Black Women's Roles in the Civil Rights Movement have been Understated -- But that's Changing

Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, Claudette Colvin, NAACP, montgomery bus boycott

This is the first feature of CNN's new series "History Refocused." These are stories from America's past you should have heard about, but probably didn't. Knowing them might reshape your understanding of the disparities the country faces today.

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."

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