By Mason Cox
Black women played central roles in the American civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Although much scholarly and popular attention has focused on the movement’s male leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, women of all ages participated as intellectuals, activists, and organizers. The following articles focus on African American women in the civil rights movement and how those in positions of power attempted to silence their voices and erase the memory of their work.
The first article by Allison Berg, uses the autobiographical memoirs of three African American women to refocus attention away from the triumphal narrative that dominates the current view of the Civil Rights movement. These painful stories of suffering help to highlight the physical and sexual trauma that many Black women faced. Berg argues that these memoirs, and others like them, deserve more focus and attention from scholars of women’s history and African American history. The perspective that they offer can be hard to replicate elsewhere. Their memoirs reveal the motivations of these women, their understanding of key events and actions, the relationships that they found to be important in the movement, and their perspective of momentous events years after they occurred. By examining these memoirs Berg delves into a deeply personal examination of the civil rights movement in a way that cannot be done otherwise, identifying new perspectives on these women’s legacy.
Cynthia Fleming examines the life of civil rights activist Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, who became an activist in her first year at Spelman College, mobilizing fellow students to take direct action demanding racial equality. Remembered as brave, bold, and blunt, Robinson quickly gained “a reputation for assertiveness and bravery” (Fleming, p. 70). Robinson’s initial fame came from when she volunteered to protest in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Part of a group that knew they would be arrested, they agreed beforehand on refusing to post bail as a tactic to help put strain on the financially weak southern governments. After her thirty days in jail were over, she said to a reporter that she was “ready, if necessary, to do it again” (Fleming, pg. 71). Fleming simultaneously reveals Ruby Robinson’s extraordinary charisma and talents, while demonstrating that her actions were not unique, but typical of African American women in the movement. Robinson, like thousands of her peers, engaged in direct action to protest racial inequality despite the clear risk to her personal safety.
The third article by Dawn Flood, looks at the transcripts from trials concerning the rape of African American women in Chicago to paint a broader picture of how Black women asserted their rights as individuals and how the State’s prosecutors became more willing to believe that these cases were winnable. Flood demonstrates that even though the State’s view of these cases began to change, the deep-rooted racism in America was still clearly on full display. The defense would routinely rely on racist and sexist stereotypes that African American women were “sexually promiscuous”(Flood, p. 53). But in a series of important cases, Flood observes, “To strengthen their cases, prosecutors had to abandon myths about black women’s promiscuous sexuality and present victims as respectable women who were in court to seek justice, despite the personal difficulties they faced while testifying about sexual violence” (Flood, p. 44). In careful analysis of the trial records and surrounding documents, Flood recovers the voices of Black women mobilizing their communities, friends, employers, and legal institutions for justice.
Finally, Robyn C. Spencer takes on the daunting task of exploring the complex role played by sexism in the Black Panther Party (BPP). Going against the view that the BPP unapologetically deployed misogyny to enhance male leaders’ authority, Spencer reveals a surprisingly complicated relationship between the BPP leadership and Black women. The BPP as a organization focused on empowering Black men at home and in their communities, and this was often interpreted as requiring women’s submission. Condemnation of BPP sexism came directly from Black women leaders within the Party, notably Elaine Brown and Angela Davis. Spencer demonstrates that such analysis neglects the powerful roles and experiences of “rank-and-file Panther women” who joined the organization to effect lasting change. Once there, “they responded by waging a formidable liberation struggle inside of the liberation struggle in the attempt to put the movement on a more egalitarian course” (Spencer, p. 92).This nuanced portrayal of the Black Panther Party provides a fuller discussion of the many women who fought for both racial and gender equality within and beyond the organization.
Berg, Allison. “Trauma and Testimony in Black Women’s Civil Rights Memoirs: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Warriors Don’t Cry, and From the Mississippi Delta,” Journal of Women’s History,vol. 21, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 84-107.
Fleming, Cynthia G. “Black Women Activists and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Case of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 4, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 64-82.
Flood, Dawn R. “‘They Didn’t Treat Me Good’: African American Rape Victims and Chicago Courtroom Strategies During the 1950s,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 17, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 38-61.
Spencer, Robyn C. “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 20, no. 1 (March 2008): 90-113.