This Juneteenth, as Americans commemorate the end of slavery in 1865 and reflect on the fight for human rights and freedoms that continues today, it’s a good time to take a look back at another important period in the history of the United States: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. While slavery had technically ended in the previous century, there was still more work to be done, and this decades-long struggle for civil rights in the mid-twentieth century saw countless Americans mobilize as people fought for fairness in voting, an end to segregation, and the eradication of other forms of racism and discrimination.
Recent events have demonstrated the continued importance of racial justice work and of amplifying the voices of black men and women. So, in order to recognize the often overlooked but pivotal role of black women in the greater history of the United States, let’s take a look back at the lives of five inspiring women who played a part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
Ida B. Wells played an early and instrumental role in galvanizing the movement through her work as a journalist and inspired later activism on behalf of gaining civil rights. Born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, Wells was raised by parents who became politically active after the Civil War. They instilled in her the importance of education, and after she received a brief education herself, she went on to become an educator and, later, a reporter, after moving to Memphis, Tennessee.
She is best known for her journalistic work shining a spotlight on the mass lynching of black men. Her investigations highlighted the horrific actions of mass white mobs for a national and global audience, and she confronted white women suffragists who ignored the plight of black Americans in their activism. In 1895, she married African-American lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, becoming Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and for the rest of her life she balanced her role as a wife and mother with participating in the founding of important organizations for the advancement of black rights in America, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Negro Fellowship League, and Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.
Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)
Steptima Poinsette Clark, often referred to as the Mother of the Movement, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898, the daughter of a former slave. Her parents encouraged her to get an education, and she later became qualified as a teacher. She taught at the Avery Institute and joined the NAACP, campaigning for the hiring of more black teachers. She later advocated for the equal pay of black and white teachers. However, in 1965, South Carolina declared it illegal for public employees to simultaneously hold membership with civil rights organizations, and Clark was fired.
Afterwards, she was hired by Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, which was supportive of the Civil Rights Movement, and she began directing the citizenship school program that helped bridge the gap in literacy between black and white people, thereby empowering and enabling black citizens to qualify to register to vote. Under her direction, over 800 citizenship schools like this were founded, greatly furthering the goal of African American suffrage.
Ella Baker (1903–1986)
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1903. She grew up hearing stories of her grandmother’s life as a slave, and, inspired by her resilience, she later bravely confronted injustices she met at school. This early activism evolved into a career of professional activism when she moved to New York. Throughout her life, she joined several organizations fighting for human rights, most importantly the NAACP, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
She played important administrative roles in these groups—often too important for male colleagues to palate—and she traveled extensively from town to town in the American South, empowering black men and women to mobilize, planned events and protests, and really listened to what communities wanted and needed.
Rosa Parks (1913–2005)
Rosa Parks is perhaps most famous for refusing to give her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. She was arrested, and this simple-seeming brave act of protest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “I had no idea it would turn into this,” she said. “It was just a day like any other.” Starting the day of her trial, and going on for the next 381 days, African American members of the community boycotted city buses in solidarity and protest of her arrest, eventually prompting the ruling that segregation in public transit was unconstitutional.
But Parks’s activism for African American civil rights and racial equality, long predated her decision to refuse to surrender her seat. Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, both of Parks’s grandparents were former slaves, and she grew up in a highly political family that advocated for racial equality. Her schooling was interrupted several times due to the illness of family members, but eventually her husband encouraged her to complete her formal education. Along with her husband, Parks was an active member in the NAACP, participating in important activism work.
Dorothy Height (1912–2010)
Dorothy Height was born in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia. From a young age, she became politically active, joining in anti-lynching activism while excelling at school. She pursued higher education at New York University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in psychology. She began a long and outstanding career in social justice activism, working with various important organizations over the next six decades, starting with the Harlem YWCA, where she established and ran a Center for Racial Justice. She is especially remembered for her work on behalf of black women’s rights, and one of her key roles was serving as the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for about 40 years.
She became one of the leading ladies of the Civil Rights Movement, working on various campaigns. For example, she helped organize the legendary March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. But, like Ella Baker, her gender restricted her role in these often patriarchal organizations, and she became increasingly involved in feminism, founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm. She continued to work on behalf of racial justice until her death, focusing on strengthening the African American family and fighting against drugs, illiteracy, and unemployment.
As recent tragic events have shown, the work securing equality and freedom for black Americans is far from complete; let’s take inspiration from the bold and inspiring work of these five pioneering women from the Civil Rights Movement and continue walking in their footsteps.