Despite consistent attempts at erasure, Black women’s political and civic involvement in the United States dates back centuries. Their massive efforts to promote human rights are evident in election data, classrooms, churches, and the workplace.
Black women have been and continue to be agents of change at the community, state, national, and global levels. Here are five Black women activists who blazed trailers for equity and freedom.
Ella Baker is an influential leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She started working as a field secretary for the NAACP in 1940 and later became a branch director. In 1957, Baker relocated to Atlanta to help Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also organized a voter registration program there before moving on to help new student activists in North Carolina, following the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins. Her meeting in April 1960 at Shaw University led to the forming of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Hammer led the fight for voting rights for all. She was a leader in the 1964 Freedom Summer Campaign to get Black people in Mississippi registered to vote. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party to bring Black people into the Democratic party, and attended the Democratic national convention in 1964. Her work also included organizing with (SNCC) to focus on addressing racial injustice in the South.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was just one generation removed from slavery, and one of 17 children. As an educator, her work focused on furthering the educational opportunities for Black people. A hallmark of her efforts is the founding of a private school for Black students in Daytona Beach, Florida, which is known today as Bethune-Cookman University.
Journalist and advocate Daisy Bates worked with her husband to publish a weekly paper, The Arkansas Press, to highlight civil rights actions. Bates served as the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. She organized the Little Rock Nine who integrated the Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and served as their mentor.
South Carolina educator Septima Poinsette Clark founded the Citizenship Schools at the Highlander Folk School that focused on teaching literacy and the importance of using education to fight for rights to Black people. Clark taught in the state’s school for more than four decades and worked with the NAACP to get equal pay between white and Black teachers.
The actions of these women, and so many more have helped America move towards becoming a true democracy. Their work and efforts echo throughout the world around us and continue to set the standard in persistence, diligence, and unbowed audacity.