Writing and Doing: Women in Civil Rights

By Joanne Grant

Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, pp. 6

A spate of recent conferences has a common purpose: to assess the civil rights movement and place it in historical perspective. They have a common thesis as well--la lutta continua, the struggle goes on.

Clayborne Carson, historian at Stanford University, described as "long-distance runners" the participants at a session of the June colloquium at the University of Virginia on women in the civil rights movement. The colloquium, sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Institute, brought together a hundred activists and academics for an exchange on "The Roles of Women in Civil Rights Struggles."

Almost every speaker--panelists, commentators, and participants--linked what had gone before to the present and talked of their continued concern for social issues.

The concept of continuous struggle was brought home from the opening session, when panelists Virginia Durr, Modjeska Simkins, Johnnie Carr, and Anne Braden recalled the civil rights struggles of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. From the floor Oliver Hill reminded participants that in 1904 blacks in Richmond, Va., walked for a year rather than ride segregated buses. "We have to stand on the shoulders of those who went before," he said, "and do our part while we are here."

Another theme running through the conference was summarized by Mary Frances Berry of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: "Government doesn't do anything unless you push it."

Despite the common themes, however, there were two major areas of disagreement. One was the question of whether women had played a subordinate role in the civil rights movement which led to discontent and hence to the development of the feminist movement. This concept has been discussed at several civil rights conferences over the past year and and [sic] seems to be based in a retrospective assessment in which historians view the earlier movement through the prism of the much later feminist viewpoint.

The second area of disagreement was over the question of whether racism or economic inequities lies at the root of social problems. Anne Braden, the veteran activist from Louisville, Ky., said, "Racism, and the struggle against it, is the key to understanding this society and changing it." Others argued that the issue of class is paramount.

Notably, several conference speakers pointed to the contributions of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader, and Ella J. Baker, a founder of he Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and an organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Joyce Ladner, a sociologist at Howard University, said, "It can be argued that there are some women whose public service and leadership careers transcend the boundaries of feminism, as it is popularly defined...Perhaps Ella Jo Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer can be cast within such a tradition." Many others cited the work of these two women as exemplars of the role of women in the movement including Raymond Gavins of Duke University and Martha Prescott Norman of the University of Michigan.

The work of Southern black women, it was pointed out, is largely underrated in historiography. Activist Cora Tucker of Halifax County, Va., in detailing the civil rights struggles in her area, said the work done by local people is just as important as that of national leaders. Her own contributions have stretched over three decades [Southern Changes, October-December 1985], but what seems significant is that today she is developing young leadership and has stretched the boundaries of the civil rights struggle to include concern for the Third World, world peace and the environment.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the colloquium, as Victoria Gray--a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party--put it, was providing a setting in which "the people doing the writing are exposed to the people who are doing."

In general there was agreement that historiography needs the insights of activists and that local organizers could benefit from a historical perspective.

Joanne Grant is a writer and filmmaker. She edited the anthology, Black Protest, and produced the film, Fundi, on the life of Ella Baker.