“You had these women who were just amazingly strong… that didn’t mean there wasn’t sexism,” recalled Judy Richardson in an interview with the Choices Program about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Richardson was explaining the involvement of women in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), one of the most important Civil Rights organizations in the 1960s. SNCC’s most valuable work was in grassroots, community-led initiatives like voter registration drives, where the members and activists worked directly with the most downtrodden of disenfranchised people of color. Richardson, in remembering the work, makes reference to how important this hands-on interaction was and how it was often forgotten by larger Civil Rights organizations that took a more elite, patriarchal approach to racial justice.
The Civil Rights era is one of the most important moments in African-American history and in women’s history. It is a moment when African-American women played a vital part in defining U.S. history. Women of color were instrumental in leading the Movement, in engaging in powerful acts of protest, and in dynamically shaping action against discrimination. Judy Richardson remembers one of these women, her mentor and leader, Ella Baker, in the following video.
The powerful leadership and bravery Richardson celebrates in remembering Baker’s contribution can be attributed to many women of color who played defining roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, for example, became a role model for courage and commitment in the face of racial injustice when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. Women like this are a vital part of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
But so many women of color have been excluded from how this history is often told. While other women had already been arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats, they did not gain the fame that Parks achieved. Many scholars suggest that this was because Parks fit a very specific model of how black women should act and appear. Women of color who did not project this precise image of quiet respectability were not held up as heroes. In fact, the very issues that Judy Richardson recalls seeing in 1960s American society and that she remembers as limiting certain parts of the Civil Rights Movement have also limited our own perceptions of the history. Women of color have far too often been forgotten as unimportant and insignificant, and many have been ignored because of their class, sexuality, or gender-expression as well as their race. Some of the incredible acts of heroism by LGBT women of color have been written about, but they are not part of the broader, more widely known history of the Movement, which prefers traditional, male figures for its heroes. These women are the tragically excluded heroes of the American past.
For more on forgotten figures in black history and “politics of respectability” see this HuffPostLive discussion.
For more on women civil rights activists, see this collection of biographies.
Interviews with Judy Richardson are an accompaniment to the full-length Choices unit,
View more video interviews on Civil Rights and other topics at our Scholars Online page.