“The Women Behind the Men” Are Still In The Background

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That’s the title of Gail Collins’ column in today’s NYT, in which she describes the ways that women active in the civil rights movement were treated like second class citizens by men who were working for equality. Here is an excerpt:

… The women of the civil rights movement who are most celebrated tend to be the brave victims, like Rosa Parks, who dutifully played the simple seamstress too tired to give up her seat on the bus, even though she had in fact been an activist for longer than almost any of the men. Still, in her autobiography she remembered that March on Washington and noted that these days”women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”

The women who men were less enthusiastic about were the ones who led. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first triumph as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott was possible because a group of middle-class black women led by a college teacher, Jo Ann Robinson, had organized it. They had been preparing for the opportunity so long that when Rosa Parks went to jail, they had 35,000 fliers ready the next morning, to deliver to black households through their children at school. Yet now they have practically vanished from our history.

You do not have to dismiss the men to believe that Ella Baker was the greatest organizer the civil rights movement ever knew. When she was passed over for the directorate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she helped found and ran as acting director, she attributed the rejection to the fact that”I was female; I was old. I didn’t have a Ph.D.”Then she went right on organizing, guiding the black college students into forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she would direct throughout its glory years as adviser and unpaid spiritual leader. …

The strange part of the column is the very end, where after listing all the women who did not get credit for their contributions, Collins abruptly closes the piece by writing: “You watch the reports from Jena this week and you wonder where women like Bates and Baker and Robinson would be if they were alive today. Wherever it was, it would be at the front of the parade.” Oh, really? Is anyone else under the impression that women in the civil right movement are now at the front of the parade? Because I’m not seeing it. The coverage I’ve seen features Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and local organizers like Alan Bean (see e.g.). There are plenty of women in the protest photographs, but I don’t see too many getting a chance at the microphone.

–Ann Bartow

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