Until a few weeks ago, many Americans would have said that the Civil Rights Movement started in the fifties and ended in the late sixties and that we have fortunately moved way beyond the injustices that launched that movement. However, as recent events have shown, sadly, we are still far from the idealized vision that black and white no longer matters. People of color still live with inequities every single day. With millions of people standing up for equality in protests around the world, there will likely be heroes who will emerge from these events, heroes who will be remembered for demanding change. However, for every one that gets recognized, there will be thousands that will never get credit much like some of the champions from the Civil Rights Movement. In BCT’s blog this week, we highlight three amazing women who were instrumental in building the foundation for progress.
The term “Jane Crow” was coined by Pauli Murray, a prominent female leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Her passion for civil rights began when she was arrested on a bus in Virginia for sitting in the “whites-only” section – about 15 years before Rosa Park’s famous bus boycott. Her experience inspired her interest in law school, and she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale. As a lawyer, Murray argued for civil rights and women's rights. Thurgood Marshall called Murray's 1950 book, States' Laws on Race and Color, the "bible" of the civil rights movement. Her writings were a cornerstone of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended school segregation. Murray also served on the 1961–1963 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, appointed by John F. Kennedy, and in 1966 she became a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. She was also the first black woman to be ordained as a priest within the Episcopal Church.
Ella Baker was instrumental in building the foundation for the success of The Civil Rights Movement. She listened to her grandmother tell stories of slave revolts, and it sparked her passion for working towards societal justice. She believed that a crucial element of achieving equality in society could be accomplished through economic empowerment. As a member of the Young Negros’ Cooperative League, she grew with the organization and eventually became their national director. She founded the Negro History Club in Harlem and taught courses in labor and African history and consumer education through the Worker’s Education Project. Her grassroots organizing and commitment to local action for over five decades eventually became the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement and the key to its success. In New York City and the South, she worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses, whom she first mentored as leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (1941)
Joan was a white woman who grew up in a privileged home in Northern Virginia. She could have lived her whole life as a pampered Southern belle. Instead, Trumpauer chose to speak out for what was right. As the daughter of a racist mother, she could not reconcile the teachings in the bible and the atrocities perpetrated on black people. While a college student at Duke University, she began getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement and participating in peaceful acts of civil disobedience around Durham with local blacks. Her mother was mortified by her actions and cut off their relationship. She also endured abuse from other students and university officials who thought she was mentally ill. She was 19 years old when she was arrested along with dozens of other Freedom Riders and sent to Parchman State Prison, where she was in solitary confinement on the death-row ward for two months. After being released, she found herself on the KKK’s most-wanted list. Although she risked everything for the movement, very little was known about her heroic actions until her son made a documentary about her called “An Ordinary Hero.” She is often asked if she thinks that things have gotten worse? Her response, “No. Unarmed blacks being killed, that’s been going on — but it’s finally getting publicity now. And that is progress.”
In summary, significant change usually only happens when a group of people finally come together to say, "enough is enough." Some champions of a movement are at the forefront, and some remain behind the scenes, but all of their actions combined help to bring about fundamental transformation. The act of protest is built into the American DNA, starting with the founding of our country. It is not only one of the fundamental rights outlined in the United States Constitution, but it has changed history many times. BCT Partners salutes all of those who have sacrificed to make our country better. As Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."