As a student, I can’t recall learning about any other woman who was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement besides Rosa Parks. I loved her defiance, but always wondered what other women were part of the struggle, or played an integral role in changing laws and minds. When I saw a photo of a woman named Gloria Richardson shoving the bayonet of a National Guardsman away from her petite frame, I took it upon myself to learn about the women that my history books and teachers left out.
Black women have played an integral role in social reform, education, reproductive and civil rights in the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement, they often faced the double sword of being not only a woman, but a Black woman, and were silenced in some of the movements’ most critical moments, including the 1963 March on Washington. Still, it is never too late to shine light on our leaders. Here are three amongst many women who played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement. Please remember that there are many more, learn their stories, and speak their names.
1) Gloria Richardson: When Gloria Richardson rose to speak at the March on Washington, she was only able to utter the word “hello” before the microphone was snatched from her. She recently recalled that there was a separate tent for women speakers at the march, and that organizers of the event even took her chair away. Despite these setbacks, Richardson did not cower in fear. Earlier in her life, she attended Howard University at the age of 16, and was the co-founder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee in Maryland, which fought to desegregate public institutions like schools and hospitals and address employment discrimination. At some CNAC protests, National Guardsmen were called in to intimidate those participating. A photo of Richardson at one of the protests pushing a bayonet away from her body symbolizes more than just defiance; it is a testament to her right and everyone’s right to live. "He was going to stab me, so I had to push it,” she told Democracy Now. Today, Richardson is 91, and the subject of a soon to be released autobiography, The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation.
2) Ella Baker: There were many people that worked to make sit-ins, protests and speeches possible. Many of them remained nameless, but without them, so much would not have been possible. When we think of Civil Rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. might be the first person that comes to mind, but Ella Baker was also one of the most integral figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Baker strove to be felt, not seen, with her actions and organization against blatant injustices. She once said, "This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real." She did make it real, by becoming heavily involved in the NAACP, working behind the scenes to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and mentoring college students through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SLCC), where she recruited Martin Luther King Jr. For Baker, working behind the scenes to help people was key. She once said, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Because of this conviction, she was known to clash with King, and once exclaimed, “the movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement!” Baker died in 1986 at age 83. During the last years of her life, she lived practiced activism in New York City and traveled the country working on the “Free Angela” campaign to free Angela Davis from prison.
3) Daisy Bates: Many of us know of The Little Rock 9, a group of 9 students who integrated Central High School in Arkansas, but what you may not know is how their story was made possible because of leaders like Daisy Bates. "Daisy Bates was the poster child of black resistance. She was a quarterback, the coach. We were the players," said Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine. Bates was the president of the Arkansas NAACP; her husband L.C. Bates was the regional director. Together, they founded a newspaper called The Arkansas State Press, a major feat at the time for Blacks in a deeply segregated country. When the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, Bates began working on various tactics to help integrate Central High School. Though the Little Rock 9 were met with violent protests, the students entered the school, and Bates and her husband continued to support them. They received various death threats and eventually had to close their newspaper because of advertising boycotts. Despite all this, Bates went on to work for the Democratic National Committee, completed an autobiography and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She once said, “No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies.”