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Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement: 1960-1970

by Tiffany D. Joseph


The 1963 March on Washington was one of the most memorable events of the Civil Rights Movement. Thousands of U.S. citizens of various racial backgrounds gathered in the nation's capital to protest the racial inequality prevalent in U.S. society during that time. Of the numerous speakers and civil rights organizations represented, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" had the most impact on the minds of Americans because it challenged U.S. citizens to consider the nation's future without racial equality. However, while King and other March speakers spoke of racial equality for all members of the human race, the voice of one very important group was denied its say. Women, particularly black women, were not given the opportunity to participate directly in the March.

Although black women had played a pivotal role in the movement, they often received little recognition for such dedicated participation. As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)1 predominantly planned the March on Washington, women became concerned about their visibility in the March (Height, 2001). Some of these women were members of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization that became more active in the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers in 1963 (Height, 2001). Dorothy Height and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, both National Council of Negro Women members, raised concerns regarding women's participation in the March with Bayard Rustin of SCLC, who told them that by virtue of their participation in various organizations, women were in fact represented in the March (Height, 2001). According to Height:

There was an all-consuming focus on race. We women were expected to put all our energies into it [the March]...there was a low tolerance level for...questions about women's participation (Height, 2001, p. 85).

Because the women asked gender-related questions, men often felt that women were sidetracking the movement's focus on race:

It was thought that we were making a lot of fuss about an insignificant issue, that we did not recognize that the March was about racism, not sexism...we wanted to hear at least one woman in the March dealing with jobs and freedom...We knew...most [Civil Rights] organizations were largely comprised of women, children, and youth (Height, 2001, p. 85).

Within local communities, black women served as chief sources for the mobilization of people and movement capital; without such roles, the movement would have been greatly impaired. Knowledgeable of black women's dedication to the Civil Rights Movement, Height, Hedgeman, and other women recognized the need for female, particularly black female representation at the March. One can only imagine the disappointment Height and Arnold felt when Rustin offered them minimal representation at the March via their involvement with various organizations as opposed to speaking engagements.

To add insult to injury, Rustin also told Height and Hedgeman "We have Mahalia Jackson" (Height, 2001). Rustin assumed that Jackson's presence in the March as a black woman would represent the thousands of black women who were actively a part of the Civil Rights Struggle. Although Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer, was able to use her powerful voice to counter U.S. racism, she would not grace the podium as a speaker for Civil Rights.

While Rustin and other March organizers attempted to pacify the women by offering them seats on the platform, some male leaders supported the demand for direct women's representation in the March (Height, 2001). However, those leaders did not force the issue. According to Pauli Murray, who served as a consultant to John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, "It was bitterly humiliating for Negro Women...to [be]...accorded...token recognition in the historic March...The omission was deliberate" (Height, 2001, p. 90). Murray was not surprised by the reluctance of March organizers (mostly men) to allow women a speaking platform in the March. Since the movement's inception, men were socially expected to take on formal leadership roles. Although disappointed by the attitudes of March organizers, black women fully supported the March "because we felt it would strike a major blow against racism" (Height, 2001, p. 88). Black women, who held dual oppressive positions in society as black and female, often felt they had to choose of which battle to be a part. During this time in U.S. history, black women felt the race issue was most significant and supported the Civil Rights struggle despite experiences of marginalization and sexism (Standley, 1990).

This example of the reluctance of the Civil Rights Movement to properly recognize the contributions of black women was just one of many in which black women were expected to maintain the status quo as it related to gender. From the movement's inception, black women were at the forefront, organizing communities, church congregations, and Civil Rights organizations. However, despite such committed involvement to improving the conditions of black Americans, black female movement participants encountered sexist treatment from their black male counterparts and mainstream society.

I will examine the experiences of black women in the Civil Rights Movement from 1960-1970, and argue that although it was a movement for a racial equality, the Civil Rights Movement was also gendered. By gendered, I mean that the mobilization of resources, the structures of organizations, and the experiences of black female activists were all affected by U.S. gender constructions of that decade.

Because of their gender, black women were often expected to serve in clerical or domestic positions within Civil Rights organizations and when they deviated from those expectations, they were ostracized and mistreated by men (black and white) within those organizations. Just as the temperament of social movements change over time due to internal and external pressures and circumstances, the Civil Rights Movement experienced ideological changes from 1960-1970 as a result of political differences in the American psyche regarding racial equality.

Ideological differences as well as female involvement were significant issues at the March on Washington. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was asked to speak as a student representative at the March (Carson, 1981). Lewis had written a radical speech, accusing the U.S. government of neglecting American blacks. However, March organizers saw the speech and feared it would anger Washington officials. Organizers ordered Lewis to change its accusatory rhetoric if he was to give the speech. Lewis acquiesced and edited the speech to please the conservative March organizers.

The struggle for black liberation in the United States has always had different ideologies. Two common approaches were the conservative stance and the more liberal/radical stance. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois debated over the best way for blacks to achieve racial parity. DuBois supported the more liberal stance, challenging blacks to be politically active while Washington advocated the conservative stance, encouraging black political neutrality or inactivity. The Civil Rights Movement represented a continuation of this struggle.

There is no monolithic approach to examining the Civil Rights Movement because Civil Rights leaders had varying and sometimes conflicting strategies for achieving racial parity. These differences culminated in 1966 with the rise of the Black Power Movement, signaling a dramatic shift in movement ideology and politics. As Dr. King emphasized nonviolence and accomodationism, some leaders of the Black Power Movement promoted armed self-defense and self-empowerment, alienating white Civil Rights supporters. This shift in movement strategies had a significant effect on the experiences of black women in these two parts of the Civil Rights Movement.

Although black women encountered sexism within organizations prior to 1966, the sexism was not as blatant and combative as it was during the Black Power Movement. Before 1966, the anti-hierarchical and consensus-based infrastructure of organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) provided more access for female leadership. However, organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense initially had an all-male military-like hierarchal structure in which commands were executed from the top down, not as conducive to female involvement. Instead, black women's involvement was often delegated to membership status vs. formal leadership. Female Panthers were active in the defense brigades, receiving orders from male organization superiors. The shift from nonviolence to armed self-defense also led to the open expression of anti-female sentiment in which black women, especially those in leadership positions, were accused of emasculating black men. In order for black men to reassert their manhood in U.S. society, some men in Black Power organizations felt that black women had to be dominated by and subservient to black men for black liberation to occur.

Not only did the movement's transition reflect gendered changes in ideology, but the gender ascriptions to movement strategies were also important. Some Civil Rights activists considered the use of nonviolence as feminine before and after the rise of the Black Power Movement. The militancy and presumed violence of Black Power was perceived as masculine. The ascription of such gender labels on these movement strategies may also explain why black women had more access to leadership positions from 1960-1965 and less access from 1966-1970.

To show that the Civil Rights Movement was gendered, I will explore 1) the relationship between gender and social movement theory and their application to the Civil Rights Movement, 2) the gendered aspects of movement strategies: nonviolence as feminine and black power as masculine, and 3) the ways gender affected the participation and leadership ability of black women from 1960-1970. Chapter 1 examines the social movement theories most frequently applied to the Civil Rights Movement and incorporates the role of gender in garnering resources and organizing people for the movement. Chapter 2 uses Belinda Robnett's theory of bridge leaders to discuss how the structural position of black women in U.S. society influenced movement participation. Chapter 3 discusses the lives and experiences of three black female Civil Rights activists before 1966: Ella Baker, Gloria Richardson, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Chapter 4 discusses the origins of the Black Power Movement, some Black Power organizations, and the experiences of three black women who were involved in those organizations: Roberta Alexander, Elaine Brown, and Angela Davis. Chapter 5 explores the movement's shift from nonviolence to armed-self defense and how these movement strategies embodied feminine and masculine characteristics, respectively. The thesis concludes by exploring how black women's race and gender inspired them to participate in other social movements after the Civil Rights Movement to continue the fight for racial and gender equality.

Chapter 1: Social Movement Theory and the Civil Rights Movement

Numerous sociologists have attempted to analyze the social factors that played a role in the formation, mobilization, and demise of the Civil Rights Movement. To analyze the process by which the movement materialized and developed in a gendered fashion, I will examine three types of social movement theory that have been applied to the movement: Charismatic Movements, Resource Mobilization Theory, and the Political Process Model. Because social movement organizations are central to such analyses, I will discuss the organizations that were significant in shaping the direction of the movement and the ways gender played a role in those organizations.

How Do Social Movements Begin?

According to Jo Freeman, the theory of "spontaneous generation" may be used to explain why a movement will or will not take place: a movement will occur if grievances exist and the social structure is conducive to movement activity. However, a movement will not arise if the political system provides sufficient measures to find solutions or because the grievances are insufficient (Freeman, 1983). The political system may also play an active role in preventing movement mobilization with the use of repression and legal measures such as arrests for protests.

With regard to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, black and white Americans used formal constitutional rights to challenge existing social and political systems. Although Americans of previous generations attempted to use the system to change the system, the racial climate of the nation prevented a full-scale movement from occurring. The "spontaneous generation" theory could be applied to Civil Rights Movement formation because the grievances of black Americans certainly existed and the socio-political structure was more willing to address America's racial problem in the mid-twentieth century than it had been previously. The willingness of Americans, black and white, to challenge the status quo by organizing lunch counter sit-ins, boycotting buses, and mobilizing voter registration drives represented the recognition of formal constitutional rights. Using such means to gain the attention of lawmakers and the general public forced U.S. society to examine its racist history and rectify the wrongs created by such a history. Frustration with racially imposed social constraints in a so-called democratic society gave many blacks the desire to actualize their formal rights. This actualization in combination with the larger society's willingness to address codified institutional racism allowed the movement to take shape.

Another theory that attempts to explain movement formation is the "outside agitator" theory, which states that movements cannot exist without outsiders, who translate existing grievances into action (Freeman, 1983). In Eyes on the Prize, a PBS video documentary on the Civil Rights Movement, many white Southerners, especially those in Mississippi, referred to Civil Rights workers from the North as "outside agitators" who were distracting and distorting the southern way of life (1986). Applying this theory to Civil Rights Movement formation implies that all citizens of those states were content with the South's segregated status quo and did not want to change it. However, some black and white Southerners recognized the handicaps of racism and segregation, and attempted to protest the system in subtle and direct ways, risking their livelihoods and lives for the cause of equality. The "outside agitator" theory also removes the potential for the power of social change from local people and places it in the hands of outsiders, who do not have to live in such a reality. The individuals who experienced segregation and the social, political, and economic disempowerment that resulted from it had more of a stake in social change.

According to Turner and Killian:


[when] members of a public who share a common position concerning the issue at hand supplement their informal person-to-person discussion with some organization to promote their convictions more effectively and ensure more sustained activity, a social movement is incipient (as cited in Freeman, 1983, p. 9).

It is simply not enough for individuals in a social setting to recognize the root of their social discontent; they must share concerns and organize around the social issue. As individuals begin to organize around shared social issues, a social movement begins to take shape, in which there may be a center and a periphery. A movement's origins are dependent on the microstructural preconditions for emergence of the movement's center (Freeman, 1983).

Within the Civil Rights Movement, the organizations that emerged from common recognition of social inequalities (i.e. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]) became movement centers as they garnered resources to facilitate social change in Southern communities. Segregated public facilities and employment and housing discrimination served as the microstructural preconditions for the movement. Southern blacks, frustrated with inequality, mobilized around the preconditions, leading to the creation of various organizations. The movement's center not only consisted of movement organizations, but also included individuals sympathetic to civil rights who donated the funds that kept the movement alive. The movement's periphery consisted of individuals who would benefit from the movement's success but could not participate in the movement. These individuals could have been financially incapable of supporting the movement (i.e. very poor blacks) or may not have lived in areas where movement activity existed (i.e. very rural regions).

Related to Turner and Killian's theory of the development of social movements, another theory, contentious collective action, lies at the roots of all social movements and revolutions because it acknowledges that collective action can only develop when participants recognize their common interests (Tarrow, 1994). The disruptive power created by such a collectivity can effectively "challenge authorities, foster solidarity, and create uncertainty," which leads to social change (Tarrow, 1994). The collective action demonstrated in the Civil Rights Movement challenged authorities via the segregation protests that came in many forms. One example is Bull Connor's, an Alabama sheriff in the 1960s, use of fire hoses and vicious dogs to deter March protesters. Connor, a staunch segregationist and authority figure, felt challenged, like other Southerners, by black Americans' attempts to have racial equality. A sense of solidarity was fostered among Civil Rights activists as they suffered Connor's attacks, arrests, and death threats that resulted from a common belief in a cause for justice. The use of actions that challenged local and national authorities to reconsider U.S. race relations created uncertainty in the minds of Americans about what the future would hold for America if institutional and overt racism were not addressed.

Preconditions of Movement Formation

Once a group of individuals has a consensus on the social issues being addressed and a movement has formed, four things help formation continue. The first is having a preexisting communications network within the social base of the movement (Freeman, 1983). This network consists of groups of previously organized individuals who are linked to other organized groups that share common goals (Freeman, 1983). If the communications network is not in place when the movement has started, significant organizing must be done to create relationships between the various groups in a social movement. During the Civil Rights Movement, the black church served as a preexisting communications networks since it provided an atmosphere where blacks could socialize and form relationships that would later become essential to the movement's survival. The black church represented power in the black community and black preachers were well respected. The relationship between Southern black churches and preachers provided significant networks, which led to the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a minister and church-based Civil Rights organization. Black ministers, exclusively male, led the SCLC, which affected its ability to sustain extensive female leadership involvement.

Another important factor in movement formation is having an open communications network that is cooptable to the new ideas of the movement (Freeman, 1983. In order for the movement to progress, it should consist of people with similar grievances who are receptive to the ideas of the movement. Movement participants must have a shared understanding of the grievances that the movement will attempt to redress as well as movement goals. The prolonged denial of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the United States was a common grievance among black Americans, who had been socially and politically disenfranchised before and after slavery's abolishment. The Civil Rights Movement was able to take shape because blacks recognized their grievances, actualized their formal rights, and, in larger numbers, began to organize.

A third aspect of movement formation is that one or more precipitants are necessary to spark the movement's action (Freeman, 1983). A crisis can mobilize the communications network into action and cause individuals to begin organizing around the crisis. Many Civil Rights historians believe that the violent lynching of 13-yr old Emmett Till in Money, MS in the summer of 1954 precipitated the beginning of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (Eyes on the Prize Documentary, 1986). Many black Americans were saddened, frustrated, and outraged by a political system that would acquit two white men of killing a black teenager. The decision of Mabel Till Mobley, Emmett's mother, to have an open casket display of her son's mangled and terribly distorted body, showed the world the sadistic and cruel nature of racist violence at its worst in the twentieth century United States. Many Americans, especially black Americans in the South, began to organize to collectively fight racial oppression.

In addition to having a preexisting communications network, which is open to addressing new ideas within the movement and a crisis to transpire the movement, the last precondition of movement formation is having "a subsequent organizing effort to weld the spontaneous groups together into a movement" (Freeman, 1983, p. 22). No social movement can exist if fragmented organized groups do not communicate their desire to present a united front. The inability to come to a consensus on how to define and achieve the movement's purposes and goals will prevent the movement's progression and very little, if any, social change will occur. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was significant in the organization of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, in which college students (mostly white and Northern) came to Mississippi to assist with voter education projects and campaigns. COFO consisted of a few Civil Rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and represented the importance of organizing on a national scale to accomplish political projects (Dittmer, 2000). The aforementioned organizations were unified with regard to Freedom Summer's goals, but they also recruited participants similarly where gender was concerned. Female applicants were more likely to be rejected for participation despite having previous Civil Rights activism experience, which was considered a major selection criterion. During interviews, women were asked about sex and comments were made on their physical attractiveness (Kuumba, 2001). Men were accepted more readily and were not complimented on their physical attractiveness. This is an example of how gender played a role in an important Civil Rights campaign.

In addition to organizing campaigns like Freedom Summer, certain movement actions, such as acts of civil disobedience, may also be effective in facilitating social change. Civil disobedience is defined as "the open, public violation of a law or laws in the service of some moral or political goal" (Meyer, 2000, p. 268). Within social movements, civil disobedience must be considered in the context of the movement's stage of development. At the peak of the movement, it can diversify tactics, and after the peak of mobilization, civil disobedience can hold a movement together Meyer, 2000).

The utilization of civil disobedience as a political tactic during the Civil Rights Movement led to the successful desegregation of Southern buses, restaurants, and other public places. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and dining counter sit-ins are examples of movement civil disobedience. Movement participants broke Jim Crow laws and challenged the Southern status quo by sitting in the front sections of buses (reserved only for whites) and requesting service at Woolworth's lunch counters. Because civil disobedience was an infringement of Jim Crow law, there were consequences for participants, who were often ostracized, attacked, and arrested by other citizens and law enforcement officials. Civil disobedience had the uncanny character of provoking police brutality as well as public sympathy simultaneously (Meyer, 2000).

Gender and Social Movement Theory

Traditionally, social movement theory has been applied to social movements without examining the ways gender affects the progression of movements. The conditions that precipitate individual movement involvement are influenced by positions in the social order. For black Americans, racial inequality played a relevant role in encouraging their involvement. In addition to race, living as women in a white-male dominated society was crucial for black women who got involved in the movement. These social experiences were incorporated into movement social dynamics as the Civil Rights Movement formed. According to M. Bahati Kuumba:

Not only do women and men experience the social realities that lead to the emergence of social movements differently, they often have different experiences and play distinctive roles within social movements (Kuumba, 2001, p. 2).

The roles played by men and women within the Civil Rights Movement both deviated from and reinforced the gender norms of 1960s U.S. society. Many Civil Rights organizations were male-dominated; however, some allowed and encouraged female leadership and participation. Some women conformed to traditional standards by performing domestic and clerical tasks while others contested such roles by going into dangerous racist communities to organize. Likewise, some male activists were not receptive to significant female involvement while others incited females to be active in the movement. "Social movements have the potential to reproduce as well as transform gender inequalities, structures, and belief systems" (Kuumba, 2001, p.2). I will now discuss the role gender may have played within three types of social movement theory: charismatic movements, resource mobilization theory, and the political process model.

a) Charismatic Movements

Based on the sociology of Max Weber, charismatic movement theory "argues that at certain periods in history, a charismatic leader and followers are able to intervene in the otherwise routine and bureaucratic functioning of modern society and produce revolutionary changes" (Morris, 1984, p. 278). A charismatic movement is led by a charismatic individual, one who has an extraordinary personality to which followers flock. Charismatic leaders have the ability to inspire the masses and create and demand obligations from followers. People who follow charismatic leaders do so because they identify with the leaders' visions and missions (Morris, 1984).

When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement and charismatic leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the individual that most often comes to mind. His ability to mobilize the masses and inspire them with his speeches and nonviolent doctrine was certainly charismatic. Due to societal gender norms during the movement, charismatic leaders were mostly black men. The South was not ready for women, especially black women, to emerge as the leaders of hundreds or thousands of people in the Civil Rights Movement. Men had more access to being charismatic leaders because their manhood afforded them a societal power that attracted more attention. Although men and women could possess the extraordinary personalities deemed necessary to be charismatic, women were not able to lead masses or demand obligations because their leadership would have not been recognized or legitimated enough to have a massive following. Because the Civil Rights Movement progressed at a time when society expected women to be housewives and domestics or secretaries, it was difficult for women to be embraced as charismatic leaders. To be labeled a charismatic leader implied that one possessed formal leadership. In most Civil Rights organizations, men held formal leadership positions. However, women held informal leadership positions such as organizers and community. Their social skills and networks made black women leaders in their own right, gaining the trust and respect of people in their communities.

To exclusively apply charismatic movement theory to the Civil Rights Movement would discount the activism of thousands of other individuals, men and women, who fought for the cause. Furthermore, charismatic processes may be used to start a movement, but cannot sustain it. Social movements must develop formal organizations and become routinized in order to survive (Morris, 1984). Depending on the leadership of one individual prevents the masses from developing leadership on different levels. Likewise, the movement must be able to continue if the charismatic leader is displaced.

b) Resource Mobilization Theory

Resource Mobilization Theory is the social movement theory most often applied to the Civil Rights Movement. Different groups of social movement theorists formulated two definitions. Resource Mobilization Theory examines the resources that must be mobilized, the connections of social movements to other groups, the dependence of movements upon third parties for success, and the tactics used by authorities to control movements (Zald & McCarthy, 1979). Resource Mobilization Theory I, formulated by Oberschall, Tilly, and Gamson, examined social protests as "the continuation of orderly politics by other (disorderly) means" (Perrow, 1979, p. 199). On the other hand, Resource Mobilization Theory II was formulated by McCarthy and Zald and argues that formal politics play a minor role; this 2nd theory is usually applied to the social movements of the 1960s (McAdam, 1999).

The ability to mobilize resources for a movement is crucial to the movement's success (McAdam, 1999). Resources include formal and informal organizations, leaders, money, people, time, and communications networks, without which, no social movement could be sustained. The mobilization of resources may be based on gender roles. Traditionally, women were able to garner resources through domestic-based means while men use their networks in the workplace (Kuumba, 2001). An example of how women might raise money using traditional feminine qualities would be having a bake sale or selling dinners. On the other hand, men might collect movement support by distributing fliers at their jobs.

Resources are so important to a movement that:

Social actors who have access to resources and who are well integrated within the institutions of a community are more likely to engage in protest than individuals who are marginal and uprooted (Morris, 1984, p. 279).

Although much emphasis is often placed on tangible resources such as money and organizations, social networks are invaluable resources for any movement. Once again, these networks may be gender based since networks may depend upon a person's place of employment, social class, or place of residence. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, black women and men often had different networks outside of the home resulting from gender discrimination. Although black women were not confined to the home, their positions of employment in schools or in the homes of white families placed them in different social networks from black men who worked at factories or in churches. Resources and networks were essential, but gender played a role, determining which networks could be tapped for resources.

Freeman discusses the relevance of resources in Resource Mobilization Theory, arguing that people are the intangible resources upon which social movements rely (1979). Social movements may lack tangible resources, but be high in people resources, which can extend beneficial social networks. Not only are people important resources, but as such, must be mobilized, which takes more resources. Freeman also declares that three types of resources may be used to reach and mobilize aggrieved groups (1979). The first, beneficiary constituency, consists of the political beneficiaries of the movement who supply resources. Within the Civil Rights Movement, this constituency would be blacks Americans who would directly benefit from the movement's goals. Second, the conscience constituencies provide resources but are not a part of the beneficiary base. White movement participants and financial sponsors would be considered conscience constituencies. The third type, nonconstituency institutions, is available independently of the movement's existence. The government could be regarded as a nonconstituency institution.

While movement resources, both tangible and intangible, allow movements to progress, the community from which the resources come is also significant. Morris argues that indigenous resources, those that come from the community being serviced, are crucial when a movement first begins (Morris, 1984). After all, individuals within communities usually have pre-existing social networks with fellow community members that would facilitate movement mobilization. The use of indigenous resources was a very effective strategy for SNCC in the mid-1960s; its ability to use black neighborhood social contacts fostered and developed a firm local base of movement activism, empowering the members of those communities. SNCC's development of indigenous resources would also be considered a beneficiary constituency resource because blacks would provide the resources and benefit from those resources in the movement.

c) Political Process Model

In contrast to Freeman's arguments about the relevance of Resource Mobilization Theory, McAdam disagrees on its applicability to all social movements:

categories of action]: defensible when applied to a certain class of collective actions, inadequate as a general explanation of insurgency. The limits of the model's applicability stem from the failure of its proponents adequately to differentiate organized change efforts generated by excluded groups and by established polity members. (1999, p. 24).

Freeman and older theoretical models of resource mobilization do not focus primarily on elite institutions' willingness to grant social change in the form of legislature, etc. to excluded groups. McAdam believes that sufficient attention has not been given to the movement's mass base, which consists of the excluded constituency. Social movement theorists have also failed to clearly define the concepts of resources (McAdam, 1999).

McAdam presents the political process model as an alternative to Resource Mobilization Theory for two reasons: 1) social movements are held to be political and political processes incite social insurgency and 2) a movement is a continuous process from generation to decline, not a set of developmental stages (1999). The political process model suggests that political actors are either inside or outside the polity:

...the political process model is based on the notion that political action by established polity members reflects an abiding conservatism, which causes polity members to resist changes that threaten their power positions (McAdam, 1999, p. 38).

In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. government is considered the established polity member. Civil Rights activists are outside the polity and facilitate social change, which the established polity resists. The political process model acknowledges that social movements can only develop in environments sympathetic to their cause:

...while excluded groups do possess the latent capacity to exert significant political leverage at any time, the force of environmental constraints is usually sufficient to inhibit mass action (McAdam, 1999, p. 39).

Although the prevalence of resources is crucial to movement survival, the external social order (i.e. U.S. citizens, government) must be acquiescent to the movement. Within this model, McAdam identifies three sets of factors that are important to generate social activism: 1) level of organization among the affected population-also known as organizational readiness, 2) collective assessment of prospects for successful insurgency within that population-also known as insurgent consciousness, and 3) political alignment of groups within the larger political environment-also known as the structure of political opportunities (1999). Once these factors are in place, resources in the forms of members, interpersonal rewards2, communication networks, and leaders are helpful for movement organizations and social insurgency (McAdam, 1999).

The earlier period of the Civil Rights Movement was able to achieve legislative change because it gained and used its political leverage at the right time. U.S. society, especially the government was becoming aware of the importance of addressing racial inequality. The actions of Civil Rights participants such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lunch counter sit-ins sparked media and government attention. The Kennedy Presidential Administration, which was more receptive to Civil Rights than previous Presidential Administrations, wanted to take a stand on Civil Rights in the early 1960s. Other local and national government figures were also receptive; this allowed the movement to receive political leverage in challenging the racist status quo.

Gender, Social Movement Theory, and the Civil Rights Movement

Resource mobilization theory is most frequently applied to the Civil Rights Movement because black social institutions provided a firm foundation for the mobilization of movement resources. The political process model may also be applied to the movement. For the purpose of this thesis, I have decided to combine aspects of resource mobilization theory and the political process model to analyze the Civil Rights Movement. I decided not to use charismatic movement theory because it gender limitations does not allow sufficient gendered analysis of the movement.

The two most important institutions for resource mobilization and political activity were the black church and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as they were primary networks for southern blacks and located in a regional communications network (Freeman, 1983). The church, especially, and the school served as significant sources of black leadership and political indoctrination, in which preachers and teachers attained high social status. The black church generally had male leadership and a mostly middle-aged female followership, while HBCUs were homes to black intellectuals and middle-class youth of both sexes. Although these institutions did not represent all of black society, they provided a significant social base for civil rights activists and organizations because of the resources they could provide (Freeman, 1983).

The church was an ideal movement base because it was the "central organizing function in the Negro community," which provided access to many people on a regular basis and a natural leadership (Freeman, 1983, p. 12). Pastors were economically independent of whites and could garner mass support:

"The social power of the black minister stems from his personal persuasiveness and his considerable control over the collective resources of the church" (Morris, 1984, p. 7).

As a result, the church supplied the Civil Rights Movement with risk-taking individuals and the collection of resources. Economic independence also allowed some black ministers the freedom to share political beliefs with their congregations. Some ministers encouraged political activism while others feared white repercussions against such political involvement. Since many Civil Rights organizations connected with the black community through churches, the political consciousness of the movement was propagated via the church.

It is also important to note that black pastors have traditionally been men. As a result, access to the leadership and power of the black minister was denied to black women, who served as ushers, choir members, and secretaries within the church's formal hierarchy. Because the church was a major source of movement leadership potential, its gendered church positions indirectly hindered the potential leadership of black women in the movement from the very beginning.

Like the church, HBCUs provided a base for movement support via black college students. Many of the students who would later become SNCC members were politically active on their respective black campuses. Because most HBCUs were coeducational from the moment they opened after the Civil War, black male and female students had a more egalitarian relationship. During the Civil Rights Movement, black male and female students worked collaboratively to organize movement actions. The Greensboro, NC Woolworth Sit-In in 1960, was planned by students at nearby North Carolina A&T College, an HBCU, and was the catalyst for a Sit-In Movement that HBCU students organized in various Southern cities. In 1964, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a study to examine the activism of black students at HBCUs (Orum, 1968). The report used the demographics of white student activists to examine the activism of HBCU students. White student activists usually came from middle-class homes with better educated and higher earning parents. The demographics of most HBCU students correlated with those for white student activists. Thus, HBCU students who became activists in the 1960s were usually reared in financially prosperous homes with educated parents, at least in comparison to the general black population. HBCUs, as private institutions, served as a significant resource, not only for educated movement participants, but also for organizational and safe spaces for movement activists.3

Gender and Social Movement Theory Applications to Civil Rights Organizations

Although the collective actions of individuals in schools, churches, and communities were responsible for the formation and progression of the Civil Rights Movement, the existence of formal civil rights organizations established a firm foundation to mobilize necessary resources and political activism. Three organizations received most of the media and nation's attention as well as funds from movement supporters: NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC. I will discuss the structure of these organizations and how the role of gender affected the mobilization of resources in these organizations. The role of politics within and without these organizations will also be discussed.

I. NAACP: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Founded in 1909 by black and white intellectuals, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) used legal means to change the political system. It tried numerous court cases to challenge racist Jim Crow legislature (Freeman, 1983). The NAACP is most remembered for its success in trying the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which abolished educational segregation. The case was also considered to be a major movement precipitant (Freeman, 1983).

Although the NAACP had local chapters throughout the nation, membership in southern chapters grew more rapidly in the 1960s and wanted to move faster than northern chapters, which created tension within the organization. The NAACP's close ties with the southern black church could explain this trend. Additionally, the difference in the oppression of northern and southern blacks made it difficult for the NAACP to effectively cater to the social needs of the general black population.

Women, who represented half of the general black population, were not as capable of participating in the NAACP as men for two reasons. First, the use of court trials would not allow for much female participation as there were very few female and even fewer black female attorneys due to less educational access and institutional race/gender discrimination. The majority of practicing NAACP litigators were men. Second, NAACP membership catered to the black middle class. Most female NAACP members were married and were in a better economic position than women in female single-headed households. The costs to participate in the NAACP were too expensive for a poor single mother who had to provide for her children in a male-biased society.

With regards to Resource Mobilization Theory, the NAACP did not have as much success in the South because the organization constituency lacked resources, both money and people. The centralized hierarchy of the organization made the NAACP inaccessible to many Southern blacks, especially the poor, uneducated, and some women, who lacked the material resources that were needed to try court cases or the educational background to understand the legal proceedings of the NAACP. Despite an increasing membership in southern offices, NAACP membership began to level off and the organization could not establish a mass base because of southern white repression, its complex structure, and legal procedures. In analyzing the NAACP, Morris argues that bureaucratic organizations are unlikely to initiate a mass movement since their tactics are not "designed to accommodate mass grassroots insurgency..." (1984, p. 35). The inability of the NAACP to connect with southern blacks prevented the organization from establishing a significant movement base in the region.

Additionally, the use of litigation to facilitate social change was conservative and considered politically safe. Even though numerous court cases were tried and unsuccessful, these cases challenged and sought to overturn discriminatory laws, not the entire system. When cases were won, the movement was given political leverage to continue to struggle. There was not as much of a perceived social threat to the existing status quo as the Black Power Movement would later present.

II. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

SCLC was able to sustain a significant amount of success because it developed as a result of networks formed among southern black preachers during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. The organization held its first organizational meeting in January of 1957, where its beliefs and/or purposes were stated (Morris, 1984). The founding members present agreed that the church should function as the institutional base of protest movement, that aggressive nonviolent action was necessary by blacks to overthrow segregation, and that an organized mass force was needed to supplement NAACP activities (Morris, 1984). Because the NAACP was already closely tied to the southern black church and used legal means to counter Jim Crow legislation, the SCLC partnered with the NAACP, but sought to use other means to fight segregation. The founding members felt that "movements could be generated, coordinated, and sustained by activist clergy and organized black masses working in concert" (Morris, 1984, p. 85). The use of the black church as a resource base for the Civil Rights Movement allowed the SCLC to become one of the highest-funded Civil Rights organizations. By 1963, it had a budget of about $1 million (Morris, 1984).

The development of the SCLC from black clergy accounts for why gender roles regarding black men and women became silently institutionalized in the organization's structure. Black ministers were by definition men and black women did not have easy access to leadership for this reason. The SCLC's first board consisted of all middle-class, educated males. Although black ministers had a network, it was a tight-knit network, which disregarded female participation that deviated from feminine roles (i.e. cooking, looking fashionable). The high status position of black ministers gave them significant access to black community resources in the forms of people, money, and churches to hold Civil Rights meetings. Resource mobilization among black women in the SCLC was more limited as they did not have access to the same resource potential. Black women contributed time and other resources to SCLC, but it was only encouraged if those women followed feminine conventions. The emphasis of black male leadership in the SCLC systematically excluded the potential resource mobilization of black women. In chapter 4, I discuss Ella Baker's experiences as a woman and formal leader within SCLC.

With regard to political strategy, the SCLC utilized sit-ins, boycotts, and other nonviolent tactics to promote social change in the South. The use of nonviolence4 as a political strategy encouraged participants to be nonretaliatory and often confused white antagonists who could not understand why Civil Rights activists did not respond to attacks. Because the SCLC was directly affiliated with the black church, the politics and political activism was similar to that of the black church. If ministers encouraged their congregations to take a stand for their rights, members were more likely to do so.

III. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee developed as a result of the sit-ins, which occurred near Southern black college campuses in the early 1960s. Many students from those campuses organized to discover more strategies for combating Jim Crow statutes. With the assistance of and some funding from SCLC, SNCC "became a gathering point for idealistic young people, who saw...a unique outlet for expressing their resentment of racial injustice" (Carson, 1981, p. 1). SNCC, a multiracial organization, questioned existing strategies of change in U.S. society and felt that existing leaders did not initiate significant local struggles. Thus, SNCC sought to create community through social struggle by engaging and involving local Southern blacks. Upon becoming an official organization in April 1960, SNCC was advised to remain autonomous and sever financial ties with SCLC. As a result, SNCC had very little money when it started organizing controversial direct action projects in 1961, demonstrating that financial resources are not necessary for social actions to be organized and executed (Morris, 1984). However, the organization's financial situation improved in the summer of 1962 after receiving funds from different foundations that were sympathetic to Civil Rights (Morris, 1984).

Unlike other civil rights organizations that had centralized hierarchies, SNCC was a decentralized organization with an executive committee and rotating chairpersons (Robnett, 1999). As a result, titled positions in SNCC did not carry as much organizational weight as they did in centralized organizations. This decentralized structure created more equal power dynamics between male and female SNCC members; SNCC women had more power than women in other organizations. According to Robnett:

"organizations built on an ideology of a participatory democracy that discourages the centralization of leadership, seek consensus, and are anti-hierarchical empower women even in the absence of an explicit feminist doctrine..." (1999, p. 131).

Leadership potential and accessibility was encouraged and practiced in SNCC because of the organization's decentralized structure.

SNCC's decentralized structure and encouragement of black female leadership made it very successful for generating movement resources. SNCC workers of both genders were willing to organize and help mobilize impoverished, disempowered black communities. In many towns throughout the South, SNCC field members moved into communities and established relationships with respected community members, usually older black women, who were significant members of social networks. Black women were the informal leaders of black communities and were a significant resource for SNCC. These relationships and networks allowed SNCC to utilize the tangible and intangible resources of Southern black communities. Even though many of these communities could not provide SNCC with substantial financial resources, these communities provided foot soldiers for the struggle, further developing more female and youth leadership along the way.

SNCC, like the SCLC, adapted nonviolent movement strategy, the political ideology of the Civil Rights Movement. Although SNCC implemented this strategy, its organizational structure was more politically liberal, giving women more access to participation and leadership.

The next chapter will examine the structural conditions that made it advantageous for black women to participate in the Civil Rights Movement.

Chapter 2: Poised for Leadership-The Structural Position of Black Women

They [black women] have organized and led struggles for suffrage, fair housing, temperance, antilynching laws, as well as to abolish poll taxes, white primaries, Jim Crow laws, and to obtain full employment for themselves, and their men, and for educational facilities for their children (Crawford, Rouse, & Woods, 1990, p. xvii).

The black women who became involved in the Civil Rights Movement did so to improve the qualities of their lives and their communities. Despite being disadvantaged racially and on the basis of gender, black women used their structural position to develop social change. In this chapter, I will use the concept of Belinda Robnett's bridge leaders from social movement theory to explore the structural intricacies that motivated them. Robnett defines bridge leaders as individuals who foster ties between the movement, the community, and political strategies (Robnett, 1997). Black women served in this capacity, fighting for racial equality with regards to education, jobs, and citizenship rights.

Black women have been agents of social activism since their arrival in the Americas and have demonstrated their commitment to equality using various concrete strategies (i.e. writing articles and books, organizing demonstrations). The symbolic aspect of their social involvement represents a legacy of activism that goes beyond their physical contributions. Defining black women as bridge leaders encapsulates all of their efforts to improve their communities, the nation, and the world.

What are bridge leaders?

Belinda Robnett, author of How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights, critiques social movement theories discussed in the previous chapter and argues that social movements should be analyzed on different relational levels. These levels, which could be considered bridges, examine relationships between the individual in a collective and the collective, between a collective and competing collectives, and between the collective and society (Robnett, 1997). In examining the structural position of black female activists, I will explore the relationship between the individual and the collective to illustrate the ways these activists were bridge leaders within their communities. Bridge leaders had the ability to distinguish between their personal lives and the political life of Civil Rights organizations as well as the public life of movement organizations and the private spheres of participants (Robnett, 1997).

Robnett identifies four types of bridge leaders: mainstream, professional, community, and indigenous. Race, class, gender, and culture usually determined which type of bridge leader a person could be (Robnett, 1997). Because of the movement's sexist attitudes regarding female leadership, the position of bridge leader was most accessible for women. Although men could be bridge leaders, women served as bridge leaders more often because that was one of the few organizational spaces open to them whereas men could be formal leaders. According to Robnett, "Gender, which operated as a construct of exclusion, produced a particular context in which women participated" (1997, p. 20). Race played a role for mainstream bridge leaders, who forged connections between mainstream white institutions or organizations and the movement (Robnett, 1997). White women activists usually served as mainstream bridge leaders because their racial and often class privilege gave them more access to mainstream institutions.

Professional bridge leaders had significant experience before the start of their movement activism and held positions within formal organizations (Robnett, 1997). The bridge leaders also usually worked with more than one group. Ella Baker, who served in formal leadership positions in various organizations, would be considered a professional bridge leader. The next type of bridge leader, a community bridge leader, usually worked in a particular movement organization and was a formal leader in local communities before her movement involvement (Robnett, 1997). Fannie Lou Hamer would be an example of a community bridge leader. Community bridge leaders often worked with indigenous bridge leaders, who served as contacts for community bridge leaders upon their arrival in the community. Indigenous bridge leaders were usually active, trusted women in the community and were regarded as individuals who stepped up in community crises (Robnett, 1997). These trusted women were gatekeepers of the community because they were familiar with and had a good relationship with everyone.

The position of black female activists as bridge leaders of different types shows that they were active leaders. The mobilization of people and resources in black communities by these bridge leaders brought about social change, transforming racial oppression into social action. Although some male bridge leaders may have been regarded as formal leaders within civil rights organizations, Robnett distinguishes between the two, one basis being the form of activism. Bridge leaders took a more community-oriented approach to social activism with less emphasis on institutional power, responding to the various needs of community members. Bridge leaders' agency was oriented towards the people (Robnett, 1997). Bridge leaders' organizational and mobilization skills were not confined to the centralized formal civil rights organizations. On the other hand, formal leaders, usually men, had more institutional and organizational power as a result of their gender (Robnett, 1997). Furthermore, such organization power prevented male leaders from genuinely connecting with the communities they were attempting to serve. Working in formal leadership positions usually meant more time was spent in executive board meetings and less time was spent with people in communities. While women bridge leaders had the flexibility to interact more with people in communities, male formal leaders were preoccupied with formally assigned duties related to their organizations.

The structural position of black women in U.S. society also made the bridge leader designation more accessible for black women.

Black Women in U.S. Society

Since they have been in the United States, black women have continually resisted the oppression present in their everyday lives. The legacy of social activism practiced by women in the Civil Rights Movement was a continuation of the anti-racist struggle that began during American slavery. During that period, black women were placed in an extraordinary position. Although they were biologically women, the institution of slavery masculinized black women, who had the responsibility of performing field labor, working in slavemasters' homes, and breeding slaves (Staples, 1973). Their biological womanhood did not prevent their exposure to and/or experience of the same physical violence inflicted upon male slaves. She had no power over her body, as it was vulnerable to the sexual desires of the master, overseer, or male slave; she was utterly defenseless (Staples, 1973).

In the South where white women were delicate creatures placed on pedestals to be protected by white men, black women's femininity certainly could not compare. According to Patricia Hill Collins, within the cult of womanhood, " 'true' women possess the qualities of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" (Hill Collins, 1991, p. 71). True women were equated with white women, and if a woman was not white, she was not truly a woman. Only white women could possess the aforementioned qualities, which had been ascribed to them by white males to keep white women powerless and defenseless as well. Whereas white women were respected and regarded with more value, the black woman represented everything that a white woman did not. The biological female existence of the enslaved black woman did not constitute a traditional feminine being in the American South. Although the intersection of race and gender for the black woman exposed her to harsh masculine forms of labor, her female body was still oppressed by men, both black and white. According to Davis:

Required by the masters' demands to be as 'masculine' in the performance of their work as their men, Black women...acquired qualities considered taboo by the nineteenth-century ideology of womanhood (Davis, 1983, p. 11)

Out of the racial oppression of slavery, black women sometimes resisted the system of which they were a part. Instead of breeding more slaves for the benefit of their masters, some refused to bear children, aborting their fetuses or committing infanticide to prevent their children from living a life of bondage (Staples, 1973). This act of resistance symbolized the black woman's desire to have control over her sexuality and fertility, which had been taken out of her hands and placed into those of her slavemaster.

Furthermore, enslaved black women resisted the slavery system by risking their lives to run away from their plantations. Harriet Tubman represents the epitome of this form of resistance as she put her life on the line numerous times to help other slaves escape to freedom in the North. Tubman's willingness to kill any slaves who wanted to return to bondage demonstrates militancy, a very masculine feature for that time.

The institution of slavery also had a strong impact on the development of the slave family, in which the black woman played an important role5; she was the center of the family, responsible for naming, disciplining, and nurturing the children (Staples, 1973). The enslaved black woman's role as mother and wife was secondary to her role as a slave. Only after attending to the needs of the slavemaster could she dedicate time to her family, time that she considered very valuable bonding with her children.

The racial and gender oppression black women experienced under slavery created within them a psyche of resistance against societal forces that sought to destroy them. As women, they were subject to male-imposed physical and sexual abuse, and as enslaved blacks, they were subjected to the strenuous physical work that enriched their slavemasters in a capitalist system. Their position in the social order made them aware of their oppression, and black women, as mothers, passed this awareness on to their children, preparing them for a world, which would discriminate against them on the basis of their skin color.

The legacy of oppression as well as the resistance of black women continued throughout slavery, after slavery and well into the twentieth century. Black women became involved in the Women's Suffrage Movement, opened schools to educate black children, and sought to empower the black community, which still experienced significant discrimination. When the 1940s and 1950s arrived, black women were still challenging the racist and sexist system in the United States, taking part in activism that would later be considered the start of the Civil Rights Movement. According to Locke:

During the Civil Rights Movement, Black Women became the key element in the organization and mobilization of the black community around the struggle. Many of them were thrust into the limelight because of their articulation of the concerns of blacks, women, and the poor (1990, p. 28).

Black women's structural position (determined by race and gender) affected the ways in which black women could be agents. Where race socially disadvantaged black women, they developed ways to fight social inequality using their position in the social order. For example, black women could use their blackness so they would not always have to conform to societal gender norms. As mentioned earlier, aspects of their biological womanhood were masculinized due to the slave structure. Some of the qualities black women developed in that time, were passed down to female descendants. This allowed a more egalitarian relationship with black men to develop in the household, giving black women more power.

Likewise, the gender of black women placed them in a particular structural position in the black community. Even though black women had more power in their relationships with black men than did white women with white men, black women were still women and subject to gender discrimination from the larger society and in their communities. Some institutions in the black community such as the church had strict gender-based boundaries that could not be crossed. It was socially accepted that black men would be ministers and lead the congregation while women would serve as ushers and be faithful followers. As a result of this structure, some black women used their traditional feminine skills to take care of community children as well as perform cooking duties for church and community functions.

As the Civil Rights Movement developed, black women utilized skills and tactics that resulted from constraints placed on them due to their structural positions in the larger society and their smaller communities. Black women took their positions of race and gender disadvantage and used them to carve a space for the social activism in which they would engage for the Civil Rights Movement. Robnett's bridge leaders theory is one way black women used their structural positions to facilitate social change.

Black Women and Motherhood

For black women, motherhood symbolizes a high point in her life and her children have been regarded traditionally as a value whether they were economic assets or liabilities (Staples, 1973). Motherhood is viewed as a symbol of power for the black woman since it is the one role over which she has complete control. Black women take the role of motherhood seriously because it allows the black woman to transmit values and survival skills to her children and teach them about their proper place in society for their survival. Motherhood also "can serve as a private sphere in which cultures of resistance and everyday forms of resistance are learned" (Staples, 1973, p. 50). Black women's experiences with racial and gender oppression in society prior to the 1960s gave them the desire to educate their children about the racial facts of life in U.S. society so their children would be equipped to survive. The mother-daughter relationship among black women is even more special as a result of the shared gender status of black mothers and daughters. According to Hill Collins:

African-American mothers place a strong emphasis on protection, either by trying to shield their daughters as long as possible from the penalties attached to their race, class, and gender status or by teaching them skills of independence and self-reliance so that they will be able to protect themselves (1991, p. 126).

Although black mothers have this double burden of teaching their daughters about race as well as gender roles, their attempts to instill resistance within their children demonstrates black mothers' willingness to improve the racist society. For many black women who would later become involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the desire to enable their children to inherit a better future and world would propel their movement involvement:

My mother and I wanted the same things in life, a better life for our children. We both worked hard to prepare our children to get ahead in the world (as cited in Staples, 1973, p. 195).

Love and commitment to their families and especially their children became a motivating factor for black women's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Some of these women felt it was time for a change, a time to openly oppose and struggle against the racist oppression endemic in the society. Some of these women also realized the ways their ascribed gender roles constricted their behaviors and way of life. However, they were dedicated first and foremost to equality and liberation for the black race, which they demonstrated by fighting for their children to have better futures.

The role of motherhood for black women was also different because black women had to work outside the home. With the exception of black female elites, black women had always been a part of the labor force, balancing motherhood and employment. Black women's position in the employment sector affected the dynamic of the black family structure, creating a more egalitarian relationship among married black couples.

Black Women: The Labor Force and Family Structure

Another catalyst in black women's participation in the Civil Rights Movement was their economic position. In the 1960s, black women headed 28% of black families while males headed 90% of the black families with an income of more than $10,000 (Staples, 1973). Such statistics show that black women suffered from class and gender oppression. While a significant number of black women headed households, those households were more likely to be poverty stricken due to sexism. Because women's work was regarded as less valuable than a man's, she did not receive equal compensation. Women were paid less than men since women were expected marry and be supported financially by their husbands (Staples, 1973). For single black women, their race and gender directly affected their class position:

All African-American women encounter the common theme of having our work and family experiences shaped by the interlocking nature of our race, gender, and class oppression (Staples, 1973, p. 65).

Even within married households, black women were expected to work since black men's wages were not sufficient to provide for a family. Structural racism prevented black men and women from achieving economic mobility and stability. The jobs available to black women were usually within the domestic realm, working as maids, servants, or laundresses in white households, where they were underpaid for their services. Even though black women were compensated less for labor, their access to the labor market gave them more independence from their husbands. Black women's contributions to the economic stability of their households, allowed more egalitarian relationships with their spouses when compared with white married couples. These economic contributions facilitated decision-making power for black women more in the household.

For middle class blacks with education and some economic stability, racism still affected their ability to make use of that education and advance their careers. In such families, black women chose not to work, deciding to concentrate on empowering their own families instead of servicing white ones. According to Hill Collins, black women wanted to withdraw from the labor force to strengthen the political and economic position of their families, not to duplicate the domesticity of middle-class white women (1991).

A desire to improve their families' economic stability and use some of the independence gained from their labor may have been motivating factors for black women to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Fannie Lou Hamer, who came from a family of sharecroppers, participated in the movement. She believed her involvement would improve the social and economic conditions of blacks in the Mississippi Delta, where severe racial and class inequality existed. Black women's traditional and nontraditional positions within and without the domestic sphere gave them more social power, which they used to mobilize individuals for the Civil Rights Movement.

Black Women and Education

Institutional racism restricted access to educational institutions and added to the black family's economic instability and social immobility. The segregated schools of the South were separate and unequal in terms of funding, educational resources and physical maintenance. Black students were at a strong disadvantage compared to white students.

Recognizing that education was a tool of empowerment after slavery, newly freed slaves wanted to acquire reading and writing skills. The ability to read and write had been denied during slavery. Unable to attend white public schools and colleges, separate and private black educational institutions were opened to educate the freedmen. Once government funding was appropriated for the construction of black public schools, the inequality in education and resources was institutionalized throughout the South. Black schools were ill equipped with textbooks and resources for learning. There were no school buses; so, students were forced to walk miles if they wanted to receive an education. Furthermore, the textbooks used in such schools were discriminatory, stigmatizing and ridiculing black Americans. In this sort of educational climate, it was impossible for black students to attain the skills necessary to compete in the workforce.

Institutional sexism also prevented black women from receiving the same educational opportunities as black men. Although black educational institutions were coeducational, the types of career opportunities available for black women were limited. It was more acceptable for black men to aspire to be doctors, lawyers, etc. while middle class black women were expected to remain in the home and out of the workforce or become primary teachers in black schools. Poorer women with even less access to advanced education worked in the fields or as domestics. The combination of racism and sexism had affect black women's educational opportunities.

Concerned about the educational well being of their children, black parents sought to overturn school segregation in Southern schools. In 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education determined that separate was not equal (Tushet, 2000). The Supreme Court and Eisenhower Administration demanded school integration. Although school integration had been declared, it was not always enforced, especially in segregationist stronghold states like Mississippi and Alabama, which declared that segregation would persist forever (Shanks-Meile, 2000).

The recognition that education would grant a better life for their children and themselves motivated black women, especially black mothers, to fight for a better future for black children. Desire to improve the quality of life for future generations was a catalyst that inspired Civil Rights involvement. These women recognized the relationship between race, class, and education and wanted to be a part of a struggle that would academically empower their children and generations to come.

Black Women Demanding Full Citizenship

While family, class, and education were catalysts to movement involvement, the continual denial of constitutionally granted rights to black Americans was also very significant. Even though black Americans had been born in and lived in the United States for centuries, they had not benefited from the rights accorded to them as U.S. citizens. During slavery, they were only considered three-fifths human. After the Emancipation Proclamation, they were liberated from slavery, made full citizens, and black men were given the right to vote (black women would be given this right after the Women's Suffrage Movement). Although they were considered formal citizens, institutional racism prevented them from attaining the right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. The end of Reconstruction in the South brought about a period of political disenfranchisement in which black men were stripped of their right to vote and removed from political offices. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan sought to denigrate blacks, to reduce them to a submissive position, and cripple them financially, economically, and socially. During this time, blacks were powerless, and some tried to resist the system when possible. However, there were grave consequences for such actions in the form of economic reprisals, public beatings, and public lynchings.

As time progressed, blacks continued to resist the system. In the 1940s and 1950s when blacks began taking more and more political and legal actions against racism, black women were also at the forefront. Their race and gender oppression helped them recognize the need to become involved in the fight for Civil Rights. The denial of the right to vote, to attend certain schools, and live in certain neighborhoods was a right that had been denied far too long. As numerous blacks began to organize around these issues, black women participated, hoping that they could play a role in attaining their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Black women's power in their homes and communities was transformed into action that essential for the Civil Rights Movement's progression.


Black women have been in a social position to resist oppression since they were brought to the United States as slaves in 17th century. They have remained steadfast in their attempts to attain liberation from the oppressive structures of race, gender, and class over the centuries, using different forms of resistance to receive better education and more citizenship rights. It is no surprise that black women became active agents in the Civil Rights Movement, serving in a number of capacities, as bridge leaders, organizers, etc. Black women used their structural position to assist the movement where necessary. Structural racism was influential in the development of black male-female egalitarian relationships because it made black women's labor necessary for family survival. Although black women had no institutional power (due to race and gender disadvantage), financial contributions to the family income gave black women some power in their own right. Their existence as black women shaped their roles as mothers, wives, laborers, and women, granting them more power in their relationships with black men than white counterparts. Black women also held power within their communities as important socializing agents and the possessors of invaluable social networks. In the next chapter, I will examine the lives of three black women who became leaders and their experiences as such in the movement prior to 1966.


1 The SCLC was a Civil Rights organization run mostly by black ministers and did not encourage substantive female leadership involvement. More about the SCLC will be discussed in later chapters.

2 These are rewards that incite movement participation in groups.

3 Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS is an HBCU that served as a headquarters and safe haven for Civil Rights activists. Although HBCUs were private institutions, their trustees and benefactors, who were predominantly white, indirectly controlled the political climate on black campuses. Where trustees were sympathetic to Civil Rights, the movement was able to develop on campuses. Where trustees were not, the movement was stifled. As a result, many HBCU students, dropped out of or were expelled from school for movement participation.

4 Theory of nonviolence will be discussed more in depth in Chapter 5.

5 Research on the black slave family has suggested that the structure was matriarchal as a result of the traditionally different gender roles of the black slave woman. Slaveholders based their definition of the slave family on a matrilocal biological structure as slave birth records only listed the mother and slave children followed the servitude condition of their mothers. However, Davis argues that the social condition of slaves created the conditions for sexual equality between black men and women. For more on the black slave family, see Angela Davis' Women, Race, & Class, 1983.