The Overlooked Women of the Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement involved decades of protest against the institutionalized racism, discrimination, and segregation against Black people and we often believe that we are familiar with the most important activists of the movement. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, James Farmer, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman come to mind. However, there were many more women that played key roles in the movement but do not often appear in lists of the important figures.
In fact, women were initially excluded from or only permitted in very limited numbers in many of the Civil Rights Movement organizations and events. Such was the case for the 1963 march on Washington until Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the only woman on the march committee, protested the lack of women.
Women played vital roles in changing laws, educating the public, and raising awareness in the fight against segregation and racism in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We want to highlight some of the women who are often overlooked in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bus boycotts like that of Montgomery, Alabama were instrumental in ending segregation in the US history books and classes will almost always cover the role of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on the bus in December 1955. But few people recognize the name Claudette Colvin as a pivotal figure in this movement. Nine months earlier in March of 1955, a 15-year-old student, who had spent the last month studying inspirational Black female figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, also refused to give up her seat on the bus. When asked to move by the driver, Colvin boldly stated that she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right.
Colvin was also one of the four women in the Browder vs. Gayle case that succeeded in challenging the state and overturning bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama.
Mamie Till Mobley
Mamie Till Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was abducted and brutally murdered in Mississippi by a group of white men who accused him of wolf-whistling at a white woman. When Mamie was able to bring her son’s body back to Chicago, she opened the padlocked casket for the funeral, as she said “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till”. The men accused of Emmett’s murder were acquitted by an all-white, male jury and the case became symbolic of the numerous lynchings in the South and was documented in popular culture by artists such as Bob Dylan.
Mamie Till Mobley was fiercely passionate about education and her activism centered around providing high-quality education for the Black community. She taught in the Chicago public school system for 23 years and set up organizations such as The Emmett Till Players who worked with young Black school children outside the classroom. She was a voice of authority against institutionalized racism and spoke out against injustices.
Ballou was Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand woman throughout the Montgomery years of 1955 to 1960. She worked for the Montgomery Improvement Association, a civil rights organization, and was approached by MLK, a friend of her husband, and he offered her the position as his personal secretary. Ballou edited the “I have a dream” speech, she wrote and researched MLK’s work, and she encouraged MLK to continue with his work in the bus boycotts. Historian David Garrow said of Ballou, “You look through the papers of the Montgomery period, and up to 85 percent of the signatures are in Maude’s hand. There’s no question that she’s running his life, that she’s the number one person he’s relying on to get the work done.”
In 1965, when Sherrod was just 17 years old, her father was murdered by a white farmer. In the trial, the all-white jury found no charges against the farmer and there was no justice for the Sherrod family. Shirley Sherrod is a woman of many firsts in the African American community, Firstly, she became one of the first Black students to enroll in a previously all-white high school and after studying sociology at Albany State University, Georgia, she worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement. Subsequently, she studied for a master’s in community development at Antioch University and she became the first Black woman to be elected to county office.
She worked in the Department of Agriculture in Georgia and specialized in helping Black farmers keep and reclaim their land. Along with her husband, she co-founded the New Communities collective farm where African-American farmers had the financial support to farm and earn a living. It was a groundbreaking project and one of the first of its kind in creating a stable and safe environment for African-American farmers, enabling them to own and retain land.
Johnnie Carr first started her work in 1931 by raising money for the nine young African-Amerian men who were wrongly accused in the Scottsboro Trials. She was part of the NAACP and through the organization, arranged the defense of Recy Taylor, a young Black woman who was gang-raped by a group of white men in Alabama. Like so many similar cases, the accused were not found guilty, however, the activists who supported Taylor went on to canvas, petition for, and support Martin Luther King Jr.
Carr was a friend of Rosa Parks and played an important role in the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott, leading committees, speaking at meetings, and organizing carpool services. In 1963, Carr and her husband, Arlam Carr, brought a successful case against the Montgomery Board of Education in the pursuit of desegregation in order to send their son Arlam Jr. to the previously all-white Sidney Lanier High School. This revolutionary case forced the Montgomery County school system to change and allow parents and students to decide which school they would go to without the limitations on racial groups.
These women were essential in enabling change throughout the US and as you can see, many of them worked right here in Georgia. Here at Roundabout Atlanta, we are dedicated to preserving the history of the Civil Rights Movement and educating people on those who worked so hard to change society for the better. If you want to know more about the Civil Rights Movement and the role that Atlanta played, come along on our 4-hour Black History & Civil Rights Tour.