Bridging the Gap
Reviewed by Vicki L. Crawford
Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999 pp. 25-26
Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Sturggle for Covol Rights. New York: Oxford, 1997
As the body of writing about women in the Southern black freedom struggle continues to grow, new studies take a comparative and analytical approach to the varieties of women’s activism and the ways in which race, class, gender, and culture shape leadership and political roles. Sociologist Belinda Robnett’s How Long? How Long? attempts a unified, comprehensive account of African-American women activists from 1954-1965. By placing black women at the center of analysis within the broader history of the Southern civil rights movement, Robnett aims to reconceptualize the movement’s leadership and organization as well as delineate the complexity of women’s experiences. Robnett examines the roles of activists within seven movement organizations National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Women’s Political Council (WPC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),the Montgomery Improvement Association (MM the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Using oral testimony from the women themselves, Robnett explores relationships among movement participants and offers a critique of black leadership. Also, Robnett challenges claims regarding sexism in the movement as she unravels the complex web of relationships among the movement’s leaders and rank-and-file.
Robnett provides us a “socio-historical” analysis of the movement framed by a womanist/black feminist stand point. Using the term defined by novelist Alice Walker, such an analysis reflects “a consciousness that incorporates racial, cultural, sexual, national, economic and political considerations.” By examining both the “Symbiotic” and “conflictual relationships” between black women and men, Robnett challenges conventional theories of leadership as well as theories of social movement formation. She argues that “a substantial proportion of the processes of recruitment, mobilization and sustenance” of the Civil Rights Movement was performed by African- American women. Black women had limited access to key positions of formal leadership, even though they were well-represented among the rank and file. As “bridge leaders,” a term Robnett coined, women sewed in an important intermediate capacity; they were the vital link between nationally recognized male leaders and the masses of people. Critical to the movement’s success, especially at the local level, they were able to “bridge, extend, amplify and transform” the movements message.
Robnett’s chapter “Women and the Escalation of the Civil Rights Movement,” is the book’s strongest, best-articulated example of her theory of bridge leadership at work. Here, she examines the role of women in sustaining the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. She correctly attributes the overall success of the 381-day boycott to the infrastructure provided by middle-class women of the Women’s Political Council (WPC). Under the leadership of Alabama State college professor Mary Fair Burks, who founded the organization in 1946, this group of professional black women had long been concerned about the discriminatory treatment on city buses that African-American women who
rode to and from their jobs as domestic workers endured each day. At least three years prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks, the WPC conceived the idea for mass protest and attempted to negotiate with the mayor and the city’s bus officials, warning them that, if conditions on the buses did not improve, the black community would be forced to take action. Following Parks arrest, in the early stages of mobilization the WPC was instrumental in working with black male leaders to formulate plans for the boycott. Women’s leadership was relatively visible at the outset; however, as formalization of movement activities coalesced and organizational structure emerged, their visibility and power receded. Instead, men were given titled positions within the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association evil A), the organization behind civil rights activities in the city. While women did, in fact, chair certain committees within the MIA, such as Welfare and Membership, a gendered division of labor emerged.
Insightful interviews with key movement participants such as Mrs. Johnnie Can and Mrs. Thelma Glass illuminate how, in the absence of access to formal leadership, women re-directed their energies in support of men while creatively seeking avenues for political self-expression. According to the author, “gender, as a construct of exclusion, produced a particular context in which women participated. This level of leadership, while largely invisible to the media and many scholars, was a critical link in movement formation.”
Robnett offers other examples of women’s bridge leadership, notably the role of women in the early years of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Here again, the symbiosis of women collaborating with male leadership is evidenced as well as the conflicts and tensions they experienced in dealing with men whose conventional views on women were gender-biased. She explores women’s roles within the youth-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and attributes their greater participation and influence to the organization’s structure, which was based on leadership by consensus and decentralization of power. This factor tended to mitigate against traditional beliefs-though they did surface- and offer a “free space” where young people, both black and white alike, were able to move beyond the confines of stereotypical roles. Robnett chronicles the heroism and risk-taking activism of SNCC’s powerful, black female leaders, including Muriel Tillinghast, Faye Bellamy, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Carole Merritt, Mary Lane and others. In discussing women’s roles within SNCC, however, Robnett’s categories become a bit unwieldy. Ella Baker, for example, was described as a “professional bridge leader” while Diane Nash was considered as a “formal local community bridge leader.” The subtle distinctions become a bit confusing and indistinguishable.
Robnett takes on the thorny issue of sexism within SNCC and the emergence of feminist consciousness that grew out of white women’s experiences in the movement. She criticizes some earlier studies of gendered relationships within SNCC that excluded the experiences of black women while over-emphasizing the relationships between black men and white women.
Robnett concludes by tracing the ideological shift from civil rights to black nationalism and the backlash to women’s leadership which emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s. The shift to Black Power in SNCC led to a more centralized organization, one which was less inclusive of black women’s leadership. She argues that contemporary black leadership is predominantly male, a pattern which owes its legacy, not to the egalitarian, all-inclusive philosophy of early SNCC, but to the legacy of black nationalism which followed after 1964. Citing recent examples such as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas situation and the Million Man March, Robnett suggests that in recent years, we have experienced an escalation of gender tensions between black men and women. She contends that future generations must reclaim the legacy of the civil rights years, particularly, the early SNCC model, where black women were at the forefront of the struggle for social change.
There are still so many stories to tell, particularly in recounting the experiences of grassroots women. Activists such as Mississippi’s Winson and Dovie Hudson, and L C. Dorsey, for example, deserve attention. I am also looking forward to hearing more from SNCC’s white female participants, some of whom were interviewed here. Robnett’s significant contribution to scholarship on African-American women’s activism has deepened our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and raised a number of critical questions worth further pursuit.
Vicki L. Crawford is a professor of history at Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta. She co-edited Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, published in 1990 by Carlson Publishers.