Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Sisters in the Struggle

Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement

Bettye Collier-Thomas
V. P. Franklin
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 363
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfhx4
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Sisters in the Struggle
    Book Description:

    Women were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, but their indvidiual stories were rarely heard. Only recently have historians begun to recognize the central role women played in the battle for racial equality. In Sisters in the Struggle, we hear about the unsung heroes of the civil rights movements such as Ella Baker, who helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who took on segregation in the Democratic party (and won), and Septima Clark, who created a network of "Citizenship Schools" to teach poor Black men and women to read and write and help them to register to vote. We learn of Black women's activism in the Black Panther Party where they fought the police, as well as the entrenched male leadership, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where the behind-the-scenes work of women kept the organization afloat when it was under siege. It also includes first-person testimonials from the women who made headlines with their courageous resistance to segregation - Rosa Parks, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Dorothy Height. This collection represents the coming of age of African-American women's history and presents new stories that point the way to future study. Contributors: Bettye Collier-Thomas, Vicki Crawford, Cynthia Griggs Fleming, V. P. Franklin, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Duchess Harris, Sharon Harley, Dorothy I. Height, Chana Kai Lee, Tracye Matthews, Genna Rae McNeil, Rosa Parks, Barbara Ransby, Jacqueline A. Rouse, Elaine Moore Smith, and Linda Faye Williams.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9038-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction: In the Whip of the Whirlwind African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement
    (pp. 1-8)

    From the time that African women arrived on the shores of what came to be known as the ʺNew World,ʺ they have been caught up in a whirlwind of forces oftentimes beyond their control. Having survived the horrors of the Middle Passage was not enough; these mothers, grand-mothers, and daughters were shackled and hurled into makeshift vehicles that carried them to dank dungeons and desolate shacks. The women were forced to do back-breaking labor, the same as the men, but had to endure the added burden of unwanted sexual intimacies of the slavers. These women lived, and sometimes died, for...

  5. PART I: Laying the Groundwork:: African American Women and Civil Rights Before 1950

    • [Part I: Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      The essays in Part I focus on the period before 1950 and examine the civil rights activities and concerns of African American women and their organizations. In many ways, the activities of these women laid the groundwork for the modern phase of the Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950s. Elaine M. Smith in her introduction to the speech ʺClosed Doorsʺ points out that during her lifetime, Mary McLeod Bethune was sometimes referred to as the ʺFirst Lady of the Race.ʺ Widely known as an educator, institution builder, and civil rights activist, Bethune was one of several black women...

    • Chapter 1 ʺClosed Doorsʺ: Mary McLeod Bethune on Civil Rights
      (pp. 11-20)
      Elaine M. Smith and Mary McLeod Bethune

      Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) stands as an eminent American and one of the countryʹs most distinguished women. Like about a half dozen other African Americans, she transcended a field to make ʺan essential contribution to the development of Black America.ʺ Especially in relation to black women, her contributions to major historical developments warranted often-repeated encomiums as ʺFirst Lady of Race.ʺ She achieved this status despite an unpromising beginning, including an extremely dark complexion. Her farming parents were slaves, as were most of her sixteen siblings. She attended two missionary-supported black schools: one five miles from her home outside rural...

    • Chapter 2 For the Race in General and Black Women in Particular: The Civil Rights Activities of African Womenʹs Organizations, 1915–50
      (pp. 21-41)
      V. P. Franklin and Bettye Collier-Thomas

      When Jennie L. Moton, president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), issued the call for the twenty-first biennial convention to be held in Boston in July 1939, she pointed out that the group was returning to the city where African American women first came together to address their pressing concerns, and made it clear that the goals of the organization remained the same since Josephine St. Pierre Ruffinʹs call in 1896. ʺMrs. Ruffin sent forth a call to the colored women of the country and asked them to meet her in Boston as guests of the New Era...

    • Chapter 3 Behind-the-Scenes View of a Behind-the-Scenes Organizer: The Roots of Ella Bakerʹs Political Passions
      (pp. 42-58)
      Barbara Ransby

      Ella Baker is perhaps best known for her role as a supporting actor in the Civil Rights Movement drama of the 1950s and 1960s. But the breadth and depth of her role in the Black Freedom Movement is often underrated. From the 1930s until her death in 1986, Ella Baker participated in over thirty organizations and campaigns ranging from the Negro cooperative movement during the Depression to the Free Angela Davis campaign in the 1970s. Her best documented role in the modern Civil Rights Movement was first as national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and more importantly...

  6. PART II: Personal Narratives

    • [Part II: Introduction]
      (pp. 59-60)

      Part II draws on the recollections of three important women in the Civil Rights Movement—Rosa Parks, Charlayne Hunter Gault, and Dorothy I. Height—and allows them to convey, in their own words, the momentous events in which each of them participated. These personal testimonies hold particular importance because the voices of black women have seldom been given recognition outside or even within the Civil Rights Movement.

      This section begins with Rosa Parksʹ dramatic retelling of the incidents surrounding her arrest on December 1, 1955 and the launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks emphasizes that at the time she...

    • Chapter 4 ʺTired of Giving Inʺ: The Launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
      (pp. 61-74)
      Rosa Parks

      People always say that I didnʹt give up my seat because I was tired, but that isnʹt true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

      The driver of the bus saw me still sitting there, and he asked was I going to stand up. I said, ʺNo.ʺ He said, ʺWell, Iʹm going to have you arrested.ʺ Then...

    • Chapter 5 ʺHeirs to a Legacy of Struggleʺ: Charlayne Hunter Integrates the University of Georgia
      (pp. 75-82)
      Charlayne Hunter Gault

      And so it began, a new history for the University, the state, and for my classmate Hamilton Earl Holmes and me. I was nineteen and he was twenty and neither one of us had given much thought to making history. What we wanted, in a real sense, was to fulfill our dreams—dreams that we had nurtured for as long as we could remember. Hamilton wanted to be a medical doctor, to follow in the footsteps of his doctor grandfather, who had a medical practice in Atlanta, on ʺSweet Auburn Avenue,ʺ a dynamic hub of black business and professional activity...

    • Chapter 6 ʺWe Wanted the Voice of a Woman to Be Heardʺ: Black Women and the 1963 March on Washington
      (pp. 83-92)
      Dorothy I. Height

      I had been active in the Civil Rights Movement long before the 1963 March on Washington. One of the significant turning points came in 1962 when Stephen Currier called together a group of black leaders because he felt that the Taconic Foundation, which he headed, and which had been very supportive of black causes, could take a lead in trying to get other philanthropic sources to give more support. And so, he called together Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of SCLC; Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping...

  7. PART III: Women, Leadership, and Civil Rights

    • [Part III: Introduction]
      (pp. 93-94)

      The three essays in Part III focus on black women leaders who operated primarily at the grassroots level. Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, and other women activists made significant contributions to civil rights campaigns by utilizing local organizations and institutional networks to mobilize working-class black southerners. These women also maintained the important linkages between local movement organizations and the national civil rights leadership. To a very great extent their success as civil rights activists was closely related to their family background and personal experiences that prepared them well to assume responsible leadership positions.

      Jacqueline Rouseʹs essay...

    • Chapter 7 ʺWe Seek to Know … in Order to Speak the Truthʺ: Nurturing the Seeds of Discontent—Septima P. Clark and Participatory Leadership
      (pp. 95-120)
      Jacqueline A. Rouse

      In a eulogy presented at the funeral of Septima Poinsette Clark, the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), described the importance of Clarkʹs work and her relationship to the SCLC. Reverend Lowery asserted that ʺher courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation won her SCLCʹs highest award, the Drum Major for Justice award.ʺ In a similar vein, the Reverend C. T. Vivian, a former SCLC leader who had worked with Clark and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked that ʺshe understood that if we could break through the...

    • Chapter 8 African American Women in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
      (pp. 121-138)
      Vicki Crawford

      Historical accounts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s have generally focused on the roles and contributions of male leaders and the nationally oriented civil rights organizations that they led. It has been only within the past decade that historians turned to consider the important roles played by female activists in the struggle for social change. This has come about, in large part, as a result of women historians who have attempted to document womenʹs roles in mobilizing and sustaining the movement.¹ The marginalization of black female activists has obscured our understanding of the movementʹs leadership and...

    • Chapter 9 Anger, Memory, and Personal Power: Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights Leadership
      (pp. 139-170)
      Chana Kai Lee

      By revisiting in this essay the familiar parts of Hamerʹs story—the first voter registration attempts, the eviction from the plantation, and the Winona beating—I highlight the usefulness of categories like personal memory and anger. More to the point regarding the value of this approach for black womenʹs civil rights history, this way of thinking about leadership really should push us to take seriously the matter of black womenʹs subjectivity. What was it like for these women to live their lives? How did they think about what they were doing? How did they think about themselves, their public and...

  8. PART IV: From Civil Rights to Black Power:: African American Women and Nationalism

    • [Part IV: Introduction]
      (pp. 171-173)

      The essays in Part IV examine the role of black women during the period of transition from the emphasis on civil rights to the more militant demands for ʺBlack Power.ʺ These essays offer new perspectives on the participation and leadership of African American women within organizations and campaigns that were previously characterized as ʺmale-centeredʺ and ʺmale-dominated.ʺ Rather than working behind the scenes as ʺbridge leaders,ʺ as was the case in various civil rights campaigns, African American women in the Black Power movement were highly visible, more outspoken, and often militant in the pursuit of black equality. They sometimes placed themselves...

    • Chapter 10 ʺChronicle of a Death Foretoldʺ: Gloria Richardson, the Cambridge Movement, and the Radical Black Activist Tradition
      (pp. 174-196)
      Sharon Harley

      Gloria St. Clair Richardson was a militant black leader, who in her refusal in 1963 and 1964 to accept nonviolence as the primary strategy in civil rights protests, foretold the death of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement most closely associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. However, Richardson, who became one of the most feared and militant ʺup-southʺ black leaders in the early 1960s, has largely been a marginalized figure in early published accounts of the modern Civil Rights Movement, written for the most part by male scholars and former activists. Although in recent years discussions of Gloria Richardson and her...

    • Chapter 11 Black Women and Black Power: The Case of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
      (pp. 197-213)
      Cynthia Griggs Fleming

      In June 1966, James Meredith, the first black student ever to enroll at the University of Mississippi, began his historic march against fear across the state of Mississippi. Just a few days after the march began, Meredith was shot by a sniper and had to be hospitalized. The leaders of the major civil rights organizations—the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—all decided to send representatives to continue the march. As the marchers made their way across...

    • Chapter 12 ʺIronies of the Saintʺ: Malcolm X, Black Women, and the Price of Protection
      (pp. 214-229)
      Farah Jasmine Griffin

      This essay grows out of two concerns: First, the re-rise of what I want to call a ʺpromise of protectionʺ as a more progressive counter discourse to elements of misogyny in black popular culture; second, my feeling that the emergence of Malcolm X as an icon of younger African Americans requires a serious and sustained examination and engagement of all aspects of his legacy. Malcolm X has not been the subject of a black feminist critique in the way that Richard Wright or Miles Davis have been. When I looked to black feminist thinkers who have written on Malcolm, few...

    • Chapter 13 ʺNo One Ever Asks What a Manʹs Role in the Revolution Isʺ: Gender Politics and Leadership in the Black Panther Party, 1966–71
      (pp. 230-256)
      Tracye A. Matthews

      By the middle of the 1960s, young black people in the United States were growing weary of civil rights leaders telling them to turn the other cheek so that they could ʺovercome someday.ʺ¹ The inspiring eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been challenged, even ridiculed, by the fiery message of Malcolm X. For black youth, who increasingly found themselves trapped in overcrowded northern ghettos, many of the old movement slogans and ideas—particularly nonviolence as a philosophy—were becoming obsolete.² In spite of the gains of the southern black freedom movement, civil rights organizations and leaders, especially King, were...

  9. PART V: Law, Feminism, and Politics

    • [Part V: Introduction]
      (pp. 257-258)

      The essays in Part V examine the aftermath and legacies of the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement. Many African American women learned important lessons from their experiences in the movement and applied them in the social and political arenas. In the first half of the century there was little conflict between African American womenʹs racial identity and feminist ideologies. However, after the emergence of Black Power and the increase in the male chauvinist and sexist attitudes and practices within civil rights organizations, as well as the rise of the Womenʹs Liberation Movement, African American women became more aware of the...

    • Chapter 14 ʺJoanne Is You and Joanne Is Meʺ: A Consideration of African American Women and the ʺFree Joan Littleʺ Movement, 1974–75
      (pp. 259-279)
      Genna Rae McNeil

      Joan Little, a twenty-year-old inmate in North Carolinaʹs Beaufort County jail, stabbed Clarence Alligood. And in the early morning hours of August 27, 1974, she ran. About 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighing barely 120 pounds, Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) Little was black, female, and poor. Clarence Alligood, who was closer to 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed over 200 pounds, was Littleʹs sixty-two-year-old white jailer. Little would later explain that the stabbing of Alligood was an act of resistance and self-defense. Moreover, she insisted that when she fled the jail she did not realize Alligood was dying. Little later...

    • Chapter 15 From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–80
      (pp. 280-305)
      Duchess Harris

      Anna Julia Cooper, a nineteenth-century black public intellectual, coined a phrase that has been useful in analyzing ʺthe intersectional experience of racism and sexism.ʺ² InA Voice from the South, Cooper criticized black leaders for claiming to speak for the race but failing to include black women. Referring to Martin Delanyʹs public claims that where he was allowed to enter, the race entered with him, Cooper countered: ʺOnly the Black woman can say, when and where I enter…. Then the Negro race enters with me.ʺ³

      I use Anna Julia Cooper as my point of departure because Paula Giddings used the...

    • Chapter 16 The Civil Rights—Black Power Legacy: Black Women Elected Officials at the Local, State, and National Levels
      (pp. 306-332)
      Linda Faye Williams

      Arguably, one of the most potent legislative outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While, for example, socioeconomic indicators such as the median income and the poverty rate demonstrate only murky progress at best in altering the relative condition of the black population as compared to the white population, the election of blacks to public office, largely as a result of the Voting Rights Act, demonstrates one straight line of upward growth (Figure 1).² From fewer than 500 black elected officials in the nation as a whole in 1965,...

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 333-342)
  11. Permissions
    (pp. 343-344)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 345-348)
  13. Index
    (pp. 349-363)