In many ways, the American civil rights movement is synonymous with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. A proven leader, powerful orator, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, King’s accomplishments cannot be disputed, but American reverence for the late activist has sometimes cast a shadow over many women who fought alongside the baptist minister in the already male-dominated fight against racial injustice. As we pause to honor the life of Dr. King, take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of some of the movement’s less celebrated heroes, who worked on the ground and behind the scenes to make the “the dream” a reality.
“Mother of the Movement”
Clark, a teacher and activist that Dr. King dubbed the “Mother of the Movement,” fought the disenfranchisement of African-Americans by creating citizenship schools that taught reading, writing, and how to fill out registration forms. Because of her efforts, between 1957 and the 1970s, more than 800 citizenship schools were created, graduating more than 100,000 African-Americans. As member of the NAACP, Clark also advocated with Thurgood Marshall to get equal pay for black educators. The second of eight children and the daughter of a former slave, Clark received the Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
“The unheralded seventh”
A pioneer for civil and women’s rights, Height ran the Center for Racial Injustice and National Council of Negro Women for years. She worked tirelessly alongside “the big six” national civil rights leaders to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with The New York Times calling her “the unheralded seventh.” She was also the only woman onstage when King delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech. In a 2003 interview with NPR, she recounted the experience. “My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program,” she said. “But we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson,” she told the radio station.
Voice of a movement
It was Jackson who gave the emotional introduction to Dr. King’s speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. During a broadcast of her performance, Roger Mudd, a CBS commentator remarked, “All the speeches in the world couldn’t have brought the response that just came from the hymns she sang.” Those songs were “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned,” chosen at the request of King. It’s noted that Jackson prompted King to use what we know today as his famous “I have a dream” rhetoric during the march. “Nearby, off to one side, Mahalia Jackson shouted: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’” writes Drew Hansen, author of The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, in an Op-Ed for The New York Times. “And he was off, delivering some of the most beloved lines in American history, a speech that he never intended to give and that some of the other civil rights leaders believed no one but the marchers would ever remember.” Jackson’s voice was so loved by King that he requested — should he die first — she sing “Precious Lord Take My Hand” during his funeral, a request that she fulfilled.
“I have a dream”
The Philadelphia-born Baptist minister was a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where she was arrested at least 10 times, wounded by gunfire during a voter registration project in Georgia, and was one of hundreds who marched from Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery to raise awareness for black voting rights on “Bloody Sunday.” A powerful orator, King once quipped, “Praitha Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.” In fact, it’s reported that Hall inspired King’s use of the phrase “I have a dream,” employing it during a prayer in 1962 after the burning of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia.
Fannie Lou Hamer
“Is this America?”
Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, gave emotional testimony during a live broadcast of the 1964 Democratic Convention on being evicted, harassed, and beaten for traveling to Indianola to register to vote. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave,” asked Hamer during the emotional speech. “Where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Hamer was so moving that President Lyndon B. Johnson interrupted the program with a press conference to limit her exposure — a move that backfired when the news replayed her testimony in the days following, according to historian Taylor Branch. That same year, Hamer helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to opposed the previously established all-white delegation and negotiated alongside King with vice presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey to have members from the MFDP seated and to ban delegations that were discriminatory. King would later thank Hamer and other advocates like her for their courage when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, saying their discipline and restraint “has led them down a non-violent course in seeking to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation of ours.”
Baker has been called one of the most influential women of the civil rights movement. Active for decades — largely behind the scenes — Baker was a driving force within the NAACP, a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by King, and orchestrated what would be the first meeting of the emerging SNCC. In fact, organizers nicknamed her “Fundi” a Swahili term for a person who passes down a skill or a trade from one generation to the next. Additionally, she stands out for having the courage to critique King — describing him as “self-centered and cautious“— and urging the next generation of leaders to employ efforts that focused less on its leaders. In 1964, Baker declared, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Those powerful words fuel the efforts of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Freedom Rider
King said Nash was the “driving spirit in the non-violent assault on segregation at lunch counters,” because of her work as a sit-in organizer and Freedom Rider. Nash’s activism proved essential in the integration of bus terminals, bathrooms, and restaurants in the South. In an interview with Makers, Nash recounted the turmoil of those sit-ins, where activists faced arrest and acts of violence. “A lot of people say ‘you’re so brave’ and think I wasn’t afraid and that is not true,” she said in the interview. “I was really, really afraid.” Nash was also a founding member of the SNCC, which became a force for younger civil rights activists.
King’s “I have a dream”
Get a closer look at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by browsing the slideshow below and listen to King’s memorable speech here.