Sisterhood Is Powerful: Women and the Civil Rights Movement

While the public memory of the civil rights years retains the names and images of a handful of women, from Rosa Parks to Coretta Scott King, the civil rights movement commonly has been portrayed and recollected as a male-led movement. Contemporary coverage highlighted the activities of James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, and Whitney Young, leaders of CORE, SNCC, the Black Panther Party, the NAACP, and the National Urban League, respectively. Other black men, ranging from the young radicals H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale to moderate figures like James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Jackie Robinson, dominated the news. Polls showed that Muhammad Ali was the best known person in the world, and not just because he was the heavyweight boxing champion. Then and now, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X dominate our sense of the struggle for racial equality. Only rarely did women receive much attention. Yet is it true that women only played a minor role in the civil rights movement? Were only a handful of women civil rights leaders? And if so, by implication, was the movement fought largely for the liberation of men, not women?

The answers to these questions are not simple and depend in part on how we define the civil rights movement and leadership itself. If the civil rights movement is defined as a national movement made up of national organizations led by national spokespersons who delivered the official policies of national groups, then we will find that it was dominated by men. But if we look more closely at the movement, if we zoom in and examine specific communities where struggles for racial equality erupted during the 1950s


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The Civil Rights Movement


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