equal to those accorded to men, claimed by and for women
  3. Resilience: the capacity to withstand and recover quickly from difficulty, sickness, and/or other difficulties
  4. Equality: the condition, fact, or quality of being equal
  5. Discrimination: unjust or unfair treatment of people based upon their differences or distinguishing characteristics (e.g., race, age, ethnicity, appearance, gender, disability, etc.).
  6. Protest: an objection, disagreement or complaint
  7. Shero: A female hero; A woman who support girls, women and causes that benefit all people (Adapted from

The vocabulary words were defined in children’s terms using the Kids Wordsmyth website.

Lesson Plan (Grades PK-2nd)


  • Talking piece (A small stuffed animal appropriate for PK – 2nd)
  • Book or Video: Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
    Youtube URL
  • Frida by Jonah Winter
  • A square sheet of cardstock for each student
  • Markers or crayons
  • Yarn or string

Lesson Plan

  1. Gather students in a circle and explain circle expectations (tell them that eyes are watching, ears are listening, bodies are calm, and voices are quiet):
    1. Explain to them that when they have their “Talking Piece” (stuffed animal) in their hand, they can speak. If they do not have it in their hand, then they are listening.
    2. Practice speaking and passing the “Talking Piece” around the circle.
  2. Lecture Blast: Tell them that in our country, women have not always had the same rights, the choice to do whatever they like, as men in our country have had. At one point, women had to fight for the same rights. They organized and protested. (Protests are a way to show you disagree with something and/or the way that someone or some people are being treated.) Women did not like that they were not able to do the same thing that men/boys were allowed to do, simply because they are females.
  3. Have them turn to the student sitting next to them and discuss: How does it make you feel when you hear that women and girls weren’t allowed to do the same things as men or boys, simply because they are girls? Have a few students share out their response(s).
  4. Student Work: either read Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple’s Not All Princesses Dress In Pink to them or watch the story here. (If this book does not work for your students, substitute another empowering book for young girls.)
  5. Class Discussion:
    1. What did you learn from this story?
    2. What do you remember the most about the story?
    3. What was your favorite part of the story? Why?
    4. Would you like if someone made you wear a color you didn’t like? Would you like it if you could not play on the playground because you are in elementary school?
    5. How does it make you feel when someone makes you do something you don’t like or when they take away your right to choose?
  6. Explain the importance of (1) fighting for what is right (tell them that sometimes, in order for changes to happen, you have to protest) and (2) working together as one to help make change happen.


  1. Give each child a square sheet of paper and tell them draw or write about how they will change the world based on any injustice that they choose. If need be, take some time to make sure that they understand what an injustice is and how they can be changed. (Depending upon your classroom, remind them that boys and girls are equal and can do whatever they want to do.)
  2. Closure: Allow students to share what they will do or how they will help.
  3. Tie each square together in the corners to create a unity quilt and display it in a place where others outside your classroom can see how your students will change the world.

Extension Activity

  1. Silhouette Wall: Have students stand in front of the projector and trace their side profile on black paper. For younger students, teachers should trace their profiles. Cut out the profiles and glue it onto a white poster board.
    1. Have each student write a statement about how they will contribute to our society in a powerful and meaningful way.
    2. Hang the silhouettes and the statements in the hallway outside of the classroom.
    3. Invite parents to see how the class is working together to make positive changes in the communities, and ultimately, our society.

Lesson Plan (Grades 3rd-5th)

Things To Do Before The Lesson

  1. Move the chairs in your classroom into a circle to level the power dynamics, create an inclusive environment, and symbolize a safe place for the community of learners.
  2. Reflect on the women in your life (sheroes) who made an impact. (As the teacher, prepare to share in the instance that the group discussion needs an example or structure.)
  3. Have Always: #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable


  • Computer w/ Projector
  • Pencils
  • Sticky Notes
  • Chart Paper – Optional for sorting Sticky Notes
  • White Board
  • Dry Erase Markers
  • Construction Paper
  • Card Stock
  • iPads (Optional)
  • Scissors
  • Pencil
  • Sticky Notes
  • Crayons
  • Markers

Lesson Plan

  1. Establish Norms (You may use your classroom rules/expectations in place of this.)
    1. The students should develop a list of norms to follow during the circle.
    2. Students should develop and agree upon group norms.
    3. Remind students of the norms throughout the circle discussion.
  2. Pose this question to the group: How do women contribute to our society?
    1. Allow students time to think of ways that women contribute to society.
    2. Have the students record each response on a sticky note.
    3. Students should post their notes on the board.
    4. When all of the students have finished, have them work together to sort the sticky notes into themes.
    5. Discuss vocabulary words during this debrief time: Empowerment, Women’s rights, Resilience, Equality, Discrimination, Protest, Shero
  3. Debrief Sticky Note Activity: Discuss the common themes and probe further.
    1. Which contributions appeared the most and why?
    2. What would things be like if women didn’t make these contributions?
    3. Did anyone write about the contributions of women in their personal life (people they know personally)?
    4. How would your life be different without the women who have contributed/impacted your life?
  4. Show Always: #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable
    1. Have a broad and open discussion about the video.
  5. A Call to Action: Have the girls think of ways they can contribute to our society. Frame it so that they think of things that would require them to participate in designing/creating. Ask the boys to be supportive and contribute to this discussion in impactful ways.
    1. The students can think about how they can change their communities for the better.
    2. The boys can learn about being allies (supporter; united for a common cause).
  6. Assessment: Students can do any of the following to demonstrate their learning:
    1. Write a poem.
    2. Write a blog post.
    3. Write a letter to share what they plan to do.
    4. Record a voice memo.
    5. Create a short video using iMovie on an iPad.

Extension Activities:

  1. Allow students to complete an independent study on women who fight or fought for equality. Make sure to provide an expanded list of diverse women (in terms of race, ability, ethnicity, careers, talents, etc.).
    1. For example: Malala Yousafazi, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Juliette Hampton Morgan, to name just a few
    2. Students can share their learning via a Gallery Walk with the campus and community members.
  2. Form a book study group and read Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl’s Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!
  3. Silhouette Wall: Have students stand in front of the projector and trace their side profile on black paper. Cut out the profile and glue it onto a white poster board.
    1. Have each student write a statement about how they will contribute to our society in a meaningful way.
    2. Hang the silhouettes and statements on a wall outside of the classroom and have a mini-museum day.

Culminating Activity for All Grade Levels:

  1. Summarize ways in which girls and women have been discriminated against.
  2. Margaret Mead once said, “It is said that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens cannot change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” What does that mean and how can we use it in our classroom to change our school? The community? The world? Who should fight for/support women and girls in our society? (Answer: Everyone.) Discuss/Review men and boys and their roles as allies for women’s rights.

[1] For more information, see International Women’s Day

A Day Without A Woman K16 Syllabus & Resources

March 8, 2017

created & compiled by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

with Alicia Moore, Ph.D.

The world goes dark without the voices and experiences, contributions and sacrifices, laughter and love of womyn.  –Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 2017

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and we stand in solidarity with the “A Day Without a Woman” protest, we remember the countless teachers and mothers, educators and caregivers, day workers and hourly wage earners, who are unable to take a day off of work…as there are some jobs (like motherhood) that have no start and end time to its workday. We stand with you and challenge you to take these collective spaces and turn them into spaces of equality and justice, of liberation and freedom, or conversation and activism. We have compiled a list of resources (pulled from the #TrumpSyllabusK12 and #ClintonSyllabus; and submitted by teachers across the country) that focus on and highlight the contributions, lives, and experiences of women and people of color. We encourage you to go forward and teach with love and joy and in a spirit of resistance! We also ask you to forward us your “A Day Without A Woman” lesson plans or activities to add to our list. Let’s see revolution as a thunderstorm and join hands, run out into the room, and get free together.

*We will continue to add resources, so please send your lesson plans and activities to!

–In solidarity and sistahood! Amandla (Umfazi)! (power to the woman)

Lesson Plans & Resources

  1. Nevertheless They Persisted: Black Women & The Fire Within Them (MS/HS)

    -Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

  2. Women’s Empowerment (Learning How to Lift as We Climb) (PK-2nd, 3rd-5th)

    -Nichole Aguirre and Nekia Becerra (edited by Alicia L. Moore, Ph.D)

  3. Writing White Privilege, Race, and Citizenship: Reading Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and Walt Whitman (HS)

    -Ileana Jiménez

  4. Giving Voice & Making Space: Dismantling the Education Industrial Complex in an Effort to Free Our Black Girls (MS/HS)

    -Aja Reynolds & Stephanie Hicks

Opinion Editorials & Poetry

  1. Making Our Voices Heard (OpEd)

    -Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

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

    -Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

  3. America is a Divided Nation: Singing the Post-Trump Blues (OpEd)

    -Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

  4. Oya for President (to be read OutLoud) (Poem)

    -Alexis Pauline Gumbs

  5. Mourning in America: A Black Woman’s Blues Song (Poem)

    -Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.


I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change.
I am changing the things I cannot accept.
~ Angela Davis

I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America. ~ Shirley Chisholm


Liz Adetiba, July 1, 2016. Hillary Clinton’s Complex Embodiment of Shirley Chisholm’s Legacy, Inc.

Rebecca Bohanan, July 25, 2016. 12 Women Ran for President Before Hillary, Huffington Post.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, June, 2014.  The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic. 

Michele Gorman, August 5, 2016. Female U.S Presidential Contenders Before Hillary Clinton 2016, Newsweek.

Steven Hill, March 7, 2014. Why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Power?, The Nation.

Ejaz Khan. Ten Most Famous Women Political Leaders, Wonderlist.

Jill Lepore, June 27, 2016. The Woman Card: How feminism and antifeminism created Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, The New Yorker.

Garance Franke-Ruta, April 8, 2013. How the ‘System of Beauty’ Hurts Female Politicians, The Atlantic.

Julia Manchester, June 10, 2016. Hillary Clinton’s female forerunners, CNN Politics.

Lois Romano, July 24, 2016. Before Clinton, these women blazed the long, frustrating trail, The Washington Post.

Lily Rothman, April 27, 2016. How A Major US Party First Nominated a Woman for Vice President, Time.

Rebecca Traister, February 22, 2016. The Single American Woman, New York Magazine.

Bernard Weinraub, July 12, 2984. Geraldine Ferraro is Chosen by Mondale as Running Mate, First Women on Major Ticket, The New York Times.


Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed (Houghton Mifflin, 1970).

Ellen Fitzpatrick, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for Presidency (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Lori D. Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-century United States (Yale University Press, 1990).

Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth, Women, Work, and Politics: The Political Economy of Gender Inequality (Yale University Press, 2011).

Women, Culture and Society: A Reader, edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford University Press, 1974).


MAKERS: Women in Politics, Directed by Grace Lee, (Verizon, 2015)


Global Fund for Women: Champions for Equality. Women’s Human Rights.

MSNBC, June 6, 2016. Before Hillary: Female Political Trailblazers.

PeaceCorps. Global Issues: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

The Hillary Clinton Campaign. Women’s Rights and Opportunity.

The National Democratic Institute. Gender, Women, and Democracy.

The White House: Office of Press Secretary. Fact Sheet: Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

UN Women. Facts and Figures: Leadership and Political Participation.



 When they go low, we go high. ~ Michelle Obama


Amy Chozick and Ashley Parker, April 28, 2016. Donald Trump’s Gender-Based Attacks on Hillary Clinton have Calculated Risk, The New York Times.

Kelly Wilz, February 4, 2016. A Feminist’s Guide to Critiquing Hillary Clinton, Academe Blog.

Michelle Cottle, August 17, 2016. The Era of ‘The Bitch’ Is Coming, The Atlantic.

Rebekah Tromble and Dirk Hovy, February 24, 2016. These 6 Charts Show How Much Sexism Hillary Clinton Faces On Twitter, The Washington Post.


Carl Berstein, A Woman in Charge (Knopf Borzoi Books, 2007).

Deborah Ohrn, Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (Viking Juvenile, 1995).

Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking the Boundaries of Gender (Open Road Media, 1995).


Miss Representation. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, (Girls’ Club Entertainment, 2011).


Amanda Marcotte, October 20, 2016. Hillary Clinton is an actual Feminist: She Met Trump’s Misogyny Head On, Without Apology, Salon.

Andrew O’Hehir, February 13, 2016. Hillary, Bernie, Women and Men: Hey, Guys – Gender Politics Are Central to This Race, Not a Footnote, Salon.

Charlotte Alter, June 6, 2016. Sexist Hillary Clinton Attacks Are Best Sellers, Time.


As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out say far more about ourselves than it does about them. ~ Michelle Alexander


Rachel Herzing. What is the Prison Industrial Complex?, Political Research Associates, n.d.

Angela Davis. Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, History is a Weapon, n.d.

Vicky Pelaez, August 28, 2016. The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery, Global Research.

Aviva Shen, March 6, 2016. Hillary Clinton Says She Agrees Her Role in Mass Incarceration was a Mistake, ThinkProgress.

Eric Schlosser, December, 1998. The Prison-Industrial Complex, The Atlantic.


Cracking The Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, Directed by Shakti Butler, (World Trust, 2013).

Opinion Editorial

BBC News, July 16, 2015. Bill Clinton Regrets ‘Three Strikes’ Bill.


Will Cabaniss, August 25, 2015. Black Lives Matter Activist Says ‘the Clintons’ Passed Policy That Led to Mass Incarceration, Politifact.

Meghan Keneally, April 11, 2016. What’s Inside the Controversial 1994 Crime Bill That’s Plaguing Hillary Clinton on the Campaign Trail, ABC News Network.


One ever feels his twoness – an American a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ~ W. E. B. Du Bois


Yamiche Alcindor, August 1, 2016. Black Lives Matter Coalition Makes Demand as Campaign Heats Up, The New York Times.

Michael Eric Dyson, November 29, 2015. A Skeptic’s Journey: Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama, The New Republic .

JD Heyes, September 9, 2016. Total Stupidity: Black Lives Matter Clams that Climate Change is Racist, Newstarget.

S.A. Miller, September 27, 2016. Black Lives Matter Agrees with Clinton’s ‘implicit Racism’ Message but Doesn’t Trust Her, The Washington Times.

Bre Payton, August 4, 2016. Black Lives Matter Founder: ‘Clintons Use Black People For Votes, The Federalist.

Alex Pfeiffer, October 15, 2016. Leaked Transcript Shows Hillary And Black Lives Matter Activists Clashed In Private Meeting, The Daily Caller.


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket, 2016).

Opinion Editorials

Glenn Beck, September 7, 2016. Empathy for Black Lives Matter,” The New York Times.

Erin Aubry Kaplan, August 7, 2016, In the Black Lives Matter Era, We Need Justice Well Beyond the Legal Sense, Los Angeles Times.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, February 22, 2013. Can #BlackLivesMatter last?, The Baltimore Sun.


Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Directed by Shola Lynch, (Lionsgate, 2012).

Video Clips

Journeyman Pictures, April 12, 2016. #BlackLivesMatter – A New Generation of Civil Rights Activists is Emerging From the Violence of the USA.

RBC Network, July 26, 2016. Mothers of the Movement – Black Lives Matter Speech at the Democratic National Convention. 


Reuters Adam Bettcher, August 1, 2016. Black Lives Matter Group Releases Agenda Ahead of Presidential Election, CBS News.

Yamich Alcindor, August 1, 2016. Black Lives Matter Coalition Makes Demands as Campaign Heats Up, The New York Times.

Nia-Malika Henderson, August 19, 2015. How Black Lives Matter Activists are Influencing 2016 Race, CNN Politics.

40 Acres, A Mule, & $50 Dollars: Making the Case for Reparations (a Baltimore Sun OpEd)

February 17, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Conra Gist*

Conversations about reparations are not about money but about people and about the way that people are seen and valued in our society. These are difficult conversations, and we have found that what is most challenging about the idea of reparations today is the notion that America still owes a debt to black people.

We have spent the past couple of years wrestling with the question about whether reparations—as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently argued in his article, The Case for Reparations—could ameliorate inequality for black people in America. We believe that the answer to this question is connected to how well one can understand the structures, practices and norms that created the intentional and unintentional persistent pattern of inequality.

Because racism was institutionalized in the fabric of American society, it must be fought on multiple fronts—education, housing, employment, health, the criminal system and the criminalization of the black male body—and at various levels through community organizing, legislation, political representation, resource allocation and judicial advocacy. Reparations granted at the individual level would have little to no impact on the removal of institutional and structural barriers to make our society more just and free for black people. Reparations also cannot mandate changes in the norms of society that privilege certain groups in professional and recreational communities, or enforce a change in the biases and prejudicial views of others. They also cannot erase the double consciousness many black people juggle in a society that has yet to realize the provision of equal access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all.

At the same time, we argue that the conversation about reparations—no matter how emotional or difficult or pointless it may seem—must begin with an understanding of what happened in a private meeting on Jan. 12, 1865 in Savannah, Ga. On that day, General William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, met with 20 black ministers and asked them a rather interesting question: When the war ended, what did they think that black people wanted?

These ministers (half of which had been born free) were considered to be the leaders of the black community. Their spokesman was Garrison Frazier who argued that black people needed land and they needed to live separate from whites, who were prejudiced against black people. The vote was almost unanimous, with only one nay from a man named James Lynch, who had been born free in Baltimore. Four days after this meeting, Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which called for the redistribution of approximately 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black families in 40-acre lots (hence the later phrase, 40 acres and a mule). Although the order was later overturned by President Andrew Johnson, the act itself represented a significant moment because the American government made a promise of restitution to black people—a promise that has not yet been realized.

Since then, this pattern of exclusion and inequality has persisted through 90 years of Jim Crow and 60 years of the separate but equal period that involved the intentional and strategic exclusion of blacks from federal housing programs, public institutions and opportunities for professional advancement. And while the progress of black people today in comparison with 1865 is undeniable, it is also equally irrefutable that inequitable quality of life indicators for blacks disproportionately persist in 2015.

It is only by facing the historical legacy of unmerited and unchecked power, privilege and opportunity granted to some groups and systematically denied to many others that we can begin to understand why inequality still persists. At the same time, we recognize that a resolute focus on reparations has the potential to mask the complex manifestations of inequality, and silence other strategies and approaches for ensuring that black people can—without inequitable restriction—actualize their dreams with basic human dignity. This is the potential danger of reparations. The sense that once the merited payment is made, discussion of racial inequality in America can effectively end.

By facing these uncomfortable and horrendous historical realities, it challenges us as citizens to not dismiss the presence of inequality in society, or simply dismiss persistent inequality as a result of the behaviors of a group of people. Rather, as is the case in the recent #BlackLivesMatter contingency, public consciousness raising around reparations has the potential to cultivate civic engagement, discussion and action at many levels and fronts of American life. The reparations discourse is demonstrative of the reality that as citizens we must continue to take up the unfinished work of justice and not be complicit or comfortable with a society that has yet to realize access to equal quality of life for all.


Op-Ed originally published under the title: “The U.S. has yet to make good on its promise of reparations to black Americans” in The Baltimore Sun on February 27, 2015.

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

February 9, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Fannie Lou Hamer (photo credit:

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

Grade: Middle/High School

Overview: Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to: 1) Analyze the contributions and struggles of Black women leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy I. Height, and Coretta Scott King, by reading and discussing their experiences; 2) Explain the influences of motives, beliefs, and actions of different individuals and groups on the outcome of historical events; 3) Analyze multiple perspectives; 4) Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations; and 5) Interpret primary source documents to determine their validity.

McRel Standards

Era 10 – Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)

Understands developments in foreign policy and domestic politics between the Nixon and Clinton presidencies
Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States

Language Arts: Reading

Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of literary texts

Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of informational texts

Essential Questions 

  1. What was the role of women during the Civil Rights Movement?
  2. How did they define their role(s) and participation in the Civil Rights Movement?
  3. Who were some of the female leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?
  4. What were their contributions and struggles during the Civil Rights Movement?



1) Begin by instructing students that you are going to give them three minutes to write down three things that they about Rosa Parks (the only limitation is that they cannot list the most well known fact about her) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

2) After the instructed time has elapsed, tell the students to pair up and share what they wrote and then discuss the following questions:

  • Do they have any matching information?
  • And how difficult was it to list three things?

(Note: Often, students have learned information about certain historical events and they do not know that these “facts” are actually false. This activity will allow the students to discover, through their own exploration, how easy it is for history to be misrepresented, depending upon who is telling the story.)

3) Have them share out their stories and then take time to clear up any misconceptions that students may have about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. See the Montgomery Bus Boycott for more information.

Guided Practice

4) Inform the students that they will be examining the contributions of five women in the Civil Rights Movement to investigate whether or not these women have been largely overshadowed by male leaders in the Movement. They will also examine the possible implications this presents to the historiography (the writing of history based on scholarly disciplines such as the analysis and evaluation of source materials) of the Civil Rights Movement.

5) Distribute the Women of the Civil Rights Movement Worksheet to the students. This resource sheet presents photographs of Ella Jo Baker (Image #1), Septima Clark (Image #2), Fannie Lou Hamer (Image #3), Dorothy I. Height (Image #4), and Coretta Scott King (Item #5).

6) On the chalkboard or on chart paper, write the numbers that correspond to the photographs of the women and ask students to name the women.

7) After the students have answered or attempted to answer, reveal the names of these women and talk about their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. (See the Nevertheless They Persisted essay for detailed biographies and background information.)

8) After you have given the background of these women and their contributions, ask them to add any information that they know about these women to add to the list.

9) Tell students that they are going to listen to (or read) two interviews from the National Visionary Leadership Project: Dorothy Height (Clip 2-1, 2-3) and Coretta Scott King (Clip 2-2). Dr. Height talks about her experiences helping to organize the March on Washington and Mrs. King talks about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Print out copies of the transcript(s) so students can read them silently along with you. Tell them to take notes about anything that is said that peaks their interest.

10) Once the clips have ended, guide the students in a discussion with the following questions:

  • Why do you think it was so difficult to convince the organizers to have a woman to speak at the March?
  • Do you think it was important to have a woman included in the list of speakers? Why or why not?
  • If the Civil Rights March on Washington was held this year, who do you think should be invited to speak and why?
  • What do you think Coretta Scott King meant when she said that, “you have an inner peace and a satisfaction if you feel that you are doing the right thing and doing what God intends for you to do”?
  • How difficult would it be for you to commit to doing something that may cause you to lose your life? Can you think of a reason or cause for which you would be willing to die?
  • What is Dr. King’s legacy? What is Mrs. King’s legacy?
  • What do you want your legacy to be and what will you do to make it happen?

Independent Practice

11) Separate students into groups of four and then give them the Women and Community Leadership by Ella Baker Worksheet.

12) Inform students that they will have twenty minutes to read the passage. After students have completed the passage, hand out the How to Interpret a Document Worksheet.

13) Students should select a recorder to record the group findings on chart paper (everyone else should record their notes in their notebooks); a reporter to present the group findings to the class; a task manager to manage their group’s progress and a time-keeper.

14) Once group assignments have been made, inform students that they will have 10-15 minutes to complete the Worksheet.

15) Once the time has elapsed, group leaders should then share out their group’s findings. Whole group discussion should follow:

  • Explain why Ella Baker once said, “There was no place for me to come into a leadership role.”
  • Do you feel that the other women we have discussed felt the same way? Why or why not?
  • Baker states that she made a “conscious decision on the basis of larger goals” to accept the positions given to her. Do you agree or disagree with this decision? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel that women today face some of the same challenges when it comes to occupying leadership positions? Give some examples.
  • Does the church, in terms of political activism, still control the Black community? Explain your answer.


When the class discussion has come to an end, display the photograph of the “Big Six.” Inform the students that the photo is of the “Big Six” Civil Rights leaders with President John F. Kennedy after the March on Washington in 1963. Remind them that Dorothy I. Height was at the meeting but was not allowed to be in the photograph. Have students reflect on a) What or who is missing in the photo? b) What representation or misrepresentation of the movement does this picture convey? c) Do you agree or disagree with the message being portrayed in this photo? d) What effect did the passage by Ella Baker have on their perception?


Students should create a “Civil Rights Movement Newspaper” in which they write and edit articles that reflect the contributions of women in the Movement. Tell students to log onto the National Visionary Leadership Project’s Student Site and review the Civil Rights Movement Timeline as well as additional resources in More Stuff.

Extension Activities

  • Have students go online and conduct research on some other women in the Civil Rights Movement. (See From Brown (v Board) to Black (Power): Examining the Roots of the Civil Rights Movement Essay for other women involved in the Civil Rights Movement.)
  • Have students create skits that represent the contributions of women in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Have students create posters that reflect the women in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Have students re-create the famous “Big Six” picture of President Kennedy and the male Civil Rights Leaders placing women leaders in the picture.

For further information, see: Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Global Freedom Struggle or Rosa Parks, “‘Tired of Giving In: The Launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” in Collier-Thomas, Bettye and V.P. Franklin, eds. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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.

From Brown (v Board) to Black (Power): Examining the Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

February 7, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead



Three hundred and twelve years before the beginning of the modern civil rights era, which is generally accepted as the years between 1954 and the early 1970s, the first documented Black protest happened in America. Eleven Black enslaved men and women from New Netherland (later renamed New York) petitioned and won their freedom (and land) from the Council of New Netherland.[1] From there, as laws continued to be enacted that restricted the rights and freedoms of Black people in this country, Black Americans continued to organize, petition and demonstrate for their freedom. In fact, the first documented case that legally challenged segregated schools actually happened in 1849 with the Roberts v. City of Boston case, which argued that legalized segregation psychologically damaged Black students.[2] To fully understand the roots of the modern civil rights era, it is important to understand that the desire to be free—to be equal and to be unrestricted in movement and opportunity—has always been present in this country, in the hearts and minds of Black people. As a result, they effectively worked through the legal system to gain, maintain, and in many cases regain, their rights.

At the same time that they worked within the system, Black people have also openly rebelled against the establishment. The earliest account of a slave rebellion occurred in 1687 on a plantation in Virginia.[3] Although the plan was discovered before it happened, the idea that Black people were beginning to plan to aggressively challenge the system is important to note. In some sense, there were always two movements happening within the Black community, one that worked within the legal system and the other, which worked outside of it. The understanding of these two “movements” helps to frame the modern civil rights discussion. It is also important to note that because of this history, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the movement for civil rights [4] by Black people in this country began.[5] In order to narrow the scope of the discussion, the Civil Rights Movement, in this document, begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; peaks in 1960 with the advent of the Sit-In Movement and the founding of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)[6]; and, begins to decline around 1972 with the first National Black Political Convention.[7] Additionally, this document seeks to evaluate the importance of some of the events that happened during the “peak period” and how they influenced the American social, political and economic system.

The years between 1954 and 1972, have their political and legal roots in the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the United States Constitution. Commonly referred to as the “Reconstruction Amendments,” they have collectively defined and outlined the legal status of Black people in this country. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime; the Fourteenth addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws; and, the Fifteenth extended the right to vote, to all men, irrespective of race, color, or former condition of servitude.[8] However, in 1870, only months after the passage of the last of these Amendments, the guarantees for Black Americans would begin to be severely undermined by two important factors. The first was the social, political, and legal practices of Southern states, which received direct and legal support from the federal government, and the second was the widespread use of violence, intimidation and murder by the Southern white protective societies, with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan being the most well known organization.[9]

Post Reconstruction, national political concerns seemed to be directed towards reunifying the nation, which did not always include answering the question of, “What to do with the former enslaved communities?” At the same time, the Supreme Court, which had many justices from the South, began the task of eroding the rights that had been granted to Black people through the Reconstruction Amendments. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision, that legally sanctioned southern practices of racial discrimination in public accommodations, has its roots in the Supreme Court’s 1883 outlawing of the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the 1873 Slaughterhouse cases, where the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protected federal civil rights and not the civil rights that “heretofore belonged to the states.”[10] With the Plessy ruling, the Supreme Court upheld segregation, and the South’s “Jim Crow Laws” continued without question.[11] In addition, the lynching of Black men and in some instances Black women and white sympathizers, continued to occur at an average of 150.4 per year.[12]

This system of laws and social customs that reinforced racial segregation and discrimination continued to spread unimpeded in throughout the South, from public schools to transportation. The result was that the economic, educational and social progress of Black Americans continued to be restricted. Yet, within this environment of institutionalized racism, Black Americans continued to build church communities,[13] establish educational institutions,[14] organize legal campaigns and establish and operate national and international businesses.

In 1954, after a series of local and state cases had been argued by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.,[15] the Supreme Court in the Brown [16] decision ruled that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. As a direct response to the ruling, a number of white-only groups were organized with the intention of “maintaining a decent southern way of life… that placed Black people in subordinate roles.”[17] One year later, the Supreme Court, in what is commonly called the Brown II decision, (the second part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision), rejected the NAACP’s plan to integrate instantly and totally and instead adopted the Justice Department’s “go slow” approach.

This plan to allow integration to happen “with all deliberate speed” translated into the enactment of 145 laws to prevent desegregation. Six months later in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), [18] refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man and was arrested for violating the city’s segregation ordinances (this happened nine months after Claudette Colvin, a young teenage, was arrested after refusing to give up her seat). This simple act of resistance, which Peter Levy termed as the civil rights “shot heard round the world,”[19] sparked a widespread, year long Black boycott of the city’s buses. Coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association, the bus boycott was led by a twenty-seven year old, largely unknown minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was the first time that a large-scale organized protest against segregation used nonviolent tactics[20] and the first time that Dr. King, who went on to become the moral voice of the Civil Rights Movement, was introduced to the world. The boycott was successful on a number of levels. It proved to the world that Black people could organize and have a direct effect on a company’s profits[21]; it proved that the walls of segregation could be broken down through hard work and determination; and, it proved that nonviolence could meet violence on the front lines and win. The Association’s suit, which challenged the legality of segregated seating in public transportation, was decided in 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses violated the Constitution. One month later, the boycott ended and Montgomery’s public buses were desegregated.

As early victories against legalized segregation, these events provided the foundation that the Civil Rights Movement needed to build upon. The work to openly challenge and dismantle segregation had begun and would not stop until it was done. What was becoming blatantly obvious to the Black community was that there was a difference between de jure and de facto segregation.[22] In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, it took one thousand federal troops and ten thousand National Guard members for nine Black students to integrate Central High School in the fall of 1957. This was the true face of integration… nine Black students attempting to go to school in a population of thousands.[23] This same year, civil rights activists meeting in New Orleans working in concert with a coalition of ministers, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with the primary goal of consolidating the resources of different civil rights groups. SCLC, which elected Dr. King as their first president, quickly became one of the key civil rights organizations.[24] In 1958, three months after nearly 30,000 Black and white Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, President Eisenhower signed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which declared that the disenfranchisement of Black Americans was illegal.[25] Dr. King was scheduled to speak at the event but due to his health (he was recovering from being stabbed by Izola Curry) his wife, Coretta Scott King delivered his address. The laws were changing, but it was painfully obvious that the deep-rooted feelings of racism and segregation were not.

In 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was galvanized by the decision of four young college students to sit down and request service at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, NC.[26] This first sit-in sparked the beginning of a grassroots movement, which was primarily led by Black students against segregated public spaces in the South. In less than two weeks, the nonviolent sit-in strategy had spread across the South.[27] Within a year, an estimated 70,000 students from Black or racially integrated groups had participated in or marched in support of sit-ins throughout the country. This wave of nonviolent protesting was met by escalating, sometimes violent, resistance from angry white mobs, at times openly supported by the local police, whose tactics included using water hoses, throwing acid, massive armed arrests and beatings.[28] It had become clear to many of the young people working with the established civil rights groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SCLC and the NAACP, that they needed their own student-led organization. With the assistance of SCLC activist Ella Baker[29], they created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the grassroots movement fought racism head-on, Black people continued to confront segregation either through the court system or through the Executive and Legislative branches of government. The federal government ended restrictions against Black voting in the first voting case under the Civil Rights Act of 1957[30] and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Voting Rights Act, which granted additional protection to Black people working to secure the right to vote.[31] The year ended with the Boynton v. Virginia decision, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in bus terminals serving interstate passengers was illegal. Even with all of these victories, on the ground and within the courts, it is important to note that by this tine, only 6% of the schools in the South had actually integrated.

This disconnect between the law and the application of the law is exactly what James Farmer, an organizer and founding member of CORE, wanted to test when he invited volunteers to participate in the 1961 Journey of Reconciliation, which became known as the Freedom Ride. Thirteen Black and white students left Washington, D.C. on their way to New Orleans aboard public buses. The plan was that whites would sit in the back and use “Black-only” areas during the rest stops while the Black volunteers would sit in the front and use the “white-only” areas. The goal was to see how the government would respond if southern states refused to comply with the Boynton decision, which was also, in a sense, a test of President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to establishing civil rights. The “Freedom Riders” were first met by violence in South Carolina and it continued throughout the trip until Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent in the U.S. marshals to protect them.[32] Four months after the rides ended, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order banning segregation in interstate terminal facilities. The rides, on the surface were a success, but, there was still a racial stronghold in the South that was not willing to concede.

Civil rights leaders from all of the major organizations agreed that the battle against segregation needed a two-pronged approach. One arm would continue to focus on direct action, such as the Freedom Rides or the sit-in movement that would involve clear, public confrontations with the discriminatory social practices in southern public accommodations; the other would focus on the less visible, but equally critical, strategy of creating an educational and political base to bring about long-term social change. For both arms to be successful, they would continue to need volunteers who would be willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality for all.

James Meredith, a former Air Force veteran, answered this “call” in 1962, when he applied for admission to the all-white University of Mississippi. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. fought his battles in the courts, while Governor Ross Barnett attempted to block his admission. Even though Meredith won his case, it took 3,000 federal troops to control rioting mobs of white protesters on the day he finally entered the university. Meredith did attend “Ole Miss” and with the daily protection of federal troops became the first Black student to graduate from the school. Even with these legal and social victories (or because of them), the violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement’s nonviolent social activism continued to grow. In 1963, in Birmingham, Police Commissioner “Bull” Connor ordered his men to turn police dogs and water hoses on demonstrators, many of them teenagers and elementary school children. The continuing powerful images of the attacks, which were projected by print and broadcast media to a world wide audience, actually increased support for the Civil Rights Movement, and resulted in numerous phone calls and letters sent to President Kennedy. During this same period, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace made a dramatic public move to stop the integration of the University of Alabama by personally standing to block the school’s main door. His now infamous inauguration quote, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” was completely eviscerated when he publicly backed down and two students, with the protection of National Guardsmen, enrolled at the university. Later that year, Medgar Evers, a NAACP field secretary, was murdered in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi by a member of the local Ku Klux Klan.[33]

Even in the face of increased violence and terror, the nonviolent movement continued. In Washington, DC, the Civil Rights Big Six[34] organized the March on Washington, one of the largest peaceful gatherings in U.S. history. An estimated crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a massive show of support for the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, John Lewis gave the most controversial speech of the day[35], Mahalia Jackson sang, and the only women to speak were Josephine Baker (on the behalf of the French Embassy) and Daisy Bates. The feelings of optimism, racial harmony and peaceful change lasted for about a month until the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four little Black girls. Less than three months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

By the following summer, Congress would pass both President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public spaces and in employment[36] and was hailed by many Black people as the most important piece of legislation since 1875, and the Economic Opportunity Act.[37] The work on the ground also continued and civil rights organizations, led by SNCC, launched a major campaign to supplement their direct action marches and protests with efforts to create a strong, long-term political base of Black voters in Mississippi. Known as “Freedom Summer,” the campaign was led by SNCC organizer Robert Moses. Thousands of Black and white students, many from the North, responded to SNCC’s call and converged in Mississippi for a massive voter education and registration campaign and to establish Freedom Schools across the state.[38] Mississippi was chosen in part because it had the lowest percentage (less than 5%) of registered Black voters of any state in the country; 90% of their sharecroppers were Black; and, because of the state’s frequent use of intimidation tactics to keep Black people from registering. Opposition to the students’ work was widespread and at times, deadly.[39] In addition to the voter registration drives and the creation of the Freedom Schools, another core focus of Freedom Summer was the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an integrated delegation organized to challenge the seating of the all-white official Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Their efforts would not succeed, and an offered compromise would further divide the existing civil rights organizations.[40] As the year closed, Dr. King became only the second Black person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[41] and the Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act.

The beginning of 1965 was marked by an abrupt return to violence. In New York City, el-Hajj Malik el- Shabazz (Malcolm X), a former prominent representative of the Nation of Islam, was assassinated while he spoke at a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.[42] Weeks later, on what has become known as “Bloody Sunday,” civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama were beaten back by state troopers and sheriff deputies as they attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. Photographs of the attacks, displaying unarmed marchers being beaten with cattle prods, chains and bullwhips, outraged many Americans who appealed to the federal government to intervene. Later that month, under the protection of a federalized National Guard, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. and Mrs. King, Ralph J. Bunche and Ralph Abernathy, was completed. The march directly influenced the federal government’s decision to expedite the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned literacy tests and provided for federal examiners to oversee the process.[43]

In June of the following year, James Meredith, in his “one-man pilgrimage against fear,” began walking from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. His march was cut short when he was shot and wounded on U.S. Highway 51. Leaders from SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC joined together and continued Meredith’s 220-mile march. During the march, Stokely Carmichael, the chairperson of SNCC, coined the phrase “Black Power,” which highlighted growing divisions between moderate and militant civil rights groups. This terminology was quickly picked up and adopted by young people who saw it as the only answer to their feelings of despair, frustration and anger.[44] The increasing differences in philosophy and strategy become more apparent when CORE later voted to support the phrase while the NAACP voted to reject it. Carmichael began to move SNCC towards a more militant, aggressive and reactive position. As the year moved to a close, Barbara Jordan became the first Black person since 1883 to be elected to the Texas Senate[45] and Constance Baker Motley, a former lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., became the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge. These successes continued to solidify the legal and legislative struggle for civil rights.

The grassroots movement, which was beginning to radically shift, took a major turn in October, 1966, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). They adopted the black panther as their symbol and were often photographed wearing leather jackets, berets and carrying firearms. Influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X, this militant organization advocated black self-defense and the restructuring of American society to establish wider equality. Dr. King, among many civil rights leaders, was distressed with the rhetoric of the Black Panther Party but actually shared some of its views.[46] Both King and the BPP saw America’s racism as institutionalized and they questioned the viability of capitalism as an economic solution to the problems of the Black masses. However, deep divisions existed over the role of the “church” in the struggle and the redemptive value of the continuation of a nonviolent movement.

In 1967, Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court and became the first Black associate justice in U.S. history. As race riots continued to erupt around the country, Dr. King, over the objections of the NAACP and with the urging of his wife, began to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. As the country moved into 1968, it began to struggle with the weight of fighting two wars: the international war in Vietnam, and the civil war, of sorts, that was happening across the nation. Although President Lyndon Johnson continued to appoint Black people to high-level federal positions, it was still not enough to change the face and feeling of racism. This was never more obvious than with the release of the Kerner Commission Report, which stated that the nation was “moving toward two societies; one black, one white—separate and unequal.[47] On April 4, the face of the Civil Rights Movement, in a matter of minutes, was changed forever. While visiting Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers, Dr. King was shot and killed by sniper James Earl Ray. News of the assassination resulted in an outpouring of shock and anger throughout the nation and the world. Within days, riots broke out in more than 120 United States cities.[48] In the eyes of the world, the nation’s leading voice for nonviolent racial reconciliation was gone. Seven days later, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in the selling and renting of houses and apartments. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s former organizing partner, went on to become the leader of SCLC and to lead the Poor People’s March on Washington.[49]

Dr. King’s death, along with the passage of earlier groundbreaking civil rights legislation, fundamentally changed the landscape of the struggle. By 1970, as the Black population’s income and social conditions continued to dramatically improve, the Civil Rights Movement, which had led to the dismantling of laws sanctioning white supremacy and segregation in every state, had begun to move in a different direction. The days of marches and race riots, though they had not completely ended, were starting to dwindle.[50] Rev. Jesse Jackson, former SCLC member and organizer, founded People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), an organization dedicated to economic and political action. The Supreme Court ruled in the Swan v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg case in favor of using busing to further aid in the ongoing struggle for integration. One year later, as President Richard Nixon rejected the idea of busing, the Supreme Court in the Wright v. City of Emporia and Cotton v. Schotland Neck Board of Education cases ruled that towns could not secede from their district in order to avoid integrating. This was also the year that more than eight thousand Black people met in Gary, Indiana at the National Black Political Convention to discuss and establish an agenda and a direction for Black political and social actions. Although the white media ignored the event, it was a considered to be a major political and cultural event within the Black community. The frustration over the state of Black America was evident at the Convention and what was most obvious, to all present, was that Black Americans had finally achieved legal equality, but their struggle for economic and social equality would continue.[51]

[1] They had completed seventeen of their eighteen years of indentured servitude and argued that they should be freed and not subjected to the 1625 Virginia law that was beginning to be adopted in the colonies. This law distinguished between Black servitude and Black slavery and laid the groundwork for the harsher more substantial slave laws that took effect beginning in 1657. For a complete timeline see Christian, Charles M. Black Saga: The African American Experience. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995, 9 -15.

[2] Benjamin Roberts’ case was argued by Robert Morris, a young Black lawyer, and Charles Sumner, who later authored the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This formidable legal team broke new ground in their argument before the court. Invoking “the great principle” embodied in the Constitution of Massachusetts, they asserted that all persons, regardless of race or color, stand as equals before the law.

In April of 1850, the Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling in the Roberts v. Boston case. Chief Justice Shaw, unmoved by impassioned oratory about freedom and equality, decided the case on narrow legal groups, ruling in favor of the right of the school committee to set education policy as it saw fit. Shaw could find no constitutional reason for abolishing Black schools. Boston’s schools would remain segregated. The community was stunned.  Historic U.S. Cases 1690-1993: An Encyclopedia New York, Copyright 1992 Garland Publishing, New York, ISBN 0-8240-4430-4; accessed here.

Although they did not win, five years later, it did have a direct impact on the Massachusetts 1855 ruling against segregated public schools. “Segregation in the United States,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2006©

[3] John Hope Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom, mentions the 1687 rebellion discussion, however, Black Saga does not document it. It is noted that the 1522 slave revolt in Hispaniol and the 1526 slave revolt in the San Miguel settlement (South Carolina), both predate the Virginia discussion. See Black Saga and Franklin, John Hope, Jr. and Alfred Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 2004 (8th Edition) for further information.

[4] Webster defines civil rights as “the nonpolitical rights of a citizen; especially: the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to United States citizens by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.” (accessed July 20, 2006)

[5] While historians may differ about the exact time frame of the Civil Rights Movement, there is general agreement that the 1954 Brown decision was the “beginning” of the Movement.

[6] In addition, King was arrested in Atlanta, 61% of Black Americans were registered to vote, CORE secured an employment agreement with Bank of America and the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in bus terminals (restaurants, restrooms, and waiting areas) was unconstitutional in the Boynton v. Virginia case.

[7] It is difficult to set and agree upon an exact year that the Movement began to decline. On the surface, it appears as if it is as easy to choose 1972 or 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Keyes v. Denver School District case that integration must also take place in non-southern school systems. Below the surface, 1972 was selected for a number of specific reasons: this was the first year that Black income had risen substantially since 1960 (obviously as a direct result of the gains within the struggle) particularly in the South where there was 9% increase in household incomes; Benjamin L. Hooks became the first Black person to serve on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); President Richard Nixon rejected the idea of busing to achieve school segregation; the Supreme Court ruled in the Wright v. City of Emporia and Cotton v. Schotland Neck Board of Education cases that schools could not switch school districts to avoid segregating and Barbara Jordan became the first Black women representative to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Additionally (and in a lot of ways, most importantly), although Black people continued to struggle for equality, the way that they struggled had definitely changed. The mass mobilizations, the Marches and the number of civil arrests did decline and did not increase again until the Black Lives Matter social movement. Christian, 458-462

[8] Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. It must be noted that since the struggle for women’s suffrage took place within both the Black and white communities, the names of Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sarah Parker Remond must be added to any discussion that includes the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

[9] Founded six days after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the KKK was one of many secret white societies (the others include the Knights of the White Camelia, the Constitutional Union Guards, the Pale Faces, the White Brotherhood, the Council of Safety and the ’76 Association) that were founded to restore white order and rule back to the South. Franklin writes that the struggle for Southern white rule was based upon the question of “home rule and who should rule at home.” From Slavery to Freedom, 276

[10] Christian, 243

[11] Jim Crow, as is well known and documented, was not a real person but a minstrel song that had been written during the 19th Century (although there has been some discussion that the actor modeled Jim Crow after a slave that he had met). It was picked up by a newspaper and quickly became the “name” for America’s apartheid system. See here for further information. (accessed July 20, 2006)

[12] These figures document the years between 1882 and 1900. Christian notes that the number began to decrease after 1900 with the a) increase in public awareness; b) fear of legal consequences and c) crusade against lynching by writers such as Ida Wells Barnett, a Black female editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. Black Saga, 262

[13] The First Church of Colored Baptists was actually established in 1725 when Virginia granted Black slaves the right to have their own church in Williamsburg, VA. Ibid, 33

[14] Ashmun Institute (later renamed Lincoln University) opened on January 1, 1854 as the first Black college charted in the United States. Ibid, 157

[15] Despite the shared names, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are two separate organizations. The Fund is a legal aid group that argues on behalf of the NAACP and other civil rights groups..

[16]The Oliver Brown et al vs. the Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas case consisted of five cases from around the country: Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart from Delaware, Bolling v. Sharpe from Washington, DC, Briggs v. Elliot from South Carolina and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County from Virginia.

[17] Levy, Peter B. The Civil Rights Movement. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998. p387

[18] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1908 after the publication of “The Call,” which was a document that urged Black and white leaders to start discussing racial, political, economical and social issues that were important to Black people. Dr. William E. B. Du Bois, who later founded The Crisis magazine and who was actively involved in the Niagara Movement, served as the Director of Publicity and Research. With a membership of about 500,000, it is currently the largest civil rights organization in the United States. (accessed August 17, 2006)

[19] Levy, 13

[20] See NVLP’s Evaluating Nonviolence as a Method of Change lesson plan for further discussion.

[21] The bus company suffered a 2/3rds loss in profits.

[22]De jure segregation generally refers to segregation that is directly intended or mandated by law or segregation, which has had the sanction of law. De facto segregation is segregation which is inadvertent and without assistance of school authorities and not caused by state action, but rather by social, economic and other factors. Black, Henry Campbell. Black’s Law Dictionary. Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1990. (6th Edition) 416 and 425 or see “Segregation in the United States” for further information.

[23] In 1958, “The Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be known, were awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for bravery. One year later, Ernest Green, the oldest one in the group, became the first Black person to graduate from Central High.

[24] SCLC was one of the key organizations that worked to secure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

[25] Additionally, it authorized the Justice Department to seek injunctions against the interference with the right to vote and it established the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate interference with the law. Christian, 399

[26] Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil were students at North Carolina A&T University. Although the managers refused to serve them and they faced mounting white resistance, they returned and sat down for five days straight.

[27] The actual numbers show that the sit-in movement spread to 15 different cities in five southern states.

[28] Christian, 405

[29] See NVLP’s We Shall Not Be Moved lesson plan for further information about Baker.

[30] This case specifically ended restrictions in Fayette County, Tennessee. See The Civil Rights Reader: Basic Documents of the Civil Rights Movement. ed. Leon Friedman. New York: Walker and Company, 1968. pgs 231-236 for full text.

[31] In addition, if the government found that a state or district was depriving Black people of the right to vote, it could disenfranchise the entire area and/or appoint voting referees who could register Black people to vote. Ibid, 4-5

[32] There were actually two Freedom Rides. The first ended on May 17 after the riders disbanded and flew from Alabama to New Orleans and the second included organizers and volunteers from CORE, the Nashville Student Movement, SNCC and SCLC and finally ended on May 28. Friedman, 51-60

[33] As an aside, Medgar Evers was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, an honor that was bestowed on him for his work to fight for America’s ideals. Christian, 417

[34] 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. In addition, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, National Council of Negro Women, was involved (see NVLP’s We Shall Not Be Moved lesson plan for further information on Dr. Height).

[35] See Peter Levy’s The Civil Rights Movement for further discussion, 22.

[36] The Bill was pushed through and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the presence of a number of civil rights leaders.

[37] This one billion dollar act provided funds for Head Start (daycare centers), Upward Bound (college preparatory program) and college work-study programs. Christian, 420

[38] The Freedom Schools were designed to teach confidence, voter literacy and political organization skills as well as academic skills. (accessed July 28, 2006)

[39] In Mississippi, local members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

[40] The offered compromise included the Mississippi all-white delegation swearing loyalty to the party and offering two “at-large” seats to MFDP representatives. The split occurred when Dr. King, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins argued for the compromise and the representatives from SNCC, including Fannie Lou Hamer (see NVLP’s We Shall Not Be Moved lesson plan for further information), argued against and ultimately voted not to accept it.

[41] Ralph Bunche was the first in 1950, when he was honored for his mediation work during the 1948 Arab-Israeli dispute. He went on to become the undersecretary of the United Nations.

[42] Malcolm X’s biography, which was co-written by Roots author, Alex Haley, was published in 1964 and became an instant classic. X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity on June 28, 1964, three months after he broke ties with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. For further insight, see the Malcolm X Project website at (accessed August 18, 2006).

[43] Additionally, it gave the U.S. attorney general the power to bring suits testing the constitutionality of poll taxes and extended protection, under civil and criminal law, to qualified persons seeking to vote. Christian, 426 (As an aside, on July 13, 2006, after heated debate and southern resistance, the House voted to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965, renaming it The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act (H.R. 9), and sending the measure on to the Senate. President George W. Bush later signed the Act on July 27, 2006. One of the major proponents of the renewal was Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, the former SNCC leader, who was beaten during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Lewis stated that the Voting Rights Act was “good and necessary in 1965 and is still good and necessary in 2006.”)

[44] Carmichael later described “Black Power” as “a call for Black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community.” Additionally, it was a call for Black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead and support their own organizations and to reject the racist institutions of this society and its values. Christian, 429

[45] In 1967, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to the Congress and five years later, she became the first Black woman to run for President of the United States.

[46] Christian, 30

[47] Former Illinois governor, Otto Kerner, led the Commission that concluded that white racism was the principal reason that so many race riots were occurring across the nation. Ibid, 440

[48] Ibid, 440

[49] On April 28, 1968, one thousand participants, led by Rev. Abernathy marched in Washington, DC for the Poor People’s Campaign.

[50] Race riots occurred in Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Additionally, student violence happened at Ohio State University and Jackson State University.

[51] Christian, 460

“From Brown (v Board) to Black (Power): Examining the Roots of the Civil Rights Movement” was originally published as part of the “The Impact on Civil Rights Movement on American Policies, Laws, and Procedures” lesson plan on the National Visionary Leadership Project’s website. It is reprinted here by permission of the author and the organization.



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