Black women’s roles in the civil rights movement have been understated — but that’s changing


Washington (CNN) Claudette Colvin did a revolutionary act nearly 10 months before Rosa Parks.

In March 1955, the 15-year-old was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

The teenager and others challenged the law in court. But civil rights leaders, pointing to circumstances in Colvin’s personal life, thought that Parks would be the better representative of the movement. “People said I was crazy,” Colvin recently told CNN’s Abby Phillip. “Because I was 15 years old and defiant and shouting, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’ ” Colvin’s story and the experiences of other Black women and youth underscore the difficult questions and realities that Black leaders and activists have been forced to grapple with. Who gets to represent a movement? And who’s the “appropriate” spokesperson for Black Americans’ fight for basic civil rights? Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton: Near-mythological men frequently took center stage in the mid-century Black freedom struggle. Today, they endure as the “great men” of civil rights history. Meanwhile, others, including women and young people, were rendered relatively invisible, despite their sizable contributions.

As a former leading member of the Black Panther Party, Ericka Huggins was one of the most consequential figures of the Black Power movement, which sought to bring more radical attention to the US’s abiding system of racial caste. Still, she was keenly aware that the fault lines of gender went through the party. “Women ran the party, and the men thought they (the men) did,” Huggins says in the 1997 documentary, “Comrade Sister: Voices of Women in the Black Panther Party.” More than half a century later, as the US reckons anew with the racial status quo, things are a bit different. The present-day battle for racial justice is more decentralized. In particular, its constituent groups, such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network, don’t gravitate around men who’ve reached superstar status. Free of such larger-than-life leadership and its attendant hierarchies, groups can avoid some of the strains of the past and, even more importantly, elevate often neglected issues and perspectives.

Looking for a certain sort of leader

To understand the evolution of Black freedom movements, rewind to the middle of the 20th century.

In August 1963, hundreds of thousands of people descended on the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, something of a precursor to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The march featured a star-studded lineup of speakers, including John Lewis, who at the time was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and King, who delivered his powerful (though now seasonally diluted) “I Have a Dream” speech.

Excluded from the official program? Women such as Gloria Richardson, who in the early ’60s was a leader in the demonstrations in Cambridge, Maryland, over equal access to education and public accommodations. At 98, Richardson is still a champion of civil rights: “Even today, until everyone is on the same plane, then the fight continues,” she said in December. “In light of the role of Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of our Negro men in this culture,” the activist and writer Anna Arnold Hedgeman wrote in a memo ahead of the event, “it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.” Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta and the founding director of the school’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, was quick to identify why women were shut out of speaking at the event.

“I think that part of it was optics” — the notion that it was appropriate to present certain people to the mainstream — “but part of it was plain old patriarchy,” Guy-Sheftall told CNN. “Here we are in 1963, and you don’t have any Black women speaking. You have all men. You have Dorothy Height and the wives sitting to the side, and you don’t take them to the meeting at the White House afterward. That’s not optics.” For sure, women such as Height successfully organized within groups including the National Council of Negro Women. But they rarely received the same level of acknowledgment as their male counterparts.

The gender politics of the March on Washington is just one example of how masculinist authority often replicated within parts of the Black freedom struggle, relegating women to the shadows of their own movement.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ and the enduring power of the Black Panthers

Another example: the gender dynamics within the Black Panther Party. The group certainly contained elements of revolutionary feminism, including in how it both armed and elevated women. “These aren’t just your sisters. They’re your sisters-in-arms,” as Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton says in the excellent new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” But the party wasn’t free of sexism.

“While the (Black Panther) paper’s iconography celebrated strong Black women carrying weapons and functioning as dedicated soldiers to the revolutionary cause, the texts tended to argue for an assertion of masculine authority and a sexual division of labor,” writes Jane Rhodes, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in her 2007 book, “Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.”

Women weren’t the only ones who were at times minimized within the movement. For instance, James Baldwin’s queerness discomfited some civil rights activists, and others dismissed the writer as “Martin Luther Queen.”

In his influential 1968 essay collection (and prison memoir) “Soul on Ice,” the early Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver twists Black homosexuality into a deeper denial of Black masculinity: “It seems that many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a White man.”

Young people, too, often assumed a secondary status. In 1955, months before Rosa Parks achieved notoriety for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus. She was arrested and eventually became one of the plaintiffs in “Browder v. Gayle.” The following year, the US Supreme Court upheld the district court’s ruling and ordered Montgomery — and the rest of Alabama — to end bus segregation.

Yet movement leaders never turned Colvin into the public face of the cause.

Watch: Why you’ve probably never heard of this civil rights pioneer 05:18

“(The image of Parks) would be more acceptable to the White community than a dark-complexioned teenager,” Colvin told CNN’s Phillip. “And they (movement leaders) figured they could control Mrs. Parks.”

None of the above diminishes the mid-century battle for Black liberation or its tremendous accomplishments, including overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine via the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” case and securing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Rather, in looking more closely at the era, it’s possible to recover its complexity. It’s possible to learn something from a pivotal time and chip away at the prevailing narrative that only a particular kind of man is a leader, while everyone else is a foot soldier.

Reimagining leadership

Racial justice organizers today seem to have learned from earlier forms of Black politics.

Consider the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the seeds of which were planted by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. BLM meaningfully departs from many of its predecessors in at least two key ways. For one thing, BLM has queer, Black feminist roots. Two of its co-creators, Garza and Cullors, identify as queer, and the group has always highlighted the usually overlooked prejudices beleaguering Black women and Black LGBTQ Americans.

On this score, BLM has something in common with Coretta Scott King’s later work. Scott King was the first civil rights leader to make LGBTQ protections central to the idea of the Beloved Community, according to Guy-Sheftall. BLM distinguishes itself in another way, too: in how it views leadership. The organization is decentralized, with autonomous chapters all over the country. No one is the face of BLM; no one is at risk of being freighted with allegory. This structure, which has been successful despite early criticism, is by design.

“Decentralization could level the playing field of power. It would allow people who are often marginalized or blocked from exercising leadership to lead in public,” Garza writes in her 2020 book, “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart,” of the thinking behind BLM’s leader-full (not leaderless) arrangement. In other words, BLM illuminates a different model of organizing. This model not only staves off top-heavy, male-centered leadership in the group. It also ensures BLM’s survival.

When King, Malcolm and Newton were killed, “so in large part were the movements they led,” Garza writes, referring to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party, respectively. “The struggle continued, but those specific movements, without their most recognizable leaders, were never the same.”

These BLM activists are fighting for the civil rights of the next generation

BLM might be the most prominent group in the contemporary Black freedom movement. But it isn’t the only one. Created in 2018 to sustain the attention that the March for Our Lives demonstration trained on gun violence prevention, 50 Miles More has since reoriented itself around racial and social justice in a broader sense. Notably, the group’s name alludes to the 54-mile voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

“We realized that many of the Black youth involved in the organization were being ignored. So we shifted our focus,” 50 Miles More executive director Tatiana Washington told CNN. “We’re a Black youth-led organization that focuses on liberation through Black feminism.” And while the structure of 50 Miles More isn’t expressly decentralized, it’s clear that the organization has the animating ambition of distributing power among its members — of opening itself up to the contributions of those often kicked to the sidelines. “We believe that to get liberation, the most marginalized voices should be at the forefront — that means Black trans women, Black nonbinary folks, Black working class people,” Washington said.

Of course, newer groups aren’t without their challenges. In her book, Garza notes that, in a decentralized network, it can be tricky to react promptly to issues because of the commitment to reaching a wider consensus before making a decision. And as the origins of 50 Miles More demonstrate, racial hierarchies can hover just out of frame.

Even so, BLM and 50 Miles More (among other groups) are vital and refreshing in their embrace of the same joyous tension: honoring previous iterations of Black struggle, while also moving them forward. “I think that there’s a shift happening,” Washington said. “More and more, it seems like people want to engage in organizing differently. We still have a long way to go. But we’re getting there.” Or as Colvin described the distance between movements past and present, “A lot of young children say, ‘Oh, I don’t see any changes.’ I say, ‘But you have to be old enough to know the before picture in order to see the after picture.’ “

Analysis by Brandon Tensley and Skylar Mitchell, CNN
Video by Deborah Brunswick, Janelle Gonzalez, Abby Phillip, Jeff Simon and Cassie Spodak

Updated 8:54 AM ET, Sun February 21, 2021


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