From Sojourner Truth in the 1800s to Bree Newsome in our day, women have been on the front lines of provoking critical dialogue and action against injustice.
After the killing of George Floyd, activism took on a new resonance in our country. People took to the streets to show support for their BIPOC brethren and to validate our anger. All of these people have become newly-vested allies and are eager to take on various forms of activism on our behalf. But in our enthusiasm to join this movement, we should not overlook the activists — especially the women — who have been doing this work for a long time.
Women are often dismissed in their roles and contributions to social movements. Why? The short answer is because of gender, race, and class. Any one of these three factors can relegate someone to the margins of our society. All three can apply to women of color who are activists.
Growing up, my education about the activists who advocated for equity and racial justice fixated on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — but more so the former than the latter. We spoke of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in my Spanish classes — but again, more so the former than the latter.
Bernice McNair Barrett, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been researching Black women leaders in the South, especially those involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. In reviewing her work, I realized that even if individuals such as Rosa Parks are widely acclaimed, many people are unaware of the contributions made by women such as Georgia Gilmore and Fannie Lou Hamer.
As we all continue this work for racial justice — as protagonists or as allies — it’s helpful to remember those activists who have led the way for us with their sustained effort. Their experiences and struggles can point us in the right direction and give us hope. In particular, we should look to the work of significant women activists, both of the present and the past, who may be regarded as “unsung heroes” of their time:
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in 1862 as the Civil War was being fought. Her parents helped her find a good education, but they both died when she was in college. She became a teacher to support her family, but also found a use for her writing skills: she capitalized upon her interest in investigative journalism to unearth the truths behind lynchings occurring in the South. Her expose enraged locals, who burned down her printing press and drove her from her home in Memphis. She resettled in Chicago and remained an active voice for women’s suffrage and racial justice.
Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917 in Mississippi to a family of sharecroppers. Her entrance into activism began when civil rights workers encouraged her to register to vote during a time when many African Americans could not exercise that right. She later went on to organize a number of political organizations that increased the voices of Black people and women in government (including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Freedom Summer, and the National Women’s Political Caucus). She also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative when she purchased a few acres of land in Mississippi to provide a source of food for many African American families, as well as land where homes could be constructed. The cooperative supported African Americans facing eviction or unemployment, and helped them exercise their right to vote.
Georgia Gilmore was born in 1920 in Montgomery, Alabama. She contributed to the efforts of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts by establishing a fundraising network called “the Club from Nowhere.” She leveraged her skills as a cook to create and sell dishes such as fried chicken sandwiches and poundcakes. Others joined her, and her work helped to sustain the boycotts — by 1956, the law in support of segregated seating on public buses was struck down.
Angela Davis was born in 1944, and she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama on a street dubbed “Dynamite Hill” for the number of houses targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. She is a former member of the Black Panther Party and currently a Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Both as an activist and an academic, her work centers on the prison industrial complex within the United States — how this system funnels Black and Brown people into prisons and exploits their labor.
Kimberele Crenshaw also leveraged the power of social media for activism when she started the #SayHerName campaign to acknowledge acts of police brutality against Black women. In 1996, she co-founded the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) to bring people together to fight structural inequality. In 2014, AAPF launched the hashtag campaign to counter the perception that victims of police brutality are male, to acknowledge the Black women who suffer the same fate.
Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s murder. The movement was initially inspired by a Facebook post and is now a decentralized movement with various chapters domestically and internationally. The emergence of the movement illustrates the role of digital activism that is galvanized by the strength of social media.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of female activists who have been fighting for racial justice. But by beginning with their stories, we can find direction and inspiration for our own. Their examples show us that there are many ways to mobilize — by educating others, coordinating protests, supporting protesters who are jailed, advocating for new legislation, and fundraising. Their examples also show us that activism cannot be performative — each of these women did more than like a social media post or share an article. They invested themselves in this movement by taking a critical eye to the world they lived in and committing the resources that they had to make it better for those who were oppressed.