Little is known about the women who played a historic role in the civil rights movement for African Americans. In reality women were essential and played a pivotal role in the African Americans’ quest for equality. Both Black and White women put their lives and reputations on the line for the cause of freedom that they felt so strongly about.
Desegregating Schools - Mrs. Gertrude A. Barnes, a civil rights activist in Philadelphia, PA is best known for her work in bringing about change in the racially segregated public schools of Philadelphia. She was a teacher and Vice President of the Philadelphia, PA Chapter of the NAACP. She led protests against the de facto segregation going on in the School District of Philadelphia. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court Decision to desegregate schools, Philadelphia remained segregated. Small and powerful Mrs. Barnes later became director of the integration office at the School District of Philadelphia, dedicating herself to bringing about equality in the public schools. President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, appointed Mrs. Barnes to a committee of eleven civil rights leaders that was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Philly.com). Mrs. Barnes was a fearless inspiration. It was a pleasure and an honor to have known Mrs. Barnes as a mentor and sorority sister in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Freedom Riders- Judith Frieze Wright became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1961 while a student at Smith College she heard about the sit-ins to desegregate public facilities in the south. After her graduation she traveled with CORE to the south in a mixed-race group called the Freedom Rides. She along with other Freedom Riders’ was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi trying to integrate the facilities in the bus station. They spent six weeks in a maximum security prison. After she married she returned to Mississippi for a year to live and work for civil rights. Frieze Wright states, “I felt like the only way that I could make my principles meaningful was by involving myself” (Boston Globe, 1961). Her grandmother before her had also worked for equality and was investigated by McCarthy in the 1950’s (Jewish Women’s Archives, 2013).
No Back of the Bus for Them- Irene Morgan, on July 6, 1944 refused to move to the back of a Virginia bus. Eleven years before Rosa Parks, the 27-year-old Morgan was arrested and convicted for breaking a Virginia segregation law. The case went to the Supreme Court resulting in a 7-1 decision barring segregation in interstate commerce. Claudette Colvin in 1955 only 15-years-old was the first person arrested in Montgomery Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on the bus. In addition, four African-American women, Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald were all arrested for refusing to surrender their bus seats to white passengers. Jeannette Reese also joined the law suit and Claudette Colvin dropped out due to intimidation. Together they brought the Browder v. Gayle case that resulted in the Alabama law being ruled unconstitutional. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, on June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled that "the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States" (Browder v.Gayle).
Doing Time for Freedom- Many women gave up their freedom to gain freedom for themselves and others. The jails in Baltimore were filled with female students from Morgan State University after protesting the segregated Baltimore’s Northwood theatre in 1963. Race and social standing did not matter, Mrs. Mary Peabody, who participated in civil rights activities in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 was arrested. She is the mother of Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody. Children were also targeted for arrest including, The girls of the Leesburg Stockade. Thirty-two teenage girls endured imprisonment for demonstrating in Americus, Georgia. They had no beds, three blankets for the 32 of them and no toilet facilities. Mrs. A. W. West, Sr. was arrested on February 21, 1956 for taking part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her arrest number is 7043. The elderly is also targeted for arrest. In 1960 Mrs. J. M. Tinsley of the NAACP was dragged off and arrested for taking part in a demonstration.
Although only a small number of women are highlighted here; this serves to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of brave women activists of the past, present and the coming future who are continuing and will continue to work for equality for all. As Danny Lyons points out “You don’t have to be a man to be a hero” (Web spinner, N.D).