When the Civil Rights Movement is mentioned, oftentimes the names of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael are mentioned. However, you will rarely hear the names of Ella Baker or Septima Clark. So here’s a list of prominent Black Women of the Civil Rights Movement that are oftentimes forgotten.
If you were lucky enough, you probably read a sentence or two about Ella Baker in one of your textbooks. Ella Baker was born on Dec 13, 1903 and lived to be 83. She is known for helping create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC, which played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. SNCC was a group of students involved in sit-ins and freedom rides. Prominent Civil Rights activists, such as Stokely Carmichael and Diane Nash, were all a part of SNCC. Prior to creating SNCC, Baker also worked for NAACP as the director of branches, the highest position for a woman in the NAACP, and SCLC. Unlike many leaders of movements, Baker did not care for any attention or recognition. She is arguably one of the most powerful and influential women in the Civil Rights Movement.
Septima Clark, like Ella Baker, is hardly mentioned even though her role in extending literacy to adults was very important. Clark, who was born on May 3, 1898, was very important in the Civil Rights Movement for her advocacy of literacy and citizenship. Clark created what became known as “Citizenship Schools,” which taught adults — both black and white, how to read and write, allowing them to go on and vote. Eventually, these schools became a part of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and she worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the movement. She was the first woman to gain a position on SCLC as well. In her writings, Clark would express the sexism she had to deal with, which was something most women involved in the Civil Rights Movement had to endure. Septima is known as the “Queen Mother” and “Grandmother” of the Civil Rights Movement.
Pauli Murray was not only a civil rights activist, but also a women’s rights activist. Born on November 20, 1910, Pauli Murray would go on to be the first African American to receive a J.S.D from Yale Law School. Murray was active in participating in sit-ins and boycotting segregated buses when she was young. Unfortunately, the path to becoming a lawyer was not easy for Murray. She was denied acceptance into UNC because of her race, which she responded to by writing letters to not only the university president but President Roosevelt as well. She didn’t only write to President Roosevelt, but his wife too, who would later become a good friend of hers. Murray attended Howard University for law, where she became very aware of sexism as the only woman. She would later graduate first in her class, which meant she was supposed to receive an award to pursue graduate work at Harvard, but was rejected due to her gender. Most likely, these two rejections causde her to fight for civil rights and women’s rights. In her book States’ Laws on Race and Color, she used psychological, sociological and legal evidence to criticize segregation, which would greatly help in Brown v. Board of Education. Murray then went on to live in Ghana, study at Yale Law School, and teach at Brandeis before being appointed by JFK to the Presidential Commission on the Status of women. Murray would then go on to create the National Organization of Women(NOW) and become the first Black woman Episcopal priest.
Interesting fact: Murray oftentimes struggled with her sexuality and gender identity. For those who don’t know, gender identity is essentially what gender a person identifies as, whether it’s male, female, neither, or anywhere in between. Murray was open about her relationships with both men and women, but didn’t describe herself as homosexual because she felt like a man who was attracted to women. She oftentimes kept her hair short and wore pants instead of skirts, which would have been seen as quite odd in those days. She even got hormones prescribed to her and wanted doctors to check if she had male genitals hidden inside of her.
Diane Nash, born on May 15, 1938, helped create SNCC alongside Ella Baker. Other than creating SNCC, Nash started multiple very successful civil rights campaigns. She launched a campaign to integrate lunch counters and restarted Freedom Rides in Nashville, and helped with the Alabama Voting Rights Project and Selma Voting Rights Movement. These two voting rights campaigns helped Blacks gain the right to vote in the South. She originally attended Howard University, but then transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where she was exposed to the brutality of segregation and Jim Crow laws. From then on Nash devoted herself to civil rights activism and started the Nashville sit-ins. She would later help create SNCC. Nash was so devoted to civil rights activism and advocated “jail, no bail” that she even allowed herself to be imprisoned for two years when she was four months pregnant. (The judge would later suspend her sentence because of the negative media that would come with imprisoning a pregnant woman.) If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.
Born on Nov 11, 1914, Daisy Bates would soon guide the Little Rock Nine. Before she worked with them, she owned a newspaper called Arkansas State Press, which became a voice for civil rights in Arkansas. She also became President of Arkansas Conference of Branches for the NAACP. As a guide to the Little Rock Nine, she tried her best to figure out a plan to get the students in. One of them was to have ministers escort the children, two in front and two in the back on their first day. She spoke with the parents of the Little Rock Nine and joined the parent-teacher organization to help the students the best she could. Later on in her life, Bates moved to DC and worked for the Democratic National Committee and in the LBJ administration on anti-poverty programs. She eventually moved back to a rural black community in Arkansas where she created a self-help program and revived Arkansas State Press in the ‘80s. Bates died on Nov. 4th, 1999 at the age of 84.
The wife of the venerated Martin Luther King Jr. is hardly ever spoken about or even mentioned, despite the fact that she was just as much as an activist as him. Coretta Scott King dreamed of becoming a singer, but she was unable to fully live out her dreams. As a result, she incorporated singing in her civil rights activism. She worked actively alongside her husband throughout the Civil Rights Movement and continued to work for civil rights for Blacks, women, and LGBT after his death. After King’s death, she founded the Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta so that MLK’s philosophy of nonviolence could be used to fix other problems around the world. She also wrote many articles on social issues and was a regular commentator on CNN. For 15 years, she worked to get MLK’s birthday instituted as a holiday. King was able to make friends with many politicians, and at her funeral four of five living U.S. Presidents attended. In 2009, King was inducted in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. Even though she passed in 2006, Coretta, like her husband, left a major legacy.
In creating this list, I only chose 6 women and highlighted some of their major accomplishments, which in no way is representative of all the amazing women that helped in the the Civil Rights Movement. This is merely a starting point to bring women like these into the conversation, leaving it up to you, the reader, to want to learn more. Time and time again, women are rarely celebrated for their accomplishments, especially women of color. As a Black and Latina woman, I am tired of only seeing male faces in history. I want to learn about the women who started and helped these movements. Why teach me about Martin Luther King Jr. and not Coretta Scott King? Why educate me about Stokely Carmichael and leave out Ella Baker? How can you teach the Civil Rights Movement and not teach about Black women activists who were some of the major participants? I want to see women like me in history. I want to know that women like me were killing the game back then like we are now. If Black women are left out of the equation, we will never get to the answer.