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Honoring the Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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March 29, 2011

History month celebrations, like those honoring African-Americans and women, are sometimes criticized as being ineffective ways of countering the tendency to marginalize the vital role of blacks and women in shaping American culture. Instead of assuring that the stories of groups who have been excluded become integral parts of the greater national story, critics suggest that history months only succeed in ghettoizing the history of blacks and women, limiting their significance to only one month out of the year and largely ignoring them throughout the rest of the year. That criticism seems well-founded when you look at the way history months are often celebrated with books and slide shows and exhibits taken out of boxes and displayed like holiday decorations, only to be returned to storage for next year.

Until we are better at recognizing fully the history of excluded groups in a more comprehensive way, though, history months do provide at least some opportunity to fill in some important gaps in the way our national story is told. In the case of telling the civil rights story, having Women’s History Month immediately following Black History Month creates a special opportunity to fill in gaps by permitting an extended discussion of civil rights through highlighting the unique and vital role that women played in American history in general and in the civil rights struggle in particular.

Ask an elementary school student who the heroes of the civil rights movement are and you are certain to hear Martin Luther King and likely to hear names like Ralph Abernathy and Medgar Evers. Although it is true that each of those men fully deserves the acclaim he receives every February, it is also true that the success of the civil rights movement hinged also on the selfless dedication and hard work of a host of women whose names are considerably less familiar today.

The truth is, long before a somewhat reluctant Martin Luther King was enlisted to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association which called for a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system, Jo Ann Robinson, the head of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) and its other members had been advocating for a boycott protesting the segregation of buses. Robinson, a professor at the historically black Alabama State College in Montgomery, became an activist after being verbally attacked by a white bus driver in 1949. After becoming president of the WPC, the organization focused on the abuses and degradation endured by black bus riders on a daily basis. Faced with the opportunity to organize around Rosa Parks’ arrest, the WPC immediately swung into action, calling for a bus boycott. And for the year that the boycott continued, the Women’s Political Council did the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of organizing alternate means of transportation for Montgomery’s black workers.

Although it is true that the most famous person associated with the Montgomery boycott was a woman, even the way that Rosa Parks’ story is told understates her actual role. Parks is often depicted as just a tired seamstress refusing to give up her seat to a white man. She was in fact a committed long-time advocate for racial justice, having been involved in a range of efforts from working to assist the Scottsboro Boys in 1932 and serving as an officer in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to attending the Highlander Folk School, an educational center for worker’s rights and racial equality in Tennessee.

Recognizing that women played more than incidental roles in the civil rights movement no way diminishes the importance of male civil rights figures. The sacrifices of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, killed while attempting to register black voters in Mississippi, remain significant even when recognizing the sacrifice made by Viola Liuzzo, a high school dropout and mother of five who enrolled in college in her 30s where she became involved in campus civil rights protests. Liuzzo was shot at age 39 while transporting freedom marchers in Alabama.

Perhaps someday there will be no need to set aside months to honor specific groups because the stories of each of those groups will be completely interwoven into our history. Sadly, that day is not today. As regards the integration of American society which civil rights leaders fought and died to achieve, reports from organizations document how a great deal of the progress won since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education has been lost: a 2009 study found that two out of every five African-American and Latino students in the United States attended intensely segregated schools, up from less than a third in 1988.

Until the day comes when history months are rendered moot, the work of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program to eliminate discrimination in schools and in the criminal justice system will continue. In the meantime, it is important to continue honoring Dr. Martin Luther King but it is also important to honor courageous, dedicated women like Fannie Lou Hamer, the vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who was arrested and beaten nearly to death by police while conducting a literacy campaign, or Dorothy Height, whose lifelong career as a civil rights activist started in 1937, when she worked for the National Council of Negro Women of which she ultimately became the president. Throughout her life, Height fought for the rights of women and people of color in education and employment.

It is vital that the whole story of the civil rights movement be told in a way that includes everyone who contributed in order to understand how we achieved the substantial progress we have witnessed over the past 60 years. But it is also important to recognize that with the increasing segregation in American schools and the continuing discrimination in education and in the criminal justice system which form the daily work of the ACLU and other organizations, that we will need a full complement of activists, male and female, to realize the American dream of fairness and equality. At the same time that we recognize that the nation would be immeasurably poorer without the efforts of women civil rights activists, we must also recognize that our future success as a nation will depend upon activists of both genders who build upon their work.

We’re holding a month-long blog symposium on women’s rights for Women’s History Month. See all the blog posts here, and learn more about women’s rights: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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