Civil Rights in the 1960s: Women Sang Out, but Remain Largely Unsung

February is Black History Month. Accordingly, today we honor some of the fabulous black women who have made, and are making, a difference in our nation and around the world. —Ed.

Last month we celebrated the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., justly honored for his role as one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. His eloquence and ability to rally and inspire thousands of followers, together with his calm conviction and steadfast courage in the face of hatred and brutality, set him apart and won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King’s assassination and subsequent martyrdom confirmed his place as the face of the civil rights movement.

But few of the women activists in Dr. King’s day—women whose zeal and courage matched his—earned lasting fame. In the ‘60s, women’s voices didn’t carry very far, despite the fact that their activism was critical to the movement. The resounding chorus of men, few of whom realized or acknowledged the intelligence and dedication of the black and white women who worked and protested alongside them, all but drowned them out. Tellingly, only one female activist got to speak at the rally that concluded the famous 1963 March on Washington. A half-century later, however, women have organized massively to make sure their voices are heard: On January 21, 2017, hundreds of thousands of women marched, in the U.S. and abroad, to make sure their voices command attention from legislators and governors and mayors and all those in positions of power.

Dorothy Foreman Cotton (1930- ) was born in segregated North Carolina. As a university student she worked two jobs, one in the school cafeteria and the other cleaning the teachers’ dormitory when she wasn’t protesting segregation at the library and the lunch counter. A few years later, Cotton worked with Dr. King in Atlanta at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), devoted to ending all sorts of segregation. She became Education Director of the SCLC and in Atlanta met Septima Clark.

They worked together on the Citizenship Education Program, whose purpose was to help blacks register to vote. The states had restrictions that effectively disqualified African-Americans from voting by means of literacy tests like reciting sections of the Constitution from memory and requiring signatures in cursive writing. (The officials administering the tests were often illiterate themselves.) Through this program Cotton and Clark aimed to make their students aware of their political and civil rights, enabling them to initiate action for change.

Cotton accompanied Dr. King when he traveled to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.

Jo Ann Robinson (1912-1992) was teaching in Montgomery, Alabama, at the state college. One day she took a bus and the driver verbally abused her for sitting in the section reserved for “whites only.” She went to the Women’s Political Council and proposed a protest boycott, only to be told that the situation “was a fact of life in Montgomery.”

But the day Rosa Parks was arrested, Robinson and the Council began to plan a bus boycott in earnest. The one-day boycott was so successful that the protesters decided to extend the action and established an association to coordinate their efforts, electing Dr. King as president.

Afraid to jeopardize her teaching job, Robinson never joined the association, though she worked behind the scenes and supported the boycotters by providing transportation. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted 380 days because the bus company would not give in to the protesters’ demands. It ended when a federal court ruled that bus segregation is unconstitutional. (The ruling was appealed and later affirmed by the Supreme Court.)

Robinson and other teachers who supported the students resigned from the college and moved away. After a year teaching in Louisiana, Robinson moved to Los Angeles, became active in women’s organizations and taught there until she retired.

Willa Brown (1906-1992) was first in many of her endeavors. She was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license and to run for the U.S. Congress, the first woman of any race in the U.S. to have both a pilot’s and a mechanic’s license, and the first African-American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. Clearly, she loved to fly. She lobbied the government to desegregate the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor of the Air Force) and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She also was co-founder of the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first private flight training academy in the U.S. owned and operated by African-Americans. Brown was instrumental in training hundreds of pilots.

She was always politically active, advocating for racial and gender equality and running for Congress three times. Brown taught in Chicago public schools until she retired.

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