Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

12 Jul
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.

A recent NPR piece, Mary Hamilton, The Woman Who Put the “Miss” in Court, told the story of Mary Hamilton whose refusal to answer a judge who only referred to her by her first name led to a Supreme Court Case. The final ruling in the case was that people in court deserve to be addressed by titles (Miss, Mrs., or Mr.) regardless of their race or position in society.

Mary Hamilton was a civil rights activist, a Freedom Rider, and  a field organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The article quotes historian Tara White,

Historian Tara White researches women in the civil rights movement. She says part of the reason is that in that time period, women just weren’t in prominent roles. Journalists compounded that by gravitating to male leaders. But White says without women, there would have been no movement.

“The majority of the folks who were doing the day-to-day work were women. The majority of the people who were participating in protest marches and those kinds of things were women,” White says.

While it is true that women were doing the day-to-day administrative work, and participating in mass protests, there were female leaders in the civil rights movement. In fact, in many cases women were the leaders and instigating forces in major milestones in the movement. Jo Ann Robinson organized the initial city-wide boycott in Montgomery sparked by Rosa Park’s action to not move from her seat on the bus.

A young student leader, Diane Nash, was involved in planning and leading marches in the Nashville sit-ins and later the in Freedom Rides. Nash was the person who confronted the mayor of Nashville, Ben West, with the question,  “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” And he was forced to acknowledge that he did feel it was wrong bringing the boycott to a successful conclusion.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) famously confronted the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 by reporting what conditions were like in Mississippi for African Americans and asking,

“All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings – in America?”

In Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton sought to make a documentary that would fully recognize the previously unknown or unacknowledged women and men who made up the movement in addition to the leaders. But it would not be accurate to say that women were not in leadership roles in the civil rights movement. Blackside often interviewed people who had not been recognized in the official history of the civil rights movement. Jo Ann Robinson, for example, had never been interviewed about her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott before Eyes on the Prize.

The focus on charismatic and important leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X does not cancel out the leadership of the women in the movement. The lack of  historical focus on women’s role in the civil rights movement does leave a large unexplored area of research for enterprising scholars, historians, and writers. The Film & Media Archive holds many primary documents from this era including the interviews mentioned above. For more information see the complete interviews from Eyes on the Prize.

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