Black History Month began, for me, on January 20. I was watching MHP, Melissa Harris-Perry’s morning TV show. Melissa (I’m sure she wouldn’t mind my calling her Melissa) had as her guest Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The two women spoke with admiration and regret about women who were the backbone of the civil rights movement, yet who remain unsung heroines.
They named names. Ella Baker. Dorothy Height. Septima Clark. Diane Nash. Fannie Lou Hamer.
I was curious. Who were these firebrands?
All, I discovered, were stirring speakers. Clips of these women in action made me marvel at their vision and daring. Here, as the first of WVFC’s articles in honor of Black History Month, are their stories.
FANNIE LOU HAMER
I knew of Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) of Mississippi, youngest child of 20, great-granddaughter of a slave. But I didn’t know much about her history—of the breadth of her activism, the extent of her bravery.
I’d seen the tumult on the floor of the 1964 Democratic National Convention when Hamer and her Mississippi Freedom Democratic party tried—and failed—to be seated as an alternative to Mississippi’s all-white delegation. But I didn’t remember that, as an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she faced arrests and beatings at its protests. Or that in 1962 she was fired from her 18-year-long job as a sharecropper for daring to register to vote. (Here, in a galvanizing clip, she calmly describes the vicious beating she endured in the following days, when she was a voting-rights activist riding in what her persecutors mocked as “a bus of the wrong color.”)
Fannie Lou Hamer never gave in after that wretched day on the plantation when she lost her job for trying to vote. “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to risk being killed,” she declares in this clip in her slow, measured voice. “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.”
Image via Wikipedia
Dorothy Height (1912–2010) was a Northerner. She did not endure physical attacks—blackjack beatings, like Fannie Lou Hamer. Her struggles were everyday confrontations with life-constricting reality: scorn for her race and de facto segregation.
In 1929, Height was admitted to Barnard. But when she got there, she was denied entrance; her presence exceeded the college’s unwritten limit of two black students a year. (She took the subway down to New York University and was promptly accepted.) Earlier in her life, as a high-schooler, the only black contestant in a Pennsylvania state oratory contest, she had been humiliated by being denied lunch in a restaurant in the state capital. Her mother had told her before she left for the contest, “Whatever happens, Dorothy, hold yourself together.” And she did, as this clip will show.)
Height was, for 41 years, president of the National Council of Negro Women. She was a women’s-rights and civil-rights activist for 80 years. In the thirties she protested lynchings; in the sixties she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” in which Northern women traveled to that state weekly to meet with their counterparts (black women with black women, white women with white women) to, among other goals, support freedom schools and voter registration. In 1994, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On her death in 2010, The New York Times commended Height on her use of “limitless energy and steely gentility to ally the [black and women’s movements] in the fight for social justice.” President Obama called her “the godmother of the Civil Rights movement.” And hardly anybody knows her name.
Image via Wikipedia
Press clips on Ella Baker (1903–1986) agree that though she was vital to the civil rights movement, she remains unsung. Even the nonprofit organization founded in her name, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. begins its site with the question “Who was Ella Baker?”
She was: (1) the granddaughter of a slave; (2) a national director for the NAACP; (3) a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (she recruited Dr. Martin Luther King into it, but later clashed with King because she felt he gave too little power to others in the organization); (4) a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Hear her compelling voice declaring, “I had to learn that hitting back, with my fists, one individual, was not enough; it takes organization, it takes dedication; it takes the willingness to stand by and do what has to be done when it has to be done.” And hear her words, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” transmuted into song—a melodic tribute performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
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Septima Clark’s father was a slave; Poinsette, her surname at birth, was the name of the South Carolina farm on which he had worked. The contribution of Clark (1898–1937) to the civil-rights cause was her decades-long, gritty commitment to giving African Americans the gift of literacy—a skill that is a general blessing, of course, but was also a vital tool for blacks who dreamed of voting in the South.
Though she couldn’t afford college, she found work as a teacher in a rural African-American school; she taught children by day and illiterate adults at night. Between 1942 and 1945, two decades after her high school graduation, she earned her bachelor’s in education from Benedict College of Columbia University and her master’s at Hampton College in Virginia.
But in 1956 she was fired from her teaching job. South Carolina had passed a law barring city and state employees for being involved with a civil-rights organization, and Clark refused to leave her position as vice-president of the Charles NAACP. This refusal lost her her pension after 40 years of employment.
And then Clark became “the freedom teacher”—holding literacy workshops designed to turn, in a week, illiterate African Americans into potential voters. She established “citizenship schools” throughout the South, schools that taught not only literacy but leadership skills. Under the aegis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the citizenship-school project trained some 10,000 teachers to lead these projects all over the South.
Diane Nash’s daring won her (and her husband, James Bevel) the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s highest award, the Rosa Parks Award. Raised in Chicago, she was outraged when, in 1959, she first encountered segregation, Southern style—official, legal—as a 22-year-old student at Fisk University in Nashville. She promptly began taking nonviolence workshops. The next year she became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Nash is a woman of breathtaking bravery. She was a leader of the department-store sit-ins in Nashville in 1961. Arrested for trying to desegregate a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, she adhered to the motto “Jail, not Bail”; to stay in jail was to be a moral beacon to the community. She coordinated the dangerous Freedom Rides of the Nashville Freedom Movement. (The night of her election to that post, she was hit by such a wave of fear that she could hardly walk across her dormitory room. Hear her tell the story in her soft, gentle voice on this clip from The Tavis Smiley Show.) But she didn’t give up: It was she who persuaded a busload of “replacement” Freedom Riders to continue the journey after a bus was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. (This despite a call from the assistant attorney general demanding that she stop the ride.) She organized and marched in the Selma voting-rights protests with Dr. Martin Luther King. (Like Ella Baker, Clark was angry with King for giving too little credit to the movement’s female activists.)
Why did she do it all? Because she was “upset, outraged, and angry” at the injustice of segregation. How did she have the courage? She told Smiley in the interview: “I’ve spent a lot of time making decisions that will cause me to respect the person I see in the mirror.”