Magazine article The Christian Century

Until There Is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman

Magazine article The Christian Century

Until There Is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman

Article excerpt

Until There Is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman

By Jennifer Scanlon

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $34.95

Black Women's Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb

By Betty Livingston Adams

NYU Press, 240 pp., $55.00

These two books expand our understanding of black women's activism and their attendant democratic visions. Both make important contributions to black freedom studies, a growing subfield of American history.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman (1899-1990) was a teacher, political operative, and organizer best known as the only woman on the planning team for the 1963 March on Washington. She had engaged in decades of movement work before the march: she led black YWCA chapters in Ohio, New Jersey, and New York in the 1920s; teamed up with A. Philip Randolph and his budding March on Washington movement in the 1930s; and worked in politics--in the New York City mayor's office, and in the federal government lobbying on behalf of the Fair Employment Practices Committee in the 1940s. Indeed, Hedgeman's life provides a view of the decades of organizing that preceded what Bayard Rustin would later call the "classical" phase of the civil rights movement, from 1955 to 1965. When Martin Luther King Jr. was still a child, Hedgeman was among a cadre of black women and men who developed the networks and strategies that provided the groundwork for King's movement.

Jennifer Scanlon illumines Hedgeman's feminist contributions (she was among the founders of the National Organization for Women), showing that for Hedgeman and her colleagues, issues of race and sex were never separate. To be a black woman means being black in a different way than for a black man, and to be a black woman means being a woman in a different way than for a white woman. For all people, Scanlon shows, race is sexualized and sex is racialized.

A biography of Hedgeman was long overdue, and Scanlon's work confirms that Hedgeman has much to teach us today. Hedgeman's decades-long commitment to coalition building anticipates the kinds of political organizing needed today. Furthermore, Hedgeman was notable for her willingness to listen and learn from younger Black Power activists, and she encouraged her colleagues to do the same. Intergenerational organizing remains rare in progressive circles.

Scanlon, a professor of gender and women's studies, is careful to note the limitations Hedgeman experienced despite her prodigious talent. "Hedgeman could easily draw a crowd of five hundred when she gave a speech, but it too often failed to translate into other kinds of power." Scanlon also notes that Hedgeman was among a group of activist women who did not have children or conventional marriages. I wish she had included more about what this might have meant for these women in terms of sexual and gender roles.

Black Women's Christian Activism examines turn-of-the-century Summit, New Jersey, a crucial site in the black freedom struggle. Betty Livingston Adams follows the fascinating careers of Violet Johnson (1870-1939) and Florence Spearing Randolph (1866-1951), black women born in the South following emancipation, who traveled to New York City to find work. Johnson moved to New Jersey with her employer, for whom she was a live-in maid. …

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