Women and the Civil Rights Movement: Roles Too Long Unexamined

By Sharron Hannon

Vol. 10, No. 6, 1988, pp. 4-5

The year 1988 wee a time for looking back. Twenty-five years ago a church was bombed in Birmingham, thousands marched on Washington and the President was shot in Dallas. Twenty years ago, assassins' bullets felled Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. These are not happy anniversaries in our nation's history but they must be marked.

"Those who cannot remember the peat are condemned to repeat it," said philosopher George Santayana. That's motivation enough to look back. But there are other compelling reasons.

We look back because history is cyclical and because you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. We look back, too, because we are disillusioned with the present. How did we get here, in this poet-Reagan era, about to install George Bush as our President far the next four years? What wrong turn did we take and when?

By searching the peat perhaps we'll find pieces of the puzzle that we need to make sense of the world and our lives today.

But that will only tee possible if we look in the right places and ask the right questions. And we don't do that. No, twenty-five years later, the burning unanswered question from the Sixties (to judge by the number of prime-time TV specials) is whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Meanwhile, who is exploring what makes men and women put aside personal concerns for the collective goof, as so many civilrights activists did back then? Who is trying to figure out what confluence of personalities or events produced such a readiness for social action in the Sixties?

Fortunately, these questions aren't being altogether ignored. In Atlanta in 1988, two conferences were held which explored such topics while providing a generous dose of the "herstory" of the civil rights movement. The first conference was sponsored by the Carter Center last February, the second by the King Center in October. Georgia State University co-sponsored both.

What'a the difference between history and herstory? A lot. The former focuses on the headlines, the big events, the men out in front of the crowds. The latter looks at the day-to-day workings of people's lives, the behind-the-scene activities that produced the big events, and the women who, unheralded, carried them out.

The Carter Center conference was titled: "Women and the Constitution: A Bicentennial Perspective" and was wideranging in its scope. But an underlying theme was the interconnectedness of the civil rights and women's rights movements. Coretta Scott King spoke on "The Civil Rights Movement's Impact on Women's Rights," while Mary King tied the package together during the closing session. I sat in the audience with a friend from the University of Georgia, a well-read woman who works in women's studies. During Mary King'a speech, she leaned over to me and said, "This woman is amazing! I can't believe I've never heard of her before." Ah, if only we knew more herstory. If only every school child in America grew up with stories of amazing' women. Instead, we get these stories in bits and pieces--if at all. And we have to put the pieces together ourselves. I've been collecting pieces of the puzzle for ten years since moving to the South and getting actively involved in the women's movement.

I started the search incredibly ignorant, having passed the summer of '63 in sheer oblivion to national events. I was l6 years-old, had just gotten my driver's license and had little else on my mind. Perhaps the images of marchers and police with dogs and fire hoses flickered past on our TV screen in a suburban Boston town, but I don't remember them. It wasn't until I was in college that I began to catch up with the civil rights movement.

The year was 1968 and I was attending Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., not exactly a hotbed of activity. But few campuses were untouched by the times. That spring the black students at Purdue--every last one of them, I believe, even the football players--marched to the administration building with bricks in hand. There they presented a fiat of demands and unfurled a banner reading, "Or the fire next time."

It wee a powerful demonstration and as a wide-eyed reporter for the campus paper, I was significantly impressed. Especially by the fact that it had been largely organized by a female student, Linda Jo Mitchell.

Among the demands presented that day was a need for courses in Afro-American studies, and so it happened that the next fall Linda Jo Mitchell came to be teaching a course' labeled Industrial Management 590A. The course had absolutely nothing to do with industrial management, met at night and was discontinued after one semester. But what a semester that was! Our class was composed of students and a few professors as well, and was integrated by sex, race and age. We read James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and had hot and heavy discussions that lasted well past our scheduled hour.

What I didn't notice at the time was that all these authors were men. It wasn't until almost twenty years later that I learned about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and the significant roles they played in those times. At the King Center conference, titled "Trailblazers and Torchbearers: Women in the Civil Rights Movement," one participant noted: "This conference has done something I didn't know needed to be done. Using the lens of memory, I look back and see women."

Overlooking women in history is a shame. It denies half the population role models of courage. But it does more damage than that. It clouds our understanding of how things come to be. For when we overlook women, we overlook grassroots activism. And then we begin to think that the only way things happen is from the top down. And we sit and wait for a leader to come along and change things, relieved of the responsibility of doing anything ourselves. That's not the lesson we should be taking from the Sixties.

I left both Atlanta women's conferences inspired to take action. And with Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March, the time seems ripe: Let's share stories of the women of the civil rights movement and learn from them. Fortunately, some of these women have been telling their stories lately. Does your local library have a copy of Mary King's Freedom Song, (Quill, 1987) or JoAnn Robinson's The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, (University of Tennessee Press, 1987). If not, ask them to order these two intriguing memoirs.

Tell friends about these books. And let's get herstory into the schools. The National Women's History Project (P.O. Box 3716, Santa Rosa, CA 95402) is a great source for books and other materials for elementary through high school years. Looking through last year's catalog, I spotted Selma, Lord, Selma about the girlhood memories of Sheyann Webb and Rachel West, and Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, a first-person narrative.

But let's go beyond books. In our communities across the South, there are women with stories to tell. Let's find them and listen to them and honor them. They have something to say to all of us.

Sharron Hannon is a freelance writer end former editor and publisher of Southern Feminist newspaper.