Learn Lessons about Movement Building from Radical Black WomenRoundup
tags: African American history, black power, womens history, Black Panther Party, Protest, radical history
KEISHA N. BLAIN is associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society. Her latest books are Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619 – 2019 (with Ibram X. Kendi) and Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
PREMILLA NADASEN is currently a professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she is affiliated with the Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Institute for Research in African American Studies.
ROBYN C. SPENCER is a historian focused on Black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism and gender. She co-founded the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project and authored The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
The Movement for Black Lives is noteworthy for a leadership that is overwhelmingly women (both cis and trans). Although not always recognized, Black women’s organizing, insights and analysis have long been an engine of Black freedom movements. That is no accident: As the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminist socialists, write in their groundbreaking 1977 statement, “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” They saw the particular task of Black feminists as “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”
In These Times and the Movement for Black Lives guest editors asked distinguished historians of the Black experience to lift up the Black women in movements that presaged the Movement for Black Lives. In this roundtable, professors Premilla Nadasen, Keisha N. Blain and Robyn C. Spencer offer snapshots of chapters of Black struggle that provide inspiration and grounding for the work of the 21st century Black freedom movement.
Nadasen reminds us that there was intersectional Black feminist practice before it had a label. Poor Black women in the welfare rights movement were justice crusaders who, in their campaigns, speeches and demands, reflected an understanding of the confluence of different systems of oppression. Blain recovers a powerful lost chapter in the history of Black radicalism in Detroit by retelling the story of internationalist and anti-racist organizer Pearl Sherrod. Spencer, herself an outspoken proponent of Black and Palestinian solidarity, adds the story of Black Panther Connie Matthews, another lesser-known exemplar of Black internationalism in the 1970s.
This recuperative process of remembering Black women in the Black freedom struggle is more than celebratory. It is a reminder that the real, hard work of movement-building and freedom-making is not going to be done by celebrities, or even politicians — but by ordinary people with deep passions, strong commitments and clear visions.
In what ways have Black women historically pioneered a radical, transformative politics?
PREMILLA NADASEN: Poor Black women have waged a generations-long, often overlooked struggle for economic autonomy against a patriarchal, racist capitalist system stacked against them. The welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s is an underrecognized example of the deep contestation of this system through a radical Black feminist vision.
Established during the Great Depression, the welfare system catered to “worthy” white widows with provisions aimed at denying assistance to “undeserving” Black mothers, forcing them to remain in the labor force rather than be full-time caregivers for their own children. The legislation excluded the farm and domestic sectors that were dependent on Black women’s underpaid labor. In a 1939 report, a welfare field supervisor in the South wrote that welfare officials see no “reason why the employable Negro mother should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.”
Even as civil rights activists worked to dismantle discriminatory welfare provisions in the 1960s — enabling more Black women to gain access to benefits — new regulations required that recipients take paid employment outside the home.
African American and other poor women of color contested this injustice in the 1960s and 1970s. Following in the radical tradition of Sojourner Truth, they asserted their womanhood and claimed the same treatment afforded white women. The changes they demanded spanned from improved welfare benefits and participation in decision-making to access to abortion and the end of coerced sterilization.
The most far-reaching demand of the welfare rights movement was for a guaranteed annual income that would bring all poor people — regardless of race, gender, family status, legal status, employment status — up to a minimum standard of living well above the poverty line. Welfare rights activists sought to dismantle the economic status quo predicated on Black women’s low-wage work, which maintained joblessness and a reserve army of labor for capital. Instead, they envisioned substantive access to freedom, autonomy and self-determination for poor Black mothers.
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