Women in the Civil Rights Movement

15 Mar
Interviewees from "Eyes on the Prize." Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

Interviewees from “Eyes on the Prize.” Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

The role of women in the civil rights movement is often underrepresented and overlooked. When someone thinks of the movement the names that come to mind are usually male, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, or Malcolm X. Luckily for historians and scholars there are quite a few resources out there about women in the civil rights movement. When filmmaker Henry Hampton made his groundbreaking series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, he chose to tell the stories of the people who made up the movement, not necessarily the leaders of the movement. Hampton’s friend and coworker at the Unitarian Universalist Association, Bob Hohler gave a talk at Washington University where he spoke about Hampton’s plan for his film about the civil rights movement. Hampton originally had a deal with Capital Cities Communications in 1978. Hohler recalled,

Henry and his staff discussed possibilities and he proposed a series on the civil rights movement. He told them of his Selma experience, of walking across that bridge and thinking what a great, dramatic film it would make. Telling the story through the eyes of the people who lived it. In fact, telling the entire story of the civil rights movement from their point of view.

–Bob Hohler (University Libraries National Council Meeting, Washington University in St. Louis, September 20, 2002)

The deal with Capital Cities Communications fell through in part because they wanted Hampton to focus on the leaders of the movement rather than the everyday people who made up the mass marches and protests. Hampton was ahead of his time, both in how he ran his production teams with a mixture of men and women, African Americans and whites, and in the people he chose to interview for the series.

Some people such as Fannie Lou Hamer had already died by the time Hampton began to make Eyes on the Prize, but footage of Hamer’s speech before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 22, 1964 as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a major part of Episode 5: Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964). Six of the Little Rock Nine, young students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, were young women and Hampton’s production company Blackside interviewed several members of that group including Melba Pattillo Beals and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Pattillo Beals’ interview was a major part of Episode 2: Fighting Back (1957-1962) about the school integration crisis in Little Rock. Diane Nash, was a young student at Fisk University in Nashville when she became involved in the sit-in movement and eventually challenged Mayor West of Nashville during a protest march asking him directly if he thought it was wrong to discriminate against someone solely on their race. Mayor West agreed that it was not morally right to discriminate in that way and that statement was an important moment in that campaign which was successful in desegregating the lunch counters and public facilities in Nashville. Nash went on the work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was heavily involved in the Freedom Rides.

Other women from the civil rights movement that were interviewed by Blackside include Mississippi activist, Unita Blackwell (note: Blackwell was interviewed several times by Blackside), Eliza Briggs, one of the plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, a case which challenged the segregated school system, Virginia Durr, an activist from Montgomery, Rosa Parks, who famously sparked the Montgomery Buy Boycott, Casey Hayden, another SNCC member, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock singer and activist, and many others.

Many of these interviews’ transcripts are available to read online: Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series, but there are many other interviews and resources on women in the civil rights movement at the Film and Media Archive. A good place to start researching is our online catalog, but researchers can always contact the Film Archive directly with questions.

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