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

Marie Foster (1917-2013) Exasperated by having to try to register to vote eight times before finally succeeding, Foster began to teach her African-American neighbors in Selma, Alabama, how to overcome the obstacles thrown in their way when they tried to register. Her first class had one student, but others began to flock to her once they realized what they could gain.

Foster marched on the fateful Bloody Sunday, the first of the attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. King with John Lewis at his side. She was in one of the front lines and was clubbed by a state trooper. Two weeks later, she ignored her injuries and completed the 50-mile hike to Selma in five days.

WVFC previously refocused the spotlight on the relatively unknown women who were essential to the achievement of civil rights for African-Americans.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arrested and beaten at its protests. Hamer was fired from her 18-year-long job as a sharecropper for daring to register to vote. She endured vicious blackjack beatings when she was a voting-rights activist and a Freedom Rider, an activist who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.

Dorothy Height (1912–2010) was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years and a women’s-rights and civil-rights activist for 80 years. In the ’30s she protested lynchings; in the ’60s she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” when Northern women traveled weekly to meet with their counterparts in Mississippi (black women with black women, white women with white women). They met to support freedom schools and voter registration among other goals.

Ella Baker (1903–1986) was prominent in three national organizations: she was a national director for the NAACP, a founder of the SNCC and of the SCLC. “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.” She recruited Dr. King into the SCLC, but later clashed with him because she felt he gave too little power to others in the organization.

Septima Clark (1898–1937) devoted decades to teaching illiterate African-Americans what they needed to pass the literacy tests required to register to vote. She taught children in a rural, segregated school by day and illiterate adults at night. Establishing “citizenship schools” throughout the South, she became known as “the freedom teacher.” These schools taught not only literacy but leadership skills, and under the aegis of the SCLC, the project trained 10,000 teachers.

Diane Nash (1938- ) is another founding member of the SNCC. She organized and marched in the Selma voting-rights protests with Dr. King. Like Ella Baker, Nash was angry with Dr. King for giving too little credit to the movement’s female activists.

Daisy Bates (1914-99) headed the Arkansas NAACP in a turbulent era, published a newspaper, wrote articles and an autobiography. The most significant of her achievements was coordinating the strategy to segregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, which forced President Eisenhower to take a stand. He sent federal troops to police the mob and protect the students. Six years later, at the 1963 March on Washington, Bates addressed the crowd following Dr.  King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Lest one doubt the longstanding initiative and courageous work of African-American activists and scholars, two books by historian Paula Giddings make great background reading on the topic: her superb history, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America and her equally superb biography of journalist, scholar, and activist extraordinaire Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.

Women’s Voices has reported on personal testimonies by women in SNCC, Hands on the Freedom Plow. Another compelling testimony is Melba Patillo Beals’s Warriors Don’t Cry; Beals was one of the nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

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