Reviewed by Jewell Handy Gresham
Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994, pp. 25-28
Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1942-1965, by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods (Indiana University Press, 1993).
The papers that make up Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers were originally presented at a conference held at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change October 12-15, 1988, co-sponsored by the Division of Continuing Education of Georgia State University. The occasion came about because one strategically placed woman, Marymal Dryden at Georgia State University—in viewing the 1987 powerful television documentary Eyes on the Prize—felt the absence of comparable focus on outstanding women participants alongside men in the Movement. Dryden decided to call a conference of activists and scholars to address the omissions.
Editors Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods make no claim of presenting a unified chronicle of women in the Civil Rights Movement, nor of providing treatment comprehensive enough to include all major figures. Daisy Bates, for instance, who led the school desegregation struggle in Little Rock, is not among the women treated in a full chapter. Nor is Diane Nash (Bevel) whose critical leadership in the Nashville Student Movement and the newly formed Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee has not yet received thorough attention.
One misses also Atlanta’s Ruby Doris Smith (Robinson) who devoted the productive period of her short life (from age seventeen to her death at twenty-seven) to SNCC. And though Vicki Crawford in her excellent essay, “Beyond the Human Self: Grassroots Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement,” provides an illuminating portrait of Mrs. Annie Devine and others—(three separate chapters are devoted to Fannie Lou Hamer)—the very breadth of her treatment made me long for a companion piece on the bold third member of the female triumvirate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: Victoria Gray Adams.
Given the impossibility of providing a full picture through these essays, the editors seek to stimulate further scholarship on movement women and on subject matter largely neglected, minimized, or ignored in books, articles, and films about the period.
The editorial choice to devote three out of seventeen chapters fully or primarily to Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer indicates how much is bound up in the character of this single woman. Mamie E. Locke provides an account of Hamer’s role at the milestone 1964 National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when she commanded the attention of millions in the desperate fight waged by the MFDP to be seated as the only democratically elected delegates from their native state. With Hamer and Victoria Gray in the lead, the MFDP refused the compromise proffered through Hubert Humphrey with its future promise of a place for blacks and women in future national conventions at the same time that politics was going on as usual in the seating of the all-white male regulars.
Ironically, however, it was the compromise elicited as a direct result of the MFDP struggle that has led directly to increased numbers of women political officials on all levels today.
In “Civil Rights Women: A Source for Doing Womanist Theology,” Jacquelyn Grant provides a glimpse of Hamer’s deep religious faith as the source of her strength and compassionate vision. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Women as Culture Carriers in the Civil Rights Movement” is a companion piece to Grant’s. Reagan’s material is so stunningly written as to startle the reader.
Listening to the story of Fannie Lou Hamer took me to a place I had witnessed so many times in Black church services. Someone would rise and through her of his offerings begins to charge up the air. Sometimes after a service has begun some-body will just come out of a corner and with the support of the congregants will do some-
thing to bring the space under his or her power. This refocusing and transforming of spaces goes beyond content and data; it deals directly with the power to establish the tone and tenor of the environment. Within the African American oral tradition our stories and our legacies travel through time in a bed of rich cultural sound. I am not talking about simply starting something in a room and changing the space the people in the room have to deal with. It goes much farther because the oral tradition requires the transmission of its lode across generations. When you are a part of such an environment the experiences that are passed in the space become forever a part of who you are. In order to serve and accept the process and keep alive these treasures for others living in your time and beyond, you walk in that space with responsibility for the stories you now carry within your soul…
Four other essays treating women in struggle can be grouped alongside those on Hamer: Carole Mueller, “Ella Baker and the Origins of ‘Participatory Democracy'”; Grace Jordan McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights”; Sandra B. Oldendorf, “The South Carolina Sea Island Citizenship Schools, 1957-1961”; and Barbara A. Woods, “Modjeska Simkins and the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, 1939-1957.”
Mueller’s introductory remarks on Baker might be regarded as a manifesto for the role of movement women:
The source of ideas that guide the transformation and renewal of societies are often obscured by dramatic events and charismatic leaders that fit the media’s emphasis on conflict and celebrity and the public’s demand for mythic leaders and heroic sacrifice. Yet the beliefs that may ultimately inspire the mobilization of thousands (and millions) have often been tested and retested in obscure and out-of-the-way places by individuals who may never write manifestos, lead demonstrations, call press conferences, or stand before TV cameras. As Ella Baker said of herself, “you didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Mueller writes of Baker’s early pioneering work as NAACP field secretary in the South that provided her with the intimate knowledge of the communities and people contacts so important to SNCC’s later efforts in
The indomitable Septima Clark began her groundbreaking Citizenship Schools for dispossessed black residents of South Carolina’s Sea Islands under the sponsorship of Highlander in 1957. Before SNCC’s work in helping disfranchised black Southerners gain the ballot, hundreds were already on the rolls because of the work of Clark under the aegis of SCLC.
In her treatment of Simkins and the South Carolina NAACP, Barbara A. Woods supplements Mueller in reminding us of the critical role played by the nation’s oldest (and currently embattled) black organization founded in 1909.
If Simkins’s life is reviewed side-by-side with Septima Clark’s, greater appreciation can be gained of the vital institutions of family, church, school, and community that represented the solid foundation in which the black Southern struggle was anchored.
It is significant that all except one of the 1950’s/60’s settings for the women treated in Trailblazers and Torchbearer are in the South. The mass struggle labeled the “Civil Rights Movement” was specifically a Southern movement before it was anything else. In the transitional period of the mid-sixties, as the struggle leaped to the packed inner cities of the North and West, it was transformed into the Black Power phase in which attempts were ultimately made to relegate women to subordinate roles.
In Cambridge, the border state of Maryland, as examined by Annette K. Brock in “Gloria Richardson and the Cambridge Movement,” there was never any doubt as to who the leader of the movement was, including of the warriors in the streets. She was the woman whom Malcolm X called the “Lady General.”
In Charles Payne’s “Men Led, but Women Organized: Movement Participation of Women in the Mississippi Delta,” he raises and examines questions as to why black women joined the struggle in rural Mississippi in the early 60s in greater numbers than men, a phenomenon he found the more interesting because in the more dangerous 5Os, black political activists in the state were primarily men.
Payne rejects the notion that women in the Delta were safer from reprisals than men. Indeed, alongside Gloria Richardson’s story (as of Daisy Bates and others), it seems clear that urban women were not as vulnerable to savage physical attacks from police agents of the state as were their rural counterparts.
Though he accepts the argument that women are more religious than men, Payne also qualifies this view, writing that in the Delta, “the movement grew in spite of the Church” whose ministers—a handful of exceptions aside—were more apt to display courage in the wake of the people’s victories rather than ahead of them.
The inclusion in Trailblazers/Torchbearers of Mary Fair Burke’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott is welcome firsthand knowledge. Considerably understating her own role, Burke’s story of the Women’s Political Caucus—founded by her in 1946 in response to a Vernon Johns’ sermon—underscores the importance of the groundwork laid by women.
Of all the book’s essays, “Behind the Scenes: Doris Derby, Denise Nicholas and the Free Southern Theatre” by Clarissa Myrick-Harris is the most provocative. It falls into the merged period marking the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the transitional phase from Southern-based to the black ghettos of the North and West.
Derby and Nicholas were young northerners when they joined the struggle. Denise Nichols’ transition in consciousness from Southern freedom fighter to northern black nationalist and her concern with her self-image as a “light-skinned” black woman suggests the mingled personal and political concerns difficult to separate for African American northerners (and some Southerners) participating in the movement while engaged also in seeking to establish their own identities.
Doris Derby’s work in the New York SNCC office suggests how tens of thousands of young white and black Americans were personally and politically shaped by work or association with northern support programs. The full extent of their participation awaits further explorations.
Though one of the major strengths of Trailblazers and Torchbearers is the placing of content in historical context, the tendency of students of the Movement to lump participants together as if all were part of common events and shared common experiences is evident in Anne Standley’s well researched “The Role of Women in the Civil Rights Movement.”
It is impossible to discuss women of the Southern and northern phases of the struggle in the same historical breath without making necessary qualifications. Standley’s juxtaposition of the philosophy of Joyce Ladnor of the Southern movement, for instance, with Fran Beal of the northern, does not work. In ideology, the strong-minded Beal draws from left principles in American history, Ladnor from a background of radical Christian tenets.
Trailblazers and Torchbearers also contributes to the larger record through the editors’ inclusion of white as well as black women who pursued paths of racial justice. At last someone—Donna Langston—has written about “The Women of Highlander,” including Zilphia Horton whose trailblazing role in strengthening peoples’ move-
ment through music puts her in the tradition that Bernice Reagon both writes about and participates in.
Two fascinating contributions, “Methodist Women Integrate School and Housing, 1952-59,” by Alice G. Knotts, and Sharlene Voogd Cochran’s, “And the Pressure Never Let Up: Black Women, White Women, and the Boston YWCA, 1918-1948” are of a piece in bringing to the fore another important feature of the Movement. That is the influence of the mainstream white Protestant church in motivating Southern white women to join the struggle for a just society.
In my own interviews of white movement women, I have been struck by many who told me that they first learned in Sunday school and church of the brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women and so could not later come to terms with practices that denied this fundamental religious tenet.
Knotts’ account of the role of the Board of Mission’s Women’s Division of Christian Service in fostering school integration before the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education is an inspiring one as is Cochrane’s story of the thirty-year struggle of black and white women in Boston working together to “diversify the YMCA, making its practices consistent with its stated philosophy and policies.”
Allida M. Black’s paper, “A Reluctant but Persistent Warrior: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” can be placed in the same category of subject matter as those on Methodist women and the YWCA because, in a sense, Mrs. Roosevelt is a product of many of the same traditions, albeit as a female within the ruling aristocracy. As feminist/humanitarian, Eleanor Roosevelt supported the struggle for black equality at a time when white feminists as a norm had been indifferent or hostile. From her position as First Lady, she extended herself extraordinarily, given the era and the powerful white Southern senators and persistent critics who opposed her.
It is the treatment of women in historical context that excites me most about Trailblazers and Torchbearers. This volume will stimulate further research (editor Vicki Crawford is already at work).
I confess to wishing to see the black and white women of SNCC receive their just due, including the young white women who were first to aid Ella Baker in setting up SNCC’s first office and program: Constance Curry, Sandra Cason (Casey Hayden), and Jane Stembridge. And the numerous summer volunteers in Mississippi of 1964-65.
Among black women, there are so many tales to tell. There must be some reason that Mississippi’s L. C. Dorsey—stalwart fighter during the movement and since—is not even listed in the index of the present volume. There are many others to summon forth from one of the greatest eras in American history when women, men, and children served the cause of human freedom so nobly.
Jewell Handy Gresham, a native of LaFayette, Alabama, is completing a book entitled Spirits of Fire: Women in the Civil Rights Movement. A former English professor, she is now a writer and lives in New York State.