Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer. Library of Congress,
Women activists such as Ella Baker, in North Carolina worked with the NAACP in seeking justice and equality. Her sympathetic and inclusive leadership style encouraged young adults to find a voice through organizing SNCC.  Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer,  who started picking cotton at age six, grew up to become a sharecropper. In 1962 she underwent surgery to remove a small uterine tumor. She discovered afterward that the surgeon had performed a hysterectomy without her consent. Enraged over this treatment, Hamer attended a meeting that summer to hear civil rights activists James Forman of the SNCC and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When Bevel and Forman asked for volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola Courthouse, Hamer was one of 18 to jump at the opportunity. These courageous 18 men and women marched into the courthouse but were refused the right to register when they failed an unreasonable literacy test. On their way home, the group’s bus was stopped by the police and fined $100 for the “crime” of driving a bus of the “wrong color.” Tired of the indignity she suffered, she evolved into a grassroots leader and founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  Empowered by a Haitian mother, Septima Clark, was an educator and advocate for social and political reform.  Clark believed that empowerment came from proper education. Toward this end, she worked with the SCLC as director of education and teaching. A member of the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver was the first woman to hold a national position within BPP, serving as the secretary of communication. 

Her success as the communication secretary contributed to the nation-wide “Free Huey” movement which attracted white radicals and increased BPP membership. The movement was a result of the arrest of Huey Newton for the death of Officer John Frey in Oakland on October 28, 1967.  The Black Panthers took up his cause as proof of police brutality and used it to promote their message. Fiery and militant Gloria Richardson was an activist in her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland. The upper south, believed to be a more liberal place, did not elude Richardson from seeking equal protection and access to accommodations for black residents of Cambridge. University educated, Richardson’s race and gender restricted her employment options to teacher or oyster shucking, and neither job fit her personality.  Her family’s pharmacy business afforded her a unique opportunity unavailable to most black residents on Cambridge. Richardson’s desire for economic and social justice heightened after her divorce, when she realized the economic hardships of black people, especially women in particular, and sought to ameliorate those conditions.  Modjeska Simpkins utilized the NAACP of Columbia, South Carolina to bring about justice.  Reared in a family dedicated to education and racial uplift, Simpkins used education and school teachers as agents of change. During her life, the NAACP in South Carolina was able to win equal pay for black teachers in Charleston in 1944 and Columbia in 1945. Simpkins advocated for political change and worked for over 50 years in grassroots and formal political endeavors. Over her 90 plus years of living Simpkins remarked that she could neither be bought or sold and remained true to her convictions and work on behalf of the race.

Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50 yard
dash at track meet in Madison Square Garden, 1961.
Library of Congress, LC-USZ-62-115646.

Concurrently, black women in sports achieved a great deal during this time. In 1960 Wilma Rudolph became the first U.S. woman ever to win three Olympic gold medals and earned the title “World’s Fastest Woman.” In 1969, eighteen year old Ruth White became the youngest woman and first African American to win a national fencing championship.  In the area of arts and culture, Margaret Burroughs, with her husband Charles, established the Ebony Museum of African American History in Chicago in 1961.  This institution later became the DuSable Museum of African American History.  In 1968 Naomi Sims was the first black woman to appear on the cover of the Ladies Homes Journal. Her appearance on the magazine cover hinted at the idea that black women could be beautiful and feminine.


back -- home -- next