Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Ella Baker.

Fannie Lou Hamer.

Septima Poinsette Clark.

Coretta Scott King.

Ruby Bridges.

Diane Nash.

Do you know these names?  They are a few of the integral women of the American Civil Rights Movements.

When I was a sophomore in college, in one of my English classes the major project for the quarter was to write a research paper on any subject of our choosing.  We had to submit three topics to our professor, defend our top subject, and then she decided what we should write about.

I only had one subject:  The women of the Civil Rights movement.

My argument:  We frequently hear about the men of the Civil Rights Movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, etc.  But so often the only female name you hear from the Civil Rights movement is Rosa Parks.  And yes, she was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, especially being the catalyst for a lot of change in Birmingham, Alabama, but who are these other women?  I want to know the women.

My subject was immediately approved by my teacher.  She asked me why I was so interested in the Civil Rights Movement.  I guess all she saw of me was a 19 year old little white Mormon girl from Utah.  Why should I care about the Civil Rights movement, right?  Ahem.  I explained that my mother lived in Washington, D.C from 1960 to 1973.  She lived the Civil Rights Movement.  She would often tell us stories about driving home to Silver Spring, MD from her job at the USDA in D.C. and both sides of the beltway would be burning.  She hated the 60s because it was so scary.  That’s why I’m interested.  This is my history, and my heritage, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from in America or your race or ethnicity, we ALL should be interested in the civil rights of our fellow human beings.

(I was pretty assertive as a 19 year old, for those of you who are wondering if I was always like this…)

So who are the women I listed above?  I was delighted to find out so much about these names I had never heard of before.  This paper began to mean so much more to me than just a research project I had to do for an English class.  I can’t find my paper now.  It was written in 1997.  But I remember their names.

Ella Baker

Ella began working for the NAACP in 1938 and her work with the Civil Rights movement spanned 5 decades.  She worked with the prominent leaders of the movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.  She was involved in Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a staffer for the Crusade for Citizenship (a voter registration camp), worked for student de-segregation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  She died in 1986, but was honored with a US Postage Stamp in 2009.  One of Ms. Baker’s most famous quotes:  “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”





Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie’s activism started in the 50s organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer and became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.  Fannie was deeply religious and soft-spoken and often used Bible verses in her speeches.  She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965.  She worked at a grassroots level as well, and helped start Head Start, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Poor People’s Campaign.  Fannie died of breast cancer in 1977.  Ms. Hamer’s most famous quote is: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima was born in 1898 and was an educator as well as a civil rights activist.  Her father was born a slave and after the Civil War he worked as a caterer. Her mother refused to let Septima become a domestic for a white family.  Instead, Septima graduated from high school and became an educator without a college education at that time.  In 1919, Septima taught at Avery Normal Institute, in Charleston, S.C., a private academy in for black children.  It was here Septima started her work with the NAACP.  She then went on to earn her Bachelors and Masters degrees and worked with noted Civil Rights Activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.  Septima is most known for starting Citizenship Schools which taught black adults in the Deep South how to read.  Septima worked with many health organizations.  In 1979, President Carter award Septima with a Living Legacy Award.  Septima died in 1987.  Her most famous quote:  “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking.  I consider chaos a gift.”

Coretta Scott King

Coretta was the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped lead the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Coretta was part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped pass the Voting Rights Act in 1964.  Her most prominent role in the movement was after her husband was murdered as she continued his work and his legacy as the new leader of the movement.  As a new leader of the movement she founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and broadened her focus to include women’s issues, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace, racism, poverty, and war.  Coretta was a published author and educator.  In the 1980s Coretta worked to end apartheid in South Africa.  Ms. King died in 2006 and was eulogized by former President Jimmy Carter.  My most favorite Coretta Scott King quote:  “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience.  I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Ruby Bridges

Ruby was born in 1954 in New Orleans.  In 1960, Ruby’s parents answered the call from the NAACP and volunteered to have Ruby integrated in the New Orleans school system.  She is known as the first African American child at an all-white elementary school in the South.  Ruby walked to school every day despite protests from parents, citizens, and backlash the landed her father jobless and her share-cropper grandparents turned off their land.  Can you imagine how brave Ruby must have been?  Can you imagine that courage of that 6 year old girl?  I can’t think of Ms. Bridges without tears coming to my eyes.  Ruby currently lives in New Orleans and there have been many books written about her and movies created about her life.  My favorite Ruby Bridges quote:  “I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one.”

(edited to add…)

Diane Nash


Diane was born in Chicago and attended Howard University.  She was a part of the most successful act of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – The Freedom Rides.  As a college student, Diane was successful in desegregating lunch counters in Nashville, TN.  Her activism did not stop there.  When the Freedom Riders decided to cut their rides short (because of outrageous violence and deaths), Diane, and other Nashville college students, promptly decided they would finish the trip.  Her courageous act caught national attention.  Robert F. Kennedy, himself, begged her to stop (fearing more violence and deaths).  Her response was to say everyone who was going on the Freedom Rides had signed their last Will and Testament the night before.  Diane was also integral in the Selma Campaign (a non-violent Army to combat church bombings), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and has been the subject of two books and numerous documentaries.  Diane continues to advocate for the civil rights, the rights of the poor and impoverished, and for the rights of children.  My most favorite quote of Ms. Nash’s is:  “Every time I participated in segregation, like going into a ‘colored’s only’ bathroom, I felt like I was agreeing that I was inferior.  And I’m not inferior.”

To find out more about these remarkable women, click the links on their names above, or check out this article.

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4 thoughts on “Women of the Civil Rights Movement

  1. These women were incredibly brave, risking their lives by pushing the status quo. I am truly inspired by these amazing individuals. The portrait of Septima Poinsette Clark is beautiful and inspiring.Aleisha

  2. Aleisha,I picked that portrait of Septima, over ones where she is younger, exactly because she looks royal and regal. Astonishingly beautiful.Thanks for everyone's comments.

  3. Risa, this is so interesting. You have sparked my interest and now I am going to have to do some more reading about these women. We lived in Mississippi for two years in the mid-70s. I learned so much about the civil rights movement then, but now you have taught me so much more. Thank you.

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