African American Women and the Struggle for Racial Equality: Viv Sanders Corrects the Male Bias in the Study of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA

Article excerpt

Has anyone not heard of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Probably not. Is there anyone who has heard of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer? Probably few.

Histories of the black struggle for equality in the USA usually concentrate upon male leaders. Admittedly many historians mention Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, but thereafter Parks disappears and is replaced by Martin Luther King.

Yet black women were vital in the struggle for equality. Looking at the black American experience from their viewpoint reminds us of the activism of ordinary people, which was often as important as that of male leaders.

Slaves and Free

Early European settlers in North America imported African slaves as cheap labour. Before the Civil War ended slavery, a few articulate blacks gained fame: two were women, Sojourner Truth (c.1799-1883) and Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1911).

Although uneducated, freed slave Sojourner Truth spoke so eloquently against slavery that hecklers in Indiana in 1858 swore she was a man - until she exposed her breasts. When black men were enfranchised (1870), Truth sought the vote for black women. Her fame is attested by her meeting with President Lincoln and her bestseller, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

Tubman was also a best-selling author and advocate of greater racial and sexual equality. Born to a slave family, she escaped and rescued over 300 other slaves through her escape route network. She spied for the Union in Confederate territory in the Civil War, risking capture and re-enslavement.

Ida B. Wells and the Black Clubwomen's Movement

After the Civil War, Southern whites found a new system of race control, the 'Jim Crow' laws. Under these, blacks were segregated in schools, railroad cars, parks, theatres and housing, disfranchised, and unprotected by the law, as evidenced by lynching. The most famous campaigner against lynching, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), was born into slavery in Mississippi.

Wells' carpenter father (one of the few blacks who prospered with emancipation) sent her to university, where her independent mind led the white college president to expel her. Teaching in Tennessee, she campaigned against 'Jim Crow', suing a railroad company for refusing to let her sit in the first-class railroad car. Because she criticised segregated schools, Wells was fired (1891).

Urbanisation and increased black literacy had produced a flourishing black press, so Wells became a journalist. She wrote about lynching, focusing on the white claim that lynched black men were all rapists. Her sex-and-violence subject-matter won a large audience. She criticised blacks as a 'disorganised mass', passively accepting oppression, and applauded 'true' men in Kentucky who burned white property in retaliation for lynching. Her writing got her expelled from Memphis. Like many Southern blacks, she migrated North where life was better: black males could vote and not all public places were segregated.

Wells' anti-lynching campaign made her one of the most famous blacks of the 1890s. Interestingly, many blacks criticised her: a Memphis minister accused her of 'stirring up', a Kansas newspaper called her that 'crazy ... animal from Memphis' and an Indianapolis cartoonist called her sexuality into question.

Apart from ageing abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Wells did not think much of contemporary black leaders. 'What can history say of our Senator ... save that he held the chair of a Senator for six years, drew his salary and left others to champion the negro's cause in the Senate?' Initially an enthusiastic supporter of the National Afro-American League (established 1887), she soon derided its male leadership for lacking organisational skills and 'intelligent direction'. 'By their child's play' she said, they illustrated 'the truth of the saying that Negroes have no capacity for organisation'.

A race so recently enslaved and uneducated could not suddenly produce leaders, especially since black disfranchisement stopped Southern black men entering politics. …