Historian Vicki Crawford was one of the first scholars to focus on women’s roles in the civil rights movement. Her 1993 book, “Trailblazers and Torchbearers,” dives into the stories of female leaders whose legacies have often been overshadowed.
Today she is the director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, where she oversees the archive of his sermons, speeches, writings and other materials. Here, she explains the contributions of women who influenced King and helped to fuel some of the most significant campaigns of the civil rights era, but whose contributions are not nearly as well known.
An activist in her own right
Coretta Scott King is often remembered as a devoted wife and mother, yet she was also a committed activist in her own right. She was deeply involved with social justice causes before she met and married Martin Luther King Jr., and long after his death.
Scott King served with civil rights groups throughout her time as a student at Antioch College and the New England Conservatory of Music. Shortly after she and King married in 1953, the couple returned to the South, where they lent their support to local and regional organizations such as the NAACP and the Montgomery Improvement Association.
They also supported the Women’s Political Council, an organization founded by female African American professors at Alabama State University that facilitated voter education and registration, and also protested discrimination on city buses. These local leadership efforts paved the way for widespread support of Rosa Parks’ resistance to segregation on public busing.
Following her husband’s assassination in 1968, Scott King devoted her life to institutionalizing his philosophy and practice of nonviolence. She established the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, led a march of sanitation workers in Memphis and joined efforts to organize the Poor People’s Campaign. A longtime advocate of workers rights, she also supported a 1969 hospital workers’ strike in South Carolina, delivering stirring speeches against the treatment of African American staff.
Scott King’s commitment to nonviolence went beyond civil rights at home. During the 1960s, she became involved in peace and anti-war efforts such as the Women’s Strike for Peace and opposed the escalating war in Vietnam. By the 1980s, she had joined protests against South African apartheid, and before her death in 2006, she spoke out in favor of LGBT rights – capping a lifetime of activism against injustice and inequalities.
Women and the March
While Scott King’s support and ideas were particularly influential, many other women played essential roles in the success of the civil rights movement.
As the 60th anniversary of the march approaches, it is critical to recognize the activism of women from all walks of life who helped to strategize and organize one of the country’s most massive political demonstrations of the 20th century. Yet historical accounts overwhelmingly highlight the march’s male leadership. With the exception of Daisy Bates, an activist who read a short tribute, no women were invited to deliver formal speeches.
Women were among the key organizers of the march, however, and helped recruit thousands of participants. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, was often the lone woman at the table of leaders representing national organizations. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who also served on the planning committee, was another strong advocate for labor issues, anti-poverty efforts and women’s rights.
Photographs of the march show women attended in large numbers, yet few historical accounts adequately credit women for their leadership and support. Civil rights activist, lawyer and Episcopalian priest Pauli Murray, among others, called for a gathering of women to address this and other instances of discrimination a few days later.
Hidden in plain view
African American women led and served in all the major campaigns, working as field secretaries, attorneys, plaintiffs, organizers and educators, to name just a few roles. So why did early historical accounts of the movement neglect their stories?
There were women propelling national civil rights organizations and among King’s closest advisers. Septima Clark, for example, was a seasoned educator whose strong organizing skills played a consequential role in voter registration, literacy training and citizenship education. Dorothy Cotton was a member of the inner circle of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was president, and was involved in literacy training and teaching nonviolent resistance.
Yet women’s organizing during the 1950s and 1960s is most evident at local and regional levels, particularly in some of the most perilous communities across the deep South. Since the 1930s, Amelia Boynton Robinson of Dallas County, Alabama, and her family had been fighting for voting rights, laying the groundwork for the struggle to end voter suppression that continues to the present. She was also key in planning the 50-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. Images of the violence that marchers endured – particularly on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday – shocked the nation and eventually contributed to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Or take Mississippi, where there would not have been a sustained movement without women’s activism. Some names have become well known, like Fannie Lou Hamer, but others deserve to be.
Two rural activists, Victoria Gray and Annie Devine, joined Hamer as representatives to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a parallel political party that challenged the state’s all-white representatives at the 1964 Democratic Convention. A year later, the three women represented the party in a challenge to block the state’s congressmen from taking their seats, given ongoing disenfranchisement of Black voters. Though the congressional challenge failed, the activism was a symbolic victory, serving note to the nation that Black Mississippians were no longer willing to accept centuries-old oppression.
Many African American women were out-front organizers for civil rights. But it is no less important to remember those who assumed less visible, but indispensable, roles behind the scenes, sustaining the movement over time.
Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Massachusetts. Lynne Graves, CC BY-ND
Each semester I greet the students who file into my preaching class at Howard University with a standard talk. The talk is not an overview of the basics – techniques of sermon preparation or sermon delivery, as one might expect. Outlining the basics is not particularly difficult.
The greatest challenge, in fact, is helping learners to stretch their theology: namely, how they perceive who God is and convey what God is like in their sermons. This becomes particularly important for African-American preachers, especially African-American women preachers, because most come from church contexts that overuse exclusively masculine language for God and humanity.
Yet, America’s Christian pulpits, especially African-American pulpits, remain male-dominated spaces. Still today, eyebrows raise, churches split, pews empty and recommendation letters get lost at a woman’s mention that God has called her to preach.
The deciding factor for women desiring to pastor and be accorded respect equal to their male counterparts generally whittles down to one question: Can she preach?
The fact is that African-American women have preached, formed congregations and confronted many racial injustices since the slavery era.
Here’s the history
The earliest black female preacher was a Methodist woman simply known as Elizabeth. She held her first prayer meeting in Baltimore in 1808 and preached for about 50 years before retiring to Philadelphia to live among the Quakers.
An unbroken legacy of African-American women preachers persisted even long after Elizabeth. Reverend Jarena Lee became the first African-American woman to preach at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She had started even before the church was officially formed in the city of Philadelphia in 1816. But, she faced considerable opposition.
AME Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the AME Church, had initially refused Lee’s request to preach. It was only upon hearing her speak, presumably, from the floor, during a worship service, that he permitted her to give a sermon.
Lee reported that Bishop Allen, “rose up in the assembly, and related that [she] had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put [her] off; but that he now as much believed that [she] was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.
Lee was much like her Colonial-era contemporary, the famed women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Truth had escaped John Dumont’s slave plantation in 1828 and landed in New York City, where she became an itinerant preacher active in the abolition and woman’s suffrage movements.
Fighting the gender narratives
For centuries now, the Holy Bible has been used to suppress women’s voices. These early female black preachers reinterpreted the Bible to liberate women.
In a skillful historical interpretation of the scriptures, in her convention address, Truth used the Bible to liberate and set the record straight about women’s rights. She professed:
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Like Truth, Jarena Lee spoke truth to power and paved the way for other mid- to late 19th-century black female preachers to achieve validation as pulpit leaders, although neither she nor Truth received official clerical appointments.
The first woman to achieve this validation was Julia A. J. Foote. In 1884, she became the first woman ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion AMEZ Church. Shortly after followed the ordinations of AME evangelist Harriet A. Baker, who in 1889 was perhaps the first black woman to receive a pastoral appointment. Mary J. Small became the first woman to achieve “elder ordination” status, which permitted her to preach, teach and administer the sacraments and Holy Communion.
Historian Bettye Collier-Thomas maintains that the goal for most black women seeking ordination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was simply a matter of gender inclusion, not necessarily pursuing the need to transform the patriarchal church.
An important voice was that of Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph. In her role as reformer, suffragist, evangelist and pastor, she daringly advanced the cause of freedom and justice within the churches she served and even beyond during the period of the Great Migration of 20th century.
In her sermons she brought criticism to the broken promises of American democracy, the deceptive ideology of black inferiority and other chronic injustices.
Randolph’s sermon “If I Were White,” preached on Race Relations Sunday, Feb. 1, 1941, reminded her listeners of their self-worth. It emphasized that America’s whites who claim to be defending democracy in wartime have an obligation to all American citizens.
Randolph spoke in concrete language. She argued that the refusal of whites to act justly toward blacks, domestically and abroad, embraced sin rather than Christ. That, she said, revealed a realistic picture of America’s race problem.
She also spoke about gender discrimination. Randolph’s carefully crafted sermon in 1909 “Antipathy to Women Preachers,” for example, highlights several heroic women in the Bible. From her interpretation of their scriptural legacy, she argued that gender discrimination in Christian pulpits illustrated a misreading of scripture.
Randolph used her position as preacher to effect social change. She was a member and organizer for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which led in the work to pass the 18th Amendment, which made prohibition of the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Her affiliation with the WCTU earned her the title “militant herald of temperance and righteousness.”
Today, several respected African-American women preachers and teachers of preachers proudly stand on Lee’s, Small’s and Randolph’s shoulders raising their prophetic voices.
As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.
2. Home by Toni Morrison
The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.
3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.
4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.
5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates
From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.
6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Citizenis an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”
7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.
8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.
9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.
10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.
11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals
In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.
More than 100 years later, Woodson’s goal and his work detailing the struggle of Black Americans to obtain full citizenship after centuries of systemic racism is still relevant today.
As dozens of GOP-controlled state legislatures across the U.S. have either considered or enacted laws restricting how race is taught in public schools, The Conversation U.S. has published numerous stories over the years exploring the rich terrain of Black history – and the never-ending quest to form what the Founding Fathers called a more perfect union.
1. From the Underground Railroad to Civil War battlefields
Armed with a deep faith, Harriet Tubman is most famous for her successes along the Underground Railroad, the interracial network of abolitionists who enabled Black people to escape from slavery along secret routes in the South to freedom in the North and Canada.
As historian and Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson wrote, Tubman’s devotion to America’s promise of freedom endured, despite suffering decades of enslavement and second-class citizenship.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind,” Tubman once said. “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive.”
“Emancipations did not remove all the shackles that prevented Black people from obtaining full citizenship rights,” Manjapra noted. “Nor did emancipations prevent states from enacting their own laws that prohibited Black people from voting or living in white neighborhoods.”
Between the 1780s and 1930s, over 80 emancipations from slavery occurred, from Pennsylvania in 1780 to Sierra Leone in 1936.
In fact, there were 20 separate emancipations in the United States alone from 1780 to 1865.
3. An image of a lynching found in a family photo album
Among the many documents and relics Littlejohn has received, one package stood out. Inside was a family album of photographs filled with the usual images of memories – a vacation, a wedding anniversary dinner – but also, one of the lynching of a Black man.
But in 2021, the GOP-controlled state Legislature in Texas enacted a law prohibiting K-12 educators from teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from … the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
In other words, as Littlejohn wrote, “this interpretation holds that slavery, racism and racism’s deadly manifestation, lynching, did not serve as systemic forces that shaped Texas history but were instead aberrations.”
The photo album serves as a direct challenge to that interpretation.
4. Black soldiers fight racism and Nazis during World War II
In his book “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad,” historian Matthew Delmont explored the idea of Black patriotism and how many Black soldiers saw their service as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of their race.
Prompted by the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper during the 1940s, Delmont wrote that Black Americans rallied behind the Double V campaign during the war – victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home.
During the war, the Red Ball Express, the Allied forces’ transportation unit that delivered supplies to the front lines, was one example of such exceptional performance.
From August through November 1944, the mostly Black force moved more than 400,000 tons of ammunition, gasoline, medical supplies and rations to battlefronts in France, Belgium and Germany.
5. An NBA champion’s cerebral fight for equal rights
In his biography of Bill Russell, “King of the Court,” Aram Goudsouzian wrote that the NBA champion sought to find worth in basketball amid the racial tumult of the civil rights movement.
He emerged from that crucible by crafting a persona that one teammate called “a kingly arrogance.”
Russell, who died July, 31, 2022, was the NBA’s first Black superstar, its first Black champion and its first Black coach.
As a civil rights activist, Russell questioned the nonviolence philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and defended the militant ideas of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. He refused to accept segregated accommodations in the Deep South and recalled instances of police brutality during his childhood in Oakland, California.
“It’s a thing you want to scream,” Russell wrote. “I MUST HAVE MY MANHOOD.”
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.
For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their most serious personal encounter – the one that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come – came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
In celebration of the late Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., our founder, and Black History Month, we are featuring his podcast shorts that draw Biblical connections and insight into the life and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Amid so much turmoil, take a few minutes and listen to these two-minute podcast shorts.
The church has played a vital role in America’s civil rights struggle. It was the spiritual home to MLK, to the generations that shaped the vision of the late civil rights leader, and now to Sen. Raphael Warnock.
The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about violence, from the rioters who stormed the Capitol to the latest neighborhood or school shooting, is all so unnerving. Dr. Melvin E. Banks offers biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the face of violence directed at communities of color and deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.
For decades, United Methodist Bishop Woodie White has been writing letters to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., bringing the slain civil rights activist up to date on the latest strides in race relations and some of the remaining challenges that arise each year. By Adelle M. Banks.
By Larry Copeland c. 2013 USA Today ATLANTA (RNS) The King Center is urging communities around the world to participate in a bell-ringing ceremony next month to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King Center...
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication ceremony was described as a mix of worship service and partisan political rally, but there’s scant mention of race, racism or God at the site. What’s going on?
Remembering the life, work, and message of Martin Luther King Jr. -- preacher, peacemaker, prophet. UrbanFaith celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. Day with this special photo gallery from Life.com. King, the champion of justice and civil rights, said this upon the...