The Women Behind the Men
By GAIL COLLINS
Daisy Bates had to march with the wives.
When the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock school desegregation on Monday, there will undoubtedly be a great deal said about Bates, who was head of the city’s N.A.A.C.P. chapter. She helped recruit nine black teenagers and escorted them through irate mobs of white adults and into their first classes. As a result, she and her husband, Lucius, lost their business. She was jailed, threatened and the Ku Klux Klan burned an 8-foot cross on her lawn.
Bates was invited, of course, to the famous March on Washington in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Rosa Parks was invited, too, and Pauli Murray, the lawyer and feminist who had staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant during World War II.
When they got there, they were all assigned to walk with the wives of the male civil rights leaders, far away from the cameras. “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or be part of the delegation of leaders who went to the White House. The omission was deliberate,” Murray said later.
Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women, and others begged that at least one woman be included among the speakers. They nominated Diane Nash, the student leader who had been perhaps the one person most responsible for the success of the Freedom Riders in the South. No dice.
“Nothing that women said or did broke the impasse blocking their participation. I’ve never seen a more unmovable force,” Height wrote. The men kept telling her that women already had participation — both Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to sing. In the end, A. Philip Randolph delivered a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” while the female civil rights legends sat on the stage.
We’ve learned, with some pain, to celebrate all our national heroes through clear eyes, as people whose great hearts and minds still did not take the dream of freedom and equality past their own immediate cause. The Declaration of Independence is our noblest piece of prose even though Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Susan B. Anthony is my favorite Founding Mother, but I know she broke her old friend Frederick Douglass’s heart when she lashed out at a government that would give the vote to “Sambo” and ignore well-educated, middle-class white women. Dr. King and the other male leaders and martyrs of the civil rights movement are always going to be a beacon in the center of our history. But they generally believed women’s place was in the home, and most were privately looking forward to the moment when they would all go back there.
The women of the civil rights movement who are most celebrated tend to be the brave victims, like Rosa Parks, who dutifully played the simple seamstress too tired to give up her seat on the bus, even though she had in fact been an activist for longer than almost any of the men. Still, in her autobiography she remembered that March on Washington and noted that these days “women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
The women who men were less enthusiastic about were the ones who led. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first triumph as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott was possible because a group of middle-class black women led by a college teacher, Jo Ann Robinson, had organized it. They had been preparing for the opportunity so long that when Rosa Parks went to jail, they had 35,000 fliers ready the next morning, to deliver to black households through their children at school. Yet now they have practically vanished from our history.
You do not have to dismiss the men to believe that Ella Baker was the greatest organizer the civil rights movement ever knew. When she was passed over for the directorate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she helped found and ran as acting director, she attributed the rejection to the fact that “I was female; I was old. I didn’t have a Ph.D.” Then she went right on organizing, guiding the black college students into forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she would direct throughout its glory years as adviser and unpaid spiritual leader.
Baker also got it — the moment of recognition that all the previous movements for American social justice had not quite grasped. “Remember,” she told the young people, “we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”
You watch the reports from Jena this week and you wonder where women like Bates and Baker and Robinson would be if they were alive today. Wherever it was, it would be at the front of the parade.