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Unsung Women Civil Rights Leaders

February 08, 2021

Find out more about the women who shaped the civil rights movement.

 

The list of heroes from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is often missing a key group — women. 

 

This isn't because women didn't get involved or play key roles in the Civil Rights Movement. They organized, educated, strategized and wrote. They built infrastructure, developed legal arguments and mentored young activists. And when we recognize their work, we can more fully understand how the civil rights movement succeeded.

 

So during Black History Month in February — and always — we remember their names and thank them for their service. 

 

Here are four such women:

 

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline ("Pauli") Murray

 

In 1944, Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline ("Pauli") Murray was enrolled at Howard University Law School — she was the only woman in her class and the top student. During a discussion of Jim Crow laws, Murray proposed challenging the "separate" part of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Her argument that segregation was unconstitutional formed the basis of her influential 1950 book, "States' Laws on Race and Color." This volume became known as “the bible" behind Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that ended school segregation.

 

In 1965, Murray co-authored an essay, “Jane Crow and the Law," which made the argument that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment should also apply to discrimination on the basis of sex. A young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully adopted her arguments in the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed; Murray was named as co-author on the brief.

 

Murray, who died in 1985 at age 74, has left an enduring legacy. Among other honors, the Episcopal Church has elevated her to sainthood, and Yale has name a residential college in her memory.

 

Claudette Colvin

 

On March 2, 1955, high school student Claudette Colvin climbed aboard a bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver ordered Colvin and three other students to vacate their seats so a white woman could sit down. But Colvin had just observed Negro History Week and refused to move. “My head was just too full of black history," Colvin has said. "It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side pushing me down. I couldn't get up."

 

Police arrested Colvin, but her case attracted little attention. Nine months later, a woman named Rosa Parks took a similar stance, which led to the historic Montgomery bus boycott. However, Colvin continued her efforts to enact change. She was among the plaintiffs in the 1956 Supreme Court case Browder v. Gayle case that finally brought an end to bus segregation in Alabama.

 

Maude Ballou

 

Maude Ballou had studied business and literature in college and was working as a program director at the first Black radio station in Montgomery, Ala., when a friend of her husband's asked her to be his personal secretary. He was a young minister by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Ballour worked closely with Dr. King during a pivotal time in the civil rights cause from 1955 to 1960 — this era included the Montgomery bus boycott, the publication of King's first book, "StrideToward Freedom: The Montgomery Story," and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in Washington D.C.

 

Her work made her a target of those who opposed the movement. In 1957, Ballou was listed 21st on the Montgomery Improvement Associations list of “persons and churches most vulnerable to attacks"; Dr. King topped the list. She and her family received death threats and members of the Ku Klux Klan kept her under surveillance.

 

But none of this stopped Ballou, who died at age 93 in 2019. “I was a daredevil," she has said. "I didn't have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen. We just kept going."

 

Mamie Till-Mobley

 

On Aug. 28th, 1955, Mamie Till's 14-year-old son, Emmett, was brutally murdered in Money, Miss. The murder was committed by two men who had accused Till of whistling at one of their wives. Till's corpse was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River.

 

Despite officials' best efforts to dispose of the body quickly, Till obtained a court order to have her only child's remains sent back home to Chicago. Emmet Till's's casket arrived padlocked and sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, but his mother was not intimidated. She insisted that her son's body be displayed during his funeral. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."

 

More than 100.000 people viewed Emmett Till's brutalized body in his casket. It was reported to be the largest single civil rights demonstration up to that point in American history. Until her death in 2004, Till-Mobley (who remarried after her son's killing) remained an advocate for racial justice and for the rights of underprivileged children.

 

These women fought long and hard for their rights and those of all Americans. When we remember them, we honor them and their legacies.

 

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