Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement
Created on January 28, 2021
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IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Fannie Lou Hamer
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On MLK Day, Honor the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Fannie Lou Hamer
Ella Baker was born on December 13th, 1903 in Norfolk Virginia. She grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories about life during slavery, which inspired her passion for social justice. Baker attended Shaw University in North Carolina, and graduated in 1927 as class valedictorian. She moved to New York and joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League in 1930. The League’s purpose was to develop black economic power, and Baker was committed to economic justice for all people. Baker began working as a field secretary for the NAACP in 1940, and later served as director of branches from 1943 to 1946. In 1955, she founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. Baker moved to Atlanta in 1957 to help organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
However, Baker left the SCLC after a group of black college students held a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Baker wanted to help student activists, so she organized a meeting at Shaw University for the leaders of the sit-ins, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created from that meeting. SNCC joined with activists from CORE, the Congress of Racial Freedom, to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1964, the SNCC helped create the Freedom Summer, which was an effort to bring national attention to the racism in Mississippi and to register black voters.
Baker remained an activist until she passed away in 1986 at the age of 83.
Rosa Parks was born on February 4th, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. She attended Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes (now Alabama State University) but had to drop out when her grandmother became sick. She was exposed to racial discrimination and violence from a young age growing up in the South, and as a result she was active in the Civil Rights Movement from a young age. Rosa was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery and sat in the front of the bus. The Montgomery City Code required that public transportation be segregated, and that black passengers sit in the back while the front was reserved for white passengers. The bus began to fill with white passengers, and the bus driver asked Parks to move to the back. She refused, and was arrested. At this time, Parks was an established leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. In addition to resisting on the bus, she helped plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The African American community avoided city buses on December 5th, 1955 to protest Parks’ arrest. However, the organizers realized a longer protest could effect change and the Montgomery Bus Boycott ultimately lasted a total of 381 days. The boycott was a success, with the Supreme Court ultimately declaring that segregating on public transportation was unconstitutional in 1956. Rosa Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 by President Clinton.
Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County Mississippi. Her family was poor growing up, and she had to pick cotton at age 6 and leave school at age 12 to work. She married Perry Hamer in 1944 and they worked on a plantation in Mississippi until 1962. In 1961, Hamer had her uterus removed without her consent while she was having surgery to remove a tumor. This was an example of forced sterilization meant to reduce the black population. Hamer and her husband adopted two daughters since they were unable to have children.
In 1961, Hamer attended a meeting led by civil rights activists from the SNCC and the SCLC. Angry about efforts to deny the vote to black people, Hamer became a SNCC organizer and led volunteers to register to vote at a Mississippi courthouse. However, they were denied the right to vote and unfairly fined by the police. Hamer was fired from the plantation for trying to vote, and she and her husband moved.
In 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) whose goal was to challenge the local Democratic Party’s attempts to stop black participation. Hamer and the MFPD went to the Democratic National Convention and tried to speak, but President Lyndon B. Johnson held a press conference so her speech would not be televised. However, it was televised later and by 1968, Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
Hamer also helped organize Freedom Summer in 1964, which brought hundreds of college students to help with African American voter registration. Hamer announced her candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1964 but she was not allowed on the ballot. In 1971, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. She also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), an organization that bought up land black people could farm and own together. Hamer died of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59.
Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 24th, 1912. Height received a scholarship to attend college, and was accepted to Barnard College in 1929, but was not allowed to attend because the college did not admit African Americans. Instead, Height attended New York University and received a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in psychology. Height worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), but after meeting African American leader Mary McLeod Bethune, she began working with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). During her time at the NCNW she focused on ending the lynching of African Americans and reforming the criminal justice system. Height became president of the NCNW in 1957, and served as president for 40 years. Under her leadership, the NCNW provided financial aid to civil rights activists and supported voter registration in the South.
As a prominent Civil Rights leader, Height was called on by Eleanor Roosevelt, President Eisenhower, and President Lyndon B. Johnson to give advice on political issues. Height helped to plan the 1963 March on Washington. However, she was not asked to speak - no women were included at all until she helped persuade the other organizers to allow a woman to speak.
Height received the Citizens Medal Award from President Reagan in 1989, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Height passed away at the age of 98 on April 20th, 2010.