The Black Women Who Paved the Way for This MomentRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, womens history, black womens history, social movements
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.
In the 20th-century U.S., black-nationalist women—individuals who advocated for black liberation, economic self-sufficiency, racial pride, unity, and political self-determination—emerged as key political leaders on the local, national, and even international levels. When most black women in the U.S. did not have access to the vote, these women boldly confronted the hypocrisy of white America, often drawing upon their knowledge of history. And they did so in public spaces—in mass community meetings, at local parks, and on sidewalks. These women harnessed the power of their voices, passion, and the raw authenticity of their political message to rally black people across the nation and the globe.
In the early 1920s, Amy Ashwood Garvey, a co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, advocated for the rights and freedom of black people while standing on crowded street corners in Harlem. Using these public spaces as platforms to advance her political agenda, Ashwood held nothing back, imploring black people to resist white supremacy in all of its forms. On several occasions, the activist publicly recited poetry, including Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous work “We Wear the Mask,” which emphasized the strategies black people employed to survive segregation, oppression, and daily degradation.
In one speech, Ashwood reminded Harlemites that the struggles of black people in the U.S. could not be divorced from the challenges facing people of African descent around the globe. “The Negro question is no longer a local one,” Ashwood argued, “but of the Negroes of the world, joining hands and fighting for one common cause.” She went on to tell her listeners that they could not “attain Democracy unless they win it for themselves.”
During the 1930s, the Chicago-based activist Mittie Maude Lena Gordon promoted this message under the auspices of her organization, the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, the largest black-nationalist organization established by a woman in the country. Founded in 1932, the PME drew an estimated 300,000 supporters—primarily members of the black working class—in more than a dozen cities across the nation. The organization’s rapid growth during the 1930s and ’40s, as well as its wide reach, was directly tied to Gordon’s skills as a public speaker. Gordon, like Garvey, used city parks and street corners as platforms to disseminate her political ideas and build momentum for the movement.
Described by her contemporaries as a “very forceful and effective speaker,” Gordon commanded attention when she addressed audiences. She had an uncanny ability to stir the emotions of her listeners in an effort to compel them to act. So powerful were Gordon’s speeches that many who encountered the activist on local street corners joined her movement—sometimes without full knowledge of her political vision. During the early 1930s, Sam Hawthorne, a black Mississippian from Attala County, crossed paths with Gordon in Chicago. After hearing her deliver a moving speech “in public, on the streets,” Hawthorne quickly became a member of the PME and later established a chapter of the organization in his hometown.
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