The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. richly deserves a Washington, D.C., monument as Charles Krauthammer accurately noted in his Aug. 26 Viewpoint. Krauthammer is right as well when he declared that, at every critical juncture in American history, extraordinary men have emerged to remind citizens of this country’s founding tenets and its calling to a higher purpose.
Sadly, Krauthammer’s otherwise laudatory essay ignores the contributions made by courageous women in this national journey. King, along with all of the other “famous” men, stood on the shoulders of these women. The Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible had it not been for their dedication and willingness to put their lives on the line in pursuit of racial justice.
Some are well known, while the contributions of others have largely been lost to history. Every schoolchild (hopefully) knows of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who returned south over and over again in the Antebellum era to lead hundreds of others to freedom. Called “Moses” by her people, she served as a Northern spy in that bloody conflict. So did many nameless others, who risked life and limb by infiltrating the homes of Confederate officers.
Working as slaves, they carried crucial information to northern troops.
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The post-Civil War period featured Ida B. Wells, an idealistic African-American teacher who became an anti-lynching activist. Her career started as an accident. She was 23 years old when she sat quietly reading on a Tennessee train one afternoon in the 1880s. The conductor ordered her to move to the “colored” car; she refused and was removed from the train. The incident turned her into a journalist and then into an anti-lynching activist. Whites justified lynching as a tool to stop black men from raping white women. Not so, Wells charged. Whites used lynching as a way to keep blacks “in their place.” She compiled documents proving that virtually all of those lynched had owned businesses that competed with those of whites or otherwise refused to accede to Jim Crow laws. Her activities placed her life at peril and she moved north to Chicago, where she continued to work for racial equality until her death in 1931.
In Martin Luther King’s time, women also worked for racial justice. Most everyone knows about Rosa Parks, who — following Wells’ example — refused in December of 1955 to move to the “colored” section of her Montgomery bus. In fact, her action catapulted King into his leadership position in the Civil Rights Movement. But Parks was also an NAACP activist, and her action was part of a larger campaign that began years earlier with a legal campaign that ultimately became the successful Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer and later Supreme Court justice, argued that storied case. Much of the research, however, was done by a female NAACP attorney, Constance Motley, who later became the first African-American woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary. Other women played crucial — and sometimes dangerous — roles in the continuing civil rights campaigns.
For example, Daisy Bates was an NAACP activist and co-owner of the African-American newspaper in Little Rock, Ark. In summer 1957, she was instrumental in convincing nine African-American parents to enroll their students at the all-white Central High School. The resulting violent confrontations brought coverage from the national media. This was Bates’ intention.
When a new generation of activists emerged in the early 1960s, members of the media had become fixtures in the growing movement. Diane Nash, a college student in Tennessee, served as a leader in this era, which included the 1961 Freedom Rides to desegregate restrooms, restaurants and waiting rooms in Southern bus stations. Nash and others persisted in the face of constant danger, even in the face of King’s warning that the Freedom Rides were too dangerous.
Not all of the women who participated in the movement were black. Throughout American history, courageous white women worked for racial justice as well. They included Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, both Quakers who participated in the abolition movement. And white women, along with men, joined the NAACP, CORE, SNCC and other 20th century civil rights organizations. They rode buses, picketed, marched and went to the South in 1964 for Freedom Summer to register black voters in Mississippi. All of them returned from Mississippi forever changed and ready to confront injustice wherever they found it.
No doubt all of these courageous individuals — black and white, women and men — would celebrate Martin Luther King’s monument. While we celebrate King, we should also celebrate the thousands of others who made his success possible.
Kathleen Cairns teaches women’s history at Cal Poly and is the author of several books, including “Front-Page Women Journalists.”