The freedom movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s gained its momentum from many different groups and individuals. Throughout history it has been the males of the movement that have been remembered. Although such females as Rosa Parks played pivotal roles in the movement, it is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that are said to have created real change. Females have been given a more symbolic role in the movement rather than be credited with producing actual change. But when one considers the history of the era, it is discovered that women too played a pivotal role in bringing the country where it is today. Women have played roles just as, if not more, influential than the men that seem to have dominated the movement.
This sexist view of the movement has of course been the fault of inept historians but also the masculine chauvinism seen in the movement itself. For instance, the Black Power movement had within their ideology an egalitarian view of what it meant to be a black person:
It [Black Power] is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize
their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to
begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations, and to support
those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this
society. (Toure et al, 1992)
However, one of the distinctive tenets of the movement, that of black male dominance, produced a schism between the different sexes. The advocates of Black Power argued that white American society had all but completely emasculated the black male. The treatment of black men by racist whites aimed at making the black male feel inferior and degraded. Black leaders reasoned that until the black male took his proper place in the leadership and empowerment of the movement and its organizations, that no black person, male or female, would be free. This had the effect of pushing powerful and inspirational female leaders to the fringes of the movement, where they would be less influential. (Collier – Thomas et al, 2001)
Through all of this however, inspirational and influential women did emerge. These women came from all walks of life. Some were college educated, some not. Some were students, some were old ladies. Some had easy upbringings and some did not. If it is ever right to compare one persons drive for a cause they see as just to another’s, and if it would be possible to measure the determination inside someone to see their work come to fruition, there is no doubt that Fannie Lou Hamer would emerge on top. Of all the female activists during the freedom movement, it was her that had to overcome incredible odds and setbacks in her pursuit of equality for all black people. To understand the uphill battle she had to face and the determination she had to muster to get where she wanted to go, it is necessary to understand the upbringing of other women close to the movement, and the different situations with which they were all faced.
Charlayne Hunter – Gault
On February 27, 1942, Charlayne Hunter-Gault was born in the tiny village of Due West in South Carolina. It was a small town in which the Presbyterian church was the center-piece. The town practically shut down on Sunday’s and Charlayne’s mother urged her to not “do anything on Sunday but go to church – no reading the paper even.” (Hunter-Gault, 1992) Her mother was very fair-skinned and often mistaken for a white woman. Because of this, her mother often overheard conversations between white people about blacks. These stories, later told to Charlayne by her mother, became the seeds that germinated into an awareness of the social injustices that had been taking place and her desire to do something about them.
Charlayne traveled quite extensively while growing up, living in places as diverse as Florida, California, Georgia, and Michigan. In Georgia, Charlayne attended one of the wealthiest black high schools in the country, but this ended not long after when the family moved to Alaska, to the great disparagement of Charlayne. (Hunter-Gault, 1992)
Eventually, Charlayne made it back to Georgia to attend school at the University of Georgia, where she studied journalism, but not until after great struggle between her and the school’s officials, who continually denied her entry. Finally, in 1961, she and Hamilton E. Holmes became the first black students to attend the college, effectively ending racial segregation in the University. Not long after her acceptance, her dormitory became the hotbed of racially motivated riots. Charlayne earned her degree in 1963 and has since won 4 awards in journalism; two Peabody’s and two Emmy’s. She now works for CNN, and the building in which she first registered for classes has been partly named in her honor. (Wikipedia)
Rosa Parks was named by Congress the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement.” She became famous for refusing to give her bus seat up to a white man when the bus driver ordered her to, setting off what became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Wikipedia)
Throughout her life, she experienced racism in many different ways. Living in the South, black people were completely segregated from white people in nearly every aspect of society. As a child, she was forced to walk to school while the school bus passed her daily, full of white children. At one time in her life, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally and marched down her street, right in front of her house, while her grandfather stood at the front door with a shotgun, ready to protect their home. (Wikipedia)
It was on the bus that day on December 1, 1955 that she refused to allow the injustices in her life continue. After refusing to move for a white man, and waiting for several minutes on the bus, the police finally came to arrest her. According to Parks, they did not lay a hand on her, they simply escorted her out of the bus and had her sit in the back of a police car. After spending several hours in jail, her husband raised the necessary bail and Park’s was released. Although it was a relatively peaceful incident, it became the symbolic catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. (Collier – Thomas et al, 2001)
Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 24, 1912. She received a scholarship to Barnard College but was denied admittance after the schools annual quota of two black students was reached. She then ended up settling at New York University and received a master’s degree in psychology. (Wikipedia)
At the age of 25 she joined the National Council of Negro Women after becoming active in the civil rights movement. By 1957, Dorothy had become the president of the Council and used her position to organize “Wednesdays in Mississippi;” an attempt at dialogue between black and white women with the aim of understanding and helping one another move forward. She met and influenced powerful people in the government, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. (Collier – Thomas et al, 2001)
Gloria Richardson was born in Baltimore in 1922. She eventually moved and grew up in Cambridge, where her grandfather had lived and worked as a city council person for 15 years. She saw the struggle of blacks all around, when, at the time, the unemployment rate was as high as 50 percent while seemingly every white person had a job. In 1962, she became the first woman to head a national movement. That movement was known as the Cambridge Movement. It was distinct from other organizations at the time in that it was the first movement created outside of the deep South, and was also one of the first to concentrate on civil and economic rights, rather than just civil rights. (Giddings 1984)
Fannie Lou Hamer
Of all these women, an award of endurance could be given to Fannie Lou Hamer for her perseverance in the face of incredible adversity. She has been called the “Mother of the black female political movement,” and was known for her saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was born on October 6, 1917 to a large family which eventually included 20 children, fourteen boys and six girls. She grew up as a cotton picker on a large plantation in Mississippi, the granddaughter of a slave, with a strong motherly influence. From her mother, she received guidance and esteem as her mother always told her, “Be proud you’re black, and respect yourself.”
Unlike most of the other women in the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou grew up relatively uneducated. Most of her time was spent on the plantation, attempting to earn a living. When she was a small child, she survived a bout of polio, which gave her the limp for which she was remembered. She attended school for a few years which made her the pride of the family. At dinner, her family would stand her up on the kitchen table and would have her reciting poetry and sing the songs that she was taught in school. When Fannie Lou learned how to read and write, she went home and taught her mother how to spell her own name. There was an indebtedness to her mother, who was always pushing Fannie Lou to do will in school, and to make something of herself. (Kling 1979)
However, this ideal life for Fannie Lou was short lived. When she was about twelve, her family, having finally saved enough money together for many years, was able to rent land from a nearby farmer. With their new land came a feeling of accomplishment. They fixed the small shack already on the land into a livable home and bought farm equipment and a few animals. As far as the family was concerned, they were going to be living a life a freedom that no one in the family had ever known. But then tragedy struck. One day, the family found that someone had mixed Paris Green, a poison, into the animals feed, and all their animals died. Fannie Lou had to drop out of school to work full-time with her family as they had to move back to the plantation they had left only a few months previous. This time however, the landowner took most of the money they made as a punishment for them trying to leave, and the family was left with nothing. (Kling 1979)
Fannie Lou tried not to let this stop her from educating herself, and she joined a nearby church where she was able to read the bible. This was an instrumental time in her life for not only its educational aspect, but for its exposing her to an ethic of love and non-violence. She used what she learned during this time period later in life as an activist in the civil rights movement. (Kling 1979)
She eventually met a man named “Pap” and by the time she was twenty-four, they had married. After trying to have children for many months, they were saddened by the realization that it was not going to be possible. But they did not let this stop them and they ended up adopting two children. (Kling 1979)
Having suffered much racism in her life, and possessing an innate ability to recognize injustice, she eventually took on the cause of attempting to politically empower black people. One of her chief aims was attempting to rally the people of Mississippi to push for black people’s right to vote. For her activism, her and her husband had their lives threatened and lost their jobs after they were kicked off the plantation on which they had worked for eighteen years. (Duckett 1972)
Not allowing such a thing to deter her, Fannie Lou kept pressing and endured jailing and brutal beatings by both certain citizens of Mississippi and the police themselves. After a particularly brutal beating, she was able to get a trial after finding the men that beat her, only to have them acquitted by an all-white jury. This instance however, cast her into the national spotlight where she was able to tell her story on network television. As a result of this, she became a spokesperson for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which had been formed to challenge racist Democrats. Fannie Lou ended up winning 33,000 votes when she ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965. (Duckett 1972)
Fannie Lou Hamer died from breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59. Her struggle to reach her peak in life, and make the difference that she did, was unparalleled by any other woman in the civil rights movement. But the heartache suffered through much of her life did not deter her from her goal of peace and justice. And for that, she will be always remembered.
Collier – Thomas, B., & Franklin, V. (Eds.). (2001). Sisters in the struggle: african american women in the civil rights – black power movement. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press.
Duckett, A. (1972). Changing of the guard: the new breed of black politicians. 1st ed. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan.
Giddings, P. (1984). When and where i enter. 1st ed. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc..
Hunter-Gault, C. (1992). In my place. 1st ed. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Kling, S. (1979). Fannie lou hamer: a biography. 1st ed. Chicago: Salsedo Press.
Toure, K., & Hamilton, C. (1992). Black power: the politics of
liberation in america. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved Mar. 27, 2006, from Charlayne Hunter-Gault Web site: www.wikipedia.org.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved Mar. 27, 2006, from Rosa Parks Web site: www.wikipedia.org.