6 Times Black Women Started History-Making Social Movements
Though not always acknowledged, Black women have often led the charge in creating social change in this country.
March 11, 2022 at 3:55 pm
As we have highlighted Black history in February and are now highlighting women’s history this month, it is only appropriate to examine the historical impact of Black women in this country. Though Black women have faced unique challenges throughout American history, Black women and girls have also been at the forefront of some of our country’s most transformative social movements. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, here are six times Black women have made history by sparking social change.
1. Linda Brown and Mamie Till-Mobley helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
While it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the Civil Rights Movement began, many historians place its start in 1954. The two events that set the stage for the struggle for Black rights were the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the publicizing of the murder of teenager Emmett Till. The Brown case, which led to the end of segregation in public schools and challenged the separate but equal doctrine more generally, was named after Oliver Brown, a Kansas reverend and welder, who was one of several parents named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But it was his then 11-year-old daughter, Linda Brown, who was at the center of the case.
One year after the Brown decision, 14-year-old Emmett Till became a martyr for Black America after the Chicago teen was brutally tortured and murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Sadly, such lynchings were common across the South, and Till’s murder might have gone unnoticed if not for his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. She insisted that her son have an open casket funeral, allowing onlookers to see his crushed face; pictures of Till were published by Jet magazine and horrified the nation, sparking demand for such racial violence to be stopped.
2. Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and Jo Ann Robinson set the stage for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Many people mark the definitive beginning of the Civil Rights Movement as the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in December 1955 after Alabama seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Less well remembered was that Parks was also an activist who led the youth division at the local branch of the NAACP. Parks and her colleagues had been seeking to challenge segregation in Montgomery for some time, and she intentionally used her act of defiance to do so.
While Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the names most associated with the Montgomery movement, the boycott would not have happened without the work and sacrifices of others. Nine months before Parks’ arrest, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested and harassed for refusing to give up her seat and was one of several women who engaged in such defiant acts in the months before Parks. Meanwhile, Jo Ann Robinson, a local political activist who had her own traumatic experience on a segregated bus in Montgomery, had waited for years to challenge the system. She publicized and helped to lead the initial boycott, which grew from a one-day event to a year-long campaign. Though Parks was the face of the movement, it was a lawsuit filed in the name of Colvin and three other Black women that eventually overturned bus segregation in Alabama. Last year, Colvin, who is still alive, finally had her criminal record expunged.
3. Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie led the fight for LGBTQ rights at Stonewall.
The 1969 Stonewall Riots, also known as the Stonewall uprisings, are often marked as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement. The event began as a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Manhattan. Such raids were typical, but on this night, the customers at Stonewall decided to fight back against police harassment. The fight turned into a full-on battle, as other activists and local neighborhood residents came to join the fight against the NYPD. The rebellion became a symbol for LGBTQ rights; the anniversary of Stonewall was the occasion for the first Pride parades, which soon spread across the country.
Although no one knows for certain who struck first at Stonewall, for years, many believed that Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson threw the first punch. Though she later denied that she had been the first to fight, her participation in the fight that night pushed her into the limelight as a leader in the LGBTQ community in New York and around the country; years after Stonewall, she was highly active in several LGBTQ rights organizations. Meanwhile, many people believe that the first punch at Stonewall was actually thrown by Stormé DeLarverie, a mixed-race drag performer who fought with police at Stonewall that night. Over the years, DeLarverie’s legend grew, as she became known as the Stonewall lesbian and the Rosa Parks of Stonewall.
4. The Combahee River Collective and Kimberlé Crenshaw conceptualized identity politics and intersectionality.
In 1974, a collection of Black lesbian socialist feminists began meeting in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group named itself the Combahee River Collective after a South Carolina location where Harriet Tubman led a daring Civil War raid that freed hundreds of enslaved people. The group is most remembered for its 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, which coined the term “identity politics” to describe how the various aspects of one’s identity and the oppression that one faces because of these identity markers influence politics and advocacy. “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us,” the collective wrote.
In analyzing how it was “difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously,” the collective was laying out the groundwork for another concept: intersectionality. It was another Black woman, academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe the unique discrimination faced by Black women and, more generally, how different aspects of identity and identity-based oppression intersect in specific ways. Together, the concepts of identity politics and intersectionality gave names to phenomena that have always existed in our country and gave scholars, activists and politicians important tools to identify and mobilize around these concepts.
5. Tarana Burke started the #MeToo Movement and continues to guide it.
In 2006, Tarana Burke came up with a simple phrase to allow Black and brown women, girls and other survivors of sexual abuse to identify with one another and talk about their shared experiences: “Me too.” At the time, Burke’s work focused on supporting survivors in the U.S. South, especially those who were socioeconomically marginalized.
Years later, in the wake of public revelations of sexual predation committed by powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #MeToo began trending as a way for people to share their survival stories online. Actress Alyssa Milano shared the hashtag, which went viral and became the name of a widening, global movement against sexual violence and harassment. Despite the evolution of #MeToo, Burke has been active in promoting the #MeToo movement and making sure that the movement does not lose its original focus on poor women and girls of color.
6. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi continue to make sure that Black Lives Matter.
In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges for killing Black teenager Trayvon Martin the previous year. Oakland activist Alicia Garza sat down and wrote a post on Facebook to express her feelings over the verdict. In the post, Garza lamented how “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter” before ending the post with the words “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” One of Garza’s friends, Patrisse Cullors, responded to the post and created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. A third friend, Brooklyn-based Opal Tometi, helped spread the phrase and its message across social media.
Garza, Cullors and Tometi continue to be highly involved in activism, individually and together. The Black Lives Matter movement became a defining movement in the U.S., protesting killings and violence against Black people at the hands of police and other authority figures. The movement has grown global, launching branches in many countries and seeing analogous movements like Nigeria’s #EndSars.
From civil rights to Black Lives Matter, Black women have mobilized millions of people in the U.S. and inspired people around the world to seek and partake in social change. This Women’s History Month, let’s remember the many contributions that Black women have made to make our country and world better places.