Celebrate the women of the movement

It’s great that students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in schools across the United States this week. Possibly no American in my lifetime is more worthy of being so honored and memorialized.

Ella Baker speaking into microphone with fist raised.

Ella Baker

But I hope teachers also take advantage of the King holiday to share lessons about the many people who were crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, not just its best-known leader. They could focus on the women who did essential work, often behind the scenes.

Where to start? Maybe with Ella Baker, who was an NAACP field organizer starting in 1940, helped King create the Southern Christian Leadership Council and played the role of wise elder and strategic counselor for the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

A North Carolina native who spent her early adult years in New York City, Baker established NAACP chapters in the rural South, put together voting rights drives and did the unsung but dangerous work that made possible the roles played by King, John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael.

“Ella Baker’s life gives us a sense of the connections and contributions that link together a long tradition of African American resistance,” historian Barbara Ransby writes in her biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.” “Each generational organization she joined, each story she told, each lesson she passed on was a part of the connective tissue that formed the body politic of the Black Freedom Movement in the United States from the 1930s into the 1980s.”

Who wouldn’t want to learn about this remarkable person?

A few more inspirational women, among many:

  • Fannie Lou Hamer was a Mississippi sharecropper who took up the struggle for voting rights in her 40s. Beaten, jailed and thrown out of her home, she became a field secretary and organizer with SNCC and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her testimony to the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention is remarkable.
  • Rosa Parks is universally known but little understood. Often portrayed as a quiet seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat because she was tired, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott, she was anything but meek. She was a lifelong activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and admired Malcolm X. Refusing to surrender her seat was a deliberate, strategic act.
  • Septima Clark, born in 1898, was known as the Mother of the Movement. A pioneer of civic and voting-rights education for African Americans, she lost her long-time job as a South Carolina schoolteacher when she refused to comply with a law that said state employees couldn’t belong to civil rights organizations. She led a civic education program for King’s SCLC and taught at the radical Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.
  • Unita Blackwell, who died last year, was the first black woman elected mayor in Mississippi; she led the small town of Mayersville from 1976 to 2001. It was where she lived when Freedom Summer volunteers showed up in 1964 with the radical idea that African Americans should vote. She became an activist, working for SNCC and joining the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

“I don’t think most people today — younger people especially — have any idea of the price that ordinary black Mississippians have paid,” Unita Blackwell wrote in her memoir.

That needs to change, for ourselves, for students, and for our children and grandchildren.

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