Now, as Black History Month begins, is an ideal time to celebrate the heroism of the largely unsung African-American women who put their lives on the line, fighting next to their men.
Few of the women activists in Martin Luther King’s day—women whose zeal and courage matched his—earned lasting fame. In the 1960s, women’s voices didn’t carry very far, despite the fact that their activism was critical to the movement. The resounding chorus of men, few of whom realized or acknowledged the intelligence and dedication of the black and white women who worked and protested alongside them, all but drowned them out. Of those women, only Daisy Bates, who spearheaded the desegregation of the Little Rock Schools, spoke at the rally that concluded the famous 1963 March on Washington.
A half-century later, black and white women organized massively: On January 21, 2017, hundreds of thousands of women marched not only in Washington, but in cities and towns across the U.S. Their voices reverberated throughout the world.
Here are some of the African-American women of the 60s whose stories must be told again:
Dorothy Foreman Cotton (1930- ) was born in segregated North Carolina. As a university student she worked two jobs, one in the school cafeteria and the other cleaning the teachers’ dormitory when she wasn’t protesting segregation at the library and the lunch counter. A few years later, Cotton worked with Dr. King in Atlanta at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), devoted to ending all sorts of segregation. She became Education Director of the SCLC and in Atlanta met Septima Clark.
They worked together on the Citizenship Education Program, whose purpose was to help blacks register to vote. The states had restrictions that effectively disqualified African-Americans from voting by means of literacy tests like reciting sections of the Constitution from memory and requiring signatures in cursive writing. (The officials administering the tests were often illiterate themselves.) Through this program Cotton and Clark aimed to make their students aware of their political and civil rights, enabling them to initiate action for change.
Cotton accompanied Dr. King when he traveled to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.
Jo Ann Robinson (1912-1992) was teaching in Montgomery, Alabama, at the state college. One day she took a bus and the driver verbally abused her for sitting in the section reserved for “whites only.” She went to the Women’s Political Council and proposed a protest boycott, only to be told that the situation “was a fact of life in Montgomery.”
But the day Rosa Parks was arrested, Robinson and the Council began to plan a bus boycott in earnest. The one-day boycott was so successful that the protesters decided to extend the action and established an association to coordinate their efforts, electing Dr. King as president.
Afraid to jeopardize her teaching job, Robinson never joined the association, though she worked behind the scenes and supported the boycotters by providing transportation. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted 380 days because the bus company would not give in to the protesters’ demands. It ended when a federal court ruled that bus segregation is unconstitutional. (The ruling was appealed and later affirmed by the Supreme Court.)
Robinson and other teachers who supported the students resigned from the college and moved away. After a year teaching in Louisiana, Robinson moved to Los Angeles, became active in women’s organizations and taught there until she retired.
Willa Brown (1906-1992) was first in many of her endeavors. She was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license and to run for the U.S. Congress, the first woman of any race in the U.S. to have both a pilot’s and a mechanic’s license, and the first African-American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. Clearly, she loved to fly. She lobbied the government to desegregate the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor of the Air Force) and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She also was co-founder of the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first private flight training academy in the U.S. owned and operated by African-Americans. Brown was instrumental in training hundreds of pilots.
She was always politically active, advocating for racial and gender equality and running for Congress three times. Brown taught in Chicago public schools until she retired.
Marie Foster (1917-2013) Exasperated by having to try to register to vote eight times before finally succeeding, Foster began to teach her African-American neighbors in Selma, Alabama, how to overcome the obstacles thrown in their way when they tried to register. Her first class had one student, but others began to flock to her once they realized what they could gain.
Foster marched on the fateful Bloody Sunday, the first of the attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. King with John Lewis at his side. She was in one of the front lines and was clubbed by a state trooper. Two weeks later, she ignored her injuries and completed the 50-mile hike to Selma in five days.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arrested and beaten at its protests. Hamer was fired from her 18-year-long job as a sharecropper for daring to register to vote. She endured vicious blackjack beatings when she was a voting-rights activist and a Freedom Rider, an activist who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
Dorothy Height (1912–2010) was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years and a women’s-rights and civil-rights activist for 80 years. In the ’30s she protested lynchings; in the ’60s she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” when Northern women traveled weekly to meet with their counterparts in Mississippi (black women with black women, white women with white women). They met to support freedom schools and voter registration among other goals.
Ella Baker (1903–1986) was prominent in three national organizations: she was a national director for the NAACP, a founder of the SNCC and of the SCLC. “I had to learn that hitting back, with my fists, one individual, was not enough; it takes organization, it takes dedication; it takes the willingness to stand by and do what has to be done when it has to be done.” She recruited Dr. King into the SCLC, but later clashed with him because she felt he gave too little power to others in the organization.
Septima Clark (1898–1937) devoted decades to teaching illiterate African-Americans what they needed to pass the literacy tests required to register to vote. She taught children in a rural, segregated school by day and illiterate adults at night. Establishing “citizenship schools” throughout the South, she became known as “the freedom teacher.” These schools taught not only literacy but leadership skills, and under the aegis of the SCLC, the project trained 10,000 teachers.
Diane Nash (1938- ) is another founding member of the SNCC. She organized and marched in the Selma voting-rights protests with Dr. King. Like Ella Baker, Nash was angry with Dr. King for giving too little credit to the movement’s female activists.
Daisy Bates (1914-99) headed the Arkansas NAACP in a turbulent era, published a newspaper, wrote articles and an autobiography. The most significant of her achievements was coordinating the strategy to segregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, which forced President Eisenhower to take a stand. He sent federal troops to police the mob and protect the students. Six years later, at the 1963 March on Washington, Bates addressed the crowd following Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.
A version of this article was published by Women’s Voices For Change.