In 1955, a fourteen-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was lynched after he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the young white wife of a store proprietor. Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Eldridge Cleaver’s collected essays Soul on Ice, show how men and women reacted to Till’s transgression differently while experiencing an intense moment of political awakening. The photographs of Till’s mutilated body in Jet were seared into the memories of African Americans, as they portrayed in grotesque pictures how racial oppression was often sexualized and normally gendered. This was frighteningly clear for Robert Lewis, an impoverished sharecropper in Louisiana who joined the Civil Rights Movement after his boss threatened him with a newspaper clipping of Till’s death, a “warning of what might happen if I stepped out of line.” Even Rosa Parks—heralded in popular memory as the quiet, pious, seamstress who ignited the Civil Rights Movement—recalled that she thought of Till when deciding to remain seated in the front of a Montgomery bus at the end of that fateful year in December 1955.

Parks, remembered as a humble “secretary for the NAACP,” was in reality an elected official in the large network of activists. As early as the 1930s, Parks learned leadership skills from colleagues such as Jo Ann Robinson and mentors Septima Clark and Ella Baker. Both the convoluted memory of Parks that venerates her as a quiet but bold “model of dignified womanhood.” The increased portrayal of women in Civil Rights historiography from 1979 to 2010 has used women’s intergenerational mentorships to provide new insight into the meaning of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, by tracking female dissent throughout the twentieth century’s black freedom struggle historians can arrive at a more accurate reassessment of the Civil Rights Movement’s periodization. By examining the relationships between mentors and mentees, historians have revealed how women experienced and participated in the Civil Rights Movement differently from men.

As early as the Second Wave Feminism movement of the 1970s, sociologists forged new avenues for Civil Rights scholarship by arguing that a focus on women could enrich our understanding of black freedom struggles. The oral histories conducted by sociologists shortly after the Civil Rights Movement are valuable resources to social historians interested in women’s history, but sociologists almost exclusively limited their analysis to the Civil Rights Movement between 1954 (with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education) and 1968 (marking the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.). This historical periodization, which Bayard Rustin called the “classic” period and Taylor Branch identified in his biographical trilogy as “the King years,” was expanded by historians whose disciplinary focus on chronology, contingency, and contextualization recognized that the “classic” period marked heightened, widespread activity stemming out of a longer trajectory. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall defined this longer trajectory as the “long civil rights movement.” The October 1998 conference in Atlanta—entitled Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965—provoked an outpouring of historical research, which aspired to excavate hidden women’s voices from this earlier period. Organized by Georgia State University and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the conference brought activists like Rosa Parks together with scholars like Charles M. Payne, encouraging dialogue while mapping out new questions and lines of inquiry for research throughout the 1990s. The historiography of the Civil Rights Movement divides between works that accentuate charismatic, nationally recognizable messianic-like leaders and their organizations—such as Stokley Carmichael, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks and ministerial luminaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. —versus the history of the grassroots-organizing tradition, which focuses on the capacity of everyday people to elicit racial change.  In the historical literature, organizations such as the NAACP are usually credited with legislative victories such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, while their lesser-known foot soldiers were primarily ordinary women engaged in sustained regional struggles as early as the Progressive Era. This older generation mentored young activists in the 1950s and 1960s in how to fight oppression and segregation. Thus women predominantly fall into the local-case study side of this historiographic divide. As Danielle L. McGuire stated, “the spotlight that focused on King, combined with the construction of Rosa Parks as a saintly symbol, hid the women’s long struggle in the dimly lit background.” The books chronicled in this essay, however, have developed a scholarly pedigree that brings those women’s voices to light.

Sara Evan’s Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left(1979), described how young women who grew up in the 1950s “stepped outside the assumptions on which they had been raised to articulate a radical critique of women’s position in American society.” The title of her groundbreaking book reveals how an independent women’s liberation movement grew out of transformations in political culture and young women’s developing sense of personal consciousness. Evans argues that, between 1963 and 1967, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Southern Civil Rights Movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the North became powerful sites of identification. While organizing a movement centered around collective action, white women “found the inner strength and self-respect to explore the meaning of equality and an ideology that beckoned them to do so” while experiencing “sex-stereotyping” within the Civil Rights Movement. At a moment when the emergence of Black Power began to marginalize the efforts of white women, female activists came to recognize that elements of racial segregation were analogous to gender oppression. They began to articulate gender grievances and apply their organizing skills to their own plight.

Evans was the first historian to argue that the intergenerational mentorship between “Movement Mamas” and young female activists helped Civil Rights participants develop “a deep sense of kinship.” Evans argued that women actively sought role models—a completely new concept in how historians understood female participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Women’s role models not only taught leadership skills and effective organizing tactics, but also provided emotional support in the 1960s, while young activists constructed alternative black and white womanhoods. As women in the movement were defying racial, class, and gender roles, as they “learned to stand up” for themselves, “breaking through patterns of passivity,” they learned “new-self respect in the process” of defying racial oppression. They looked for mentoring relationships that constituted distinctive models for the unique challenges and questions they faced as women. Many young women moved in with “surrogate parents” like Carl and Anne Braden, who housed female activists and recreated domestic family relations within the movement’s structure. Such surrogate households provided stability for girls whose parents disagreed with their radicalism, and taught young women by example how to live lives with new models of gender equality. Evans showed that intergenerational mentorship operated through a form of fictive kinship, providing the groundwork and gender consciousness that allowed young women to recreate family bonds laterally, in the form of sisterhood and gender solidarity.

In 1995, sixteen years after Evan’s examination of how the Civil Rights and New Left spurred Women’s Liberation, Charles M. Payne’s powerful social history, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, made salient contributions to the history of women in the Civil Rights Movement. In his antecedent 1990 article, “Men Led, but Women Organized: Movement Participation of Women in the Mississippi Delta,” Payne identified religious women’s ability to capitalize on existing social networks and their realignment of social infrastructures as a leading reason that Greenwood, Mississippi women (aged 30 to 50) exceeded the participation of men in the same region. With his book’s publication, Payne complicated his claim that “men lead” while women “organized” by focusing on the intergenerational mentorship of Mississippi men and women at the grassroots level, which, he argued, ultimately democratized leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom expanded Evans’s timeline by three decades, to a period from 1930 to 1970, and described how “movement families,” under the leadership of women, not only nurtured uprooted activists but raised activists from birth which also aided in the development of institutional organizations throughout the twentieth century.

Between the publication of his article and book, Payne realized the answer to one of his main questions: “How were a few organizers able to accomplish as much as they did in so short a time?” In Greenwood and McComb, Mississippi, young activists built on the decades-long efforts of their female mentors to achieve their historic successes. Payne credited Ella Jo Baker and Septima Clark with “transferring those ideas of collective leadership to the young militants of SNCC” and CoFo.  Intergenerational mentorship was crucial to the development of voter registration drives for two reasons: for one, young SNCC activists could use pre-established networks and “plug into work that an older generation of activists had begun;” secondly Clark and Baker helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement as early as the 1930s, by teaching everyday people leadership skills through Citizenship Schools and the Highlander Folk School (founded during the Great Depression). These educational initiatives raised consciousness of the movement and helped locals to pass literacy exams, register to vote, and communicate their struggles. That literacy became “an important organizing tool for younger activists in Mississippi and virtually everywhere else in the South” indicates both the successes of these women and the vital nature of their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Under the guidance of Baker and Clark, Highlander workshops taught the philosophy of collective leadership to emerging activists E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Diane Nash. Payne argued that these women ultimately transformed political action throughout the 1960s. By concluding that women, not men, established the precedent that allowed Civil Rights to be successful, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom presents a field-changing development in Civil Rights literature.

Unlike Sara Evans, who described how mentorships and the unique set of challenges facing women prompted gender-motivated partnerships, Payne acknowledged that men and women instructed young activists differently, but did not explore the gendered motivations for doing so. Additionally, his focus on mentorship is limited to how leadership tactics, ideology, and information were passed down, creating a form of grassroots memory. Unlike Evans and Ransby, Payne did not explore how the lives of older female activists provided alternative lifestyles and models of womanhood for the 1960s generation. Payne contended that in “its organizational structure, its program, its ideology, early SNCC” was “exactly the kind of organization Ella Baker had been trying to create for almost three decades.” While Baker tried to mold a generation, her male colleagues looked for specific individuals to replace them. Baker recognized that early female activists found “leading” people to freedom as a contradiction; “leadership should be a form of teaching,” as Payne paraphrased Baker, “where the leader’s first responsibility is to develop the leadership potential in others.” She was the first full-time executive director of the SCLC to unite sit-in activists and to encourage a democratic form of leadership, which she believed would sustain change at the grassroots level long after activists left town. Unlike Clark and Baker who were weary of top-down organizations and favored facilitation over leadership, prominent male activists believed dynamic figures were essential to the guidance of foot soldiers. Baker’s male colleagues hand-selected specific protégés who came from similar, humble beginnings; this approach developed into an exclusive “kind of father-son relationship,” in Payne’s words. Evans’ portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement almost exclusively looked at female activists; while Evans’ method brings new voices to the historiography of Civil Rights, Payne’s writing structure shows side by side how women and men experienced the Civil Rights Movement in different ways, justifying a further look into the efforts of ordinary women at the grassroots level.

By fleshing out the contributions of these men and women, Payne was one of the first major historians to expand the oversimplified Civil Rights Movement timeline (1954-1965) with the early efforts of female activists. Payne deemphasized cataclysmic events like the 1963 March on Washington and the integration of Mississippi universities, while demonstrating the importance of how women’s behind-the-scenes work helped the movement to function. Payne stresses the longevity of intergenerational ideologies and their endurance through mentorship, as Depression-era and World War II activists brought newcomers into the infrastructure developed since the 1930s. Payne’s narrative structure, centered on multiple biographies in a loose chronology, is one of the earliest articulations of the bifurcated timetables applicable to the “classic” movement: either it accelerated over two decades incrementally, or it was a convergence of efforts by generations of activists transferring knowledge to new participants through organizational networking and mentorship. Payne unquestionably aligns himself with the latter. He concluded that the SNCC and CoFo organizers who went door to door in the Deep South “were heirs to a complex intellectual legacy shaped by older people whose thinking had been informed by lifetimes of practical experience, a legacy reaching at least as far back as Miss Baker’s grandfather’s farm.”

Like Evans, Payne explored how women organized with family structures. Evans tracked fictive kinships in which activists who welcomed marginalized white female activists into their homes. Conversely, in “They Kept the Story Before Me: Families and Traditions,” Payne studied how biological black movement families (such as the Johnsons, the McGhees, the Morgans, and the Greenes), often under the leadership of women, harbored race pride and “groomed [their] members for…roles” of leadership. Movement families were crucial as local movements “exploited communal and familial traditions” and produced offspring who were dedicated to the cause. These households refused to see themselves as “merely acted upon,” and encouraged their children—especially females—to believe that “even within an oppressive social structure one retains some control over one’s life.” Payne’s work on women in movement families is substantive as he restores the generational legacies these matriarchs produced for black freedom struggles, which history overlooked.

Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision bridges the historiographical fissure between biographies of famous male leaders and women at the grassroots. Ransby used Ella Baker’s political life from 1930 to 1980 to show how women’s lifelong activism connected through intergenerational Civil Rights organizations “link together a long tradition of African American resistance.” Baker, who advanced a radically democratic political tradition “with women at its center,” was a leading member in the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC.  She pioneered new modes of political participation for black women in interracial organizations that were previously male-dominated, which provided an alternative model of womanhood for the young activists whom she mentored. Diane Nash, one of her mentees, rose from the head spokesperson for the sit-in movement in Nashville to an appointment by President John F. Kennedy to the committee to oversee the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While founding SNCC, Nash found “but a few role models” and was “uncertain of her own abilities as a leader” until she met Baker.

Ransby’s biography notes that “a previously muted, black, female voice to the chorus of people from the past,” is a crucial contribution to the field of women’s history. By looking at Baker’s life in historical context with a continued focus on intergenerational mentorship, Ransby extends the roots of women’s participation in Civil Rights to the turn of the century, connecting the Old Left to the New Left, and Suffrage to the roots of Women’s Liberation. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement highlights just how unconventional Baker’s life truly was. As Baker maintained her maiden name, never gave birth, lived independently from her husband while traveling for her career, and then ultimately divorced, her significance as an alternative role model was more extensive than the organizational skills Payne argues she instilled. According to Ransby, Baker “offered a different model of gender relations and a broader spectrum of gender identities.” Ransby therefore focuses on how Baker’s unorthodox example of womanhood develops Payne’s realization that “Baker was a role model and mentor for an entire generation of activists who came of age politically in the 1960s,” while personifying how Civil Rights organizations such as the NAACP provided a social framework that gave women significant power as early as the 1930s.

Ransby uses Ella’s mentors to extend the Civil Rights organizing tradition timeline deep into the early twentieth century, with women’s early involvement with the NAACP, the suffrage movement, and black women’s clubs. While working at the New York NAACP branch during the 1930s, Baker found a political mentor in Daisy Lampkin. Walter White brought the two together—hoping, in his words, that Baker could “observe Daisy’s techniques in putting over a campaign.” Vice President of the Pittsburgh Courier, Lampkin taught Baker organizing tactics to engage widespread political action by women, tactics which she perfected while working to promote the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. As an acclaimed suffragette who worked with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the National Council of Negro Women, and the NAACP, Lampkin taught Baker how to fundraise and organize women in local campaigns within a nationalized umbrella organization. As “a role model for Baker when she was first hired,” Lampkin exemplifies the striking continuity between black women’s suffrage and Civil Rights tactics.  Through intergenerational mentorship, Ransby illuminates how Baker’s firm convictions of “forming alliances across racial lines” on “pragmatic political grounds” for sustained change stemmed from the organizing forms she learned from Lampkin in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement with the NAACP. Significantly, Baker went on to instill these principles of interracial alliance and political pragmatism in SNCC. As a result, SNCC’s Freedom Rides, voter registration efforts, and Freedom Summer were successful in drawing national attention, in part due to the interracial element of the movement.

The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…

–Ella Jo Baker

Shannon Frystak’s 2009 Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967returns to the nameless masses while in direct conversation with Evans and Payne. Frystak’s interpretation of mentorship and female role models sought to revise Payne’s argument that “men led; women organized” by broadening the definition of “leadership.” She also questioned Evans’s emphasis on sexism in the Movement. Frystak viewed Payne as an intellectual pioneer for the ways he integrated women into the dominant narrative, but she contended that Payne’s conception of leadership is “long overdue for reassessment.” Her innovative revision of Payne’s family argument stresses that the most formative mentors in the movement were mothers, who set an example of dissent for their children. The chapter entitled “Hardly the Southern Lady: Boycotts and the Vote” chronicles how on 7 May 1954, a biracial New Orleans PTA, in conjunction with NAACP women, organized a massive boycott of the school system’s annual McDonogh Day Parade—a public celebration of a plantation owner notable for his benevolent treatment of slaves—by educating families about the day’s heritage. Frystak read this successful boycott, which built biracial coalitions days before the Supreme Court (on paper, at least) desegregated schools nationally, as an example of how mothers mentored their children, teaching the younger generation in the Orleans Parish school system “how to successfully challenge white supremacy” through organization and protest. Using Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker’s 1998 article, “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment,” Frystak continued in the historiography’s tradition of examining how women used family structures to mobilize. “Women of color and low-income women expanded the boundaries of mothering and the private sphere beyond the private household;” by extending familial networks they expanded community networks, as was the case in the successful PTA boycott “which became the foundation for black women’s activism.”

Juxtaposing this boycott with Brown in 1954, Frystak argues that the “classic civil rights” era is only definable as it made visible decades of incremental change in an era of mass victory, especially for legal cases and legislation. Frystak argues that as early as 1924, women became role models who “formed the bedrock for the civil rights movement proper of the 1950s and the 1960s.” Although Frystak notes that Louisiana did not colloquially use the term “Civil Rights” until the 1940s, her analysis indicates that the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement was in the Progressive Era, with the 1909 founding of the NAACP. The women role models who expanded legal precedent in this period provide further evidence for the expanded periodization; they created public sympathy for their cause, and their acts of bravery demonstrated how to resist discrimination in housing, education, voting, employment, and public transportation. Frystak, like Ransby, shows how the NAACP provided funding and framework that allowed women to emerge as Civil Rights leaders in Louisiana. Frystak covers a series of legal campaigns ranging from voting rights, equal pay for black teacher union members, and desegregating transportation in which women active in Progressive Era women’s clubs organized, fundraised, and served as case studies to help advance Civil Rights legislation. Frystak notes that while considering women in legal case studies as role models and leaders, historians can find in the manuscript collections for biracial organizations (such as, the NAACP, CORE, the YWCA of New Orleans, and League of Women Voters), scores of early examples of Civil Rights activism by women, which reduces the necessity for oral history.

Evans and Frystak’s discussions of intergenerational mentorship led to divergent viewpoints on the role that sexism should play in the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement. Frystak identified Sara Evans as the “most noteworthy” proponent of focusing on sexism in Civil Rights scholarship as she argues that women experienced “exclusion and limited participation of traditionally male-headed Civil Rights groups.” Evans researched and wrote during Second Wave Feminism, and published in 1979; she placed her use of mentorship within the intergenerational roots of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Freedom Summer. The SNCC Position Paper is crucial to Evans’s argument, as it directly linked the Civil Rights Movement to Women’s Liberation and provided eleven examples of women’s relegation to menial work, from clerical tasks to cleaning, teaching, and barring from decision-making. Guided by this crucial source, Evans emphasized the historical significance of gender-segregated labor in the movement. Evans’s focus on how Freedom Summer failed as a model for egalitarianism and democratic governance is crucial to the ways movement women recognized their exclusion from publicly representing SNCC in the media or the likelihood that they would teach, type, or sweep. These vestiges of outside society’s gender-racial hierarchy influenced procedure within SNCC and helped women recognize their collective oppression in an environment that provided language to articulate their grievances. Comparing the “assumption of male superiority” to racial paternalism, Evans concludes, “the analogy with black oppression worked once again.” As prophesized by Hayden and King, the Civil Rights Movement would begin a plodding dialogue around gender in which women would “gradually come to understand that this is no more a man’s world than it is a white world.”

Frystak found the Evans focus on gender oppression within the movement to be heavy-handed and minimally productive. It is important to note, however, that since the SNCC Position Paper was created in Mississippi, Frystak’s geographically limited Louisiana study allowed her to exclude it from her sources. Frystak opposes Evan’s analysis, which stressed internal movement sexism. Frystak’s project used Louisiana to extend the chronology of the Civil Rights Movement by showing that women had always been leaders and the dominant force in Civil Rights as early as the 1920s. She aligned her research with sociologist M. Bahati Kuumba, whose 2001 study Gender and Social Movements argued that movement cultures are a “societal mirror that reflects a gendered division of labor [where] women and men are not only assigned different roles and responsibilities, [but] these positionings are valued differently and placed in rank order.” Frystak recognized that the Civil Rights Movement was “gendered terrain,”  which resulted in inequality between men and women in recruitment and work placement. By contrast, Evans focused on the insular world of women activists in which the majority of females operated. Frystak argues that the most important mentors for women activists were their mothers. Loosely aligning herself with Payne, Frystak insists that with each generation, socially aware families raised incrementally more defiant women. This led to an overall “shift in tone” by women in the 1960s. Frystak suggests that due to family mentors—women who had been involved in union and club organizing—these activists “had been raised by strong, independent women who taught them and encouraged them to question the racial status quo” while helping their daughters be “less encumbered by their ‘place’ in a traditionally narrowly defined gender framework.”

Like Frystak, Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (2010), expanded the chronology of women’s Civil Rights activism through an alternative understanding of leadership and family mentors. McGuire rewrote Rosa Parks’s political life, highlighting the militancy she and husband Raymond Parks exercised as early as 1932, when they held secret, armed meetings in Montgomery to raise money for the Scottsboro Boys defense fund. As McGuire reveals, from 1943 onward Parks also had the job of investigating and publicizing rape cases while serving as the NAACP Montgomery branch secretary. Using Parks as an access point, McGuire’s significant intervention shows how sexualized violence and interracial rape were tools of racial oppression and a rallying point for activists. Surprisingly, previous studies have seldom examined or emphasized the role that sexual violence played in the history of women’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. McGuire argues that between 1940 and 1975, sex became “one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy.”  At the Dark End of the Street extends the timeline of the Civil Rights narrative to 1940 by arguing that all of the major boycotts, sit-ins, and Civil Rights campaigns—including Little Rock, Macon, Birmingham, Selma, and others—“had roots in organized resistance to sexual violence and appeals for protection of black womanhood.” McGuire focuses on the 3 September 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor; the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the 2 May 1959 gang rape of Floridian Betty Jean Owens; the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court Case; and the 1975 trial of Joan Little. Using these events, McGuire indicates how family mentors stemming back to Reconstruction taught offspring to reclaim control over their physical bodies by using oral public testimony (both in and out of court) as a form of direct non-violent action against white supremacy. In the 1940s, this tradition became an institutionalized facet of the Civil Rights Movement.

McGuire retells the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a campaign for women’s dignity; one successfully implemented by women organizers who had been active since the 1940s and had long experienced brutality and racialized sexual violence. McGuire argues that activists who “cut their political teeth defending black women like Recy Taylor who were raped by white men in Alabama in the 1940s brought their experiences and organizational insight to other struggles for dignity and justice in the 1950s and 1960s.” Leaders like E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, and JoAnn Robinson responded to Recy’s rape by forming the “Committee for Equal Justice” later reincarnated as the Montgomery Improvement Association); thus they “became pillars of the modern Civil Rights Movement.” It is curious, given McGuire’s profoundly useful argument centered around sex, that she portrayed the Montgomery boycott as a movement for “dignity” due to the perpetual humiliation and intimidation women experienced on transportation. The scores of interracial rapes she chronicles in Alabama (with the exception of Taylor’s) occurred while women were walking, which gives even more impetus to reclaim public transportation.

McGuire’s focus on sexuality and the intergenerational transference of oral history reanimates Payne’s research on Greenwood and Frystak’s argument about mothers’ roles in creating a culture of dissent in McGuire’s chapter “A Black Woman’s Body Was Never Hers Alone,” derived from the motto instilled in Fannie Lou Hamer by family mentors. Hamer, a vocal Mississippi freedom fighter, was the recipient of embodied knowledge passed down from enslaved female ancestors via her grandmother, Liza Bramlett. Bramlett gave birth to twenty-three children; twenty were the product of interracial rape.

Hamer’s mother carried a concealed gun while in the cotton fields to defend both herself and her children from sexually aggressive white men. Although her ancestors did not get vindication, the act of testifying and storytelling forced the recognition of their personhood in a political economy devised to treat women as profitable objects of exchange. Hamer emulated her “foremothers” and did not “shy away from detailing the sexual aspects of her beating,” which she told on national television during the 1964 Democratic National Convention. As she was childless, she handed down her stories to “movement children” she mentored, activists who in turn helped her use testimony in the Civil Rights Movement to “counter white supremacists’narratives of miscegenation, put segregationists on the defensive, and [which finally] helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to use the power of the federal government to protect civil rights activists.” Ransby’s portrayal of Ella Baker’s upbringing reveals how elders who had lived during the Reconstruction era used testimony and the transference of storytelling to train grandchildren involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, McGuire uses Hammer’s devastating sterilization in 1961 (a “practice so common that blacks often called it a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’), sexual harassment, and the childhood rape of Endesha Ida Mae Holland (a SNCC worker in Greenwood mentored by both Hamer and Bob Moses), to show how racialized sexual violence infused both Sunflower County and Greenwood, Mississippi’s Civil Rights organizing. In rural Mississippi’s dangerous sexually environment, white men used rape and lynching to both physically and psychologically torment men and women. McGuire shows that in addition to Payne’s discoveries about women’s social networks, racialized and class-based conceptions of gender itself could be a motivating factor for the amount of women between the ages of 30 and 50 who joined the movement, as they were habitually vulnerable to sexual exploitation and were discouraged by men. Black women were subject to a form of violence predicated on racialized understandings of gender and hyper-sexuality, to which their class—largely as uneducated sharecroppers and domestics—left them chronically exposed. McGuire’s work reveals s that many of the women who participated in the early Civil Rights Movement recognized that they could testify and speak out on behalf of men who were subjected to racial violence on the pretense of sexual aggression.

In her assertion that one of the culminating achievements of Civil Rights Movement and the intergenerational tradition of testimony amongst black women was the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, McGuire provides a major turning point for Civil Rights historiography focused on gender—and for Civil Rights historiography as a whole. The case decriminalized interracial marriage, as it uncoupled institutionalized sexual policing and terror from racial inequality. By identifying this pivotal decision as the concluding chapter in her study of the Movement, McGuire extends the classic milestones of Civil Rights beyond the 1965 National Voting Rights Act. This bookending also rightfully brings the historiography of anti-miscegenation laws closer to the core of Civil Rights historiography. At the Dark End of the Streetargues that sex composed the crux of the South’s gender-racial hierarchy, and that segregation functioned to prevent interracial marriage between white women and black men. Although McGuire does not directly mention this, Martha Hodes, Peggy Pascoe, Renee Romano, and Fay Botham have all argued to varying degrees that fear of amalgamation was consistently mobilized as a political tool in moments of post-emancipation racial progress; advances in the black freedom struggle or individuals’ economic mobility were often conflated with black male sexual prowess. Romano argued that the fear of interracial marriage steadily increased throughout the first half of the twentieth century, peaking with the desegregation of schools; this contention intersects with McGuire’s argument in Chapter 7 that southern politicians during the 1950s and 1960s increasingly used the rhetoric of miscegenation to bring white supremacists to the polls. McGuire reiterates that “social equality” became a euphemism for interracial sexuality, especially during Freedom Summer and the campaign for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The historiography of women in the Civil Rights between 1979 and 2010 has radically proven sociologists’ assertion that looking at women and gender in the Civil Rights Movement would be fertile. While not only producing an abundance of new primary sources in the form of oral history, adding new stories, relationships, and organizational tactics, they provide insight into how men and women experienced the Movement differently, and backdates the Civil Rights Movement’s origination, largely due to women’s leadership efforts. At a minimal, this historiography forces us to recognize the extent to which grassroots female organizing that dates back to the Progressive Era, or arguably Reconstruction, continually challenged ideas about race, gender, and sex handed down from the nineteenth century and the legacy of slavery and emancipation. By looking at intergenerational mentorships, historians gained an understanding of how Suffrage and other women centered movements shaped the ways Civil Rights activists organized and set goals—such as the use of family structures, boycotts, non-violent resistance, and a continued focus on voter’s registration. Movement Mamas played a pivotal part in sustaining the oral culture of resistance, cultivating intergenerational mentorships, preserving the tradition of testimony and serving as brave role models while participating in court case studies that laid the legal framework necessary for desegregation. Their participation in and establishment of organizational infrastructures such as the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC proved to be a vital foundation for the post-Brown era of nonviolent resistance. Historians have shown that there is a continued tension between writing about the brutality and oppression women experienced within the movement while arguing for their autonomous strength and leadership. A more nuanced and contextualized explanation for women’s (initial) acceptance of Movement roles that did not tend to occupy strategic planning or leadership positions will be helpful. Historians need to integrate the historiography of sexuality, especially the history of anti-miscegenation between Reconstruction and 1967 with Civil Rights Movement scholarship to appreciate the highly sexualized nature of Jim Crow segregation that shaped black women’s motivations for activism and the racial ideologies that fueled racial violence. Finally, historians need to challenge their geographic scope by trying to think about how women leaders were working within a local wing of the Civil Rights Movement situated within the international Cold War, anti-colonial, and counter culture movements.

  1. Frystak, Shannon L. Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 2009, 218. 
  2. “Emmett Till’s Legacy 50 Years Later” Jet, Sep 2005, 22.
  3. McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 88.
  4. Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. 2005. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”. Journal of American History. 91, no. 4: 1233-1263.
  5. Crawford, Vicki L., Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965. Black women in United States history, v. 16. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Pub, 1990, xvii.
  6. See Steven F. Lawson and Charles M. Payne’s Debating the Civil Rights Movement
  7. McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 89.
  8. Evans, Sara M. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House, 1979, 23.
  9. Throughout the book, Evans uses “sex” instead of “gender,” most likely as her text was written six years before Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Tool of Historical Analysis” in 1986.
  10. ibid., 42.
  11. ibid.,148.
  12. ibid., 50.
  13. Crawford, Vicki L., Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965. Black women in United States history, v. 16. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Pub, 1990; 2.
  14. Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 67.
  15. ibid., 118.
  16. ibid., 77.
  17. ibid., 71.
  18. Although not the focus of his project, Payne also recognizes that Baker and Clark provided training that allowed younger activists to became leaders not only in the Civil Rights movement but anti-war and feminist movements, which upholds Evan’s claim that the roots of Women’s Liberation was in Freedom Summer. ibid., 100.
  19. ibid., 96.
  20. ibid., 93.
  21. To Payne and fellow historian John Dittmer, these three men exemplify a larger group of highly educated NAACP members who were veterans dedicated to obtaining voting rights after World War II as a way to give political representation to black activist agendas. Structural changes in the South with the continued growth of national organizations such as the NAACP allowed them to “push white supremacy further than it had ever been pushed before” and during retaliation “survive.” ibid., 66, 334.
  22. Not only does Payne move the beginning of Civil Rights earlier, he is also able to extend it later in the twentieth-century. Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 318.
  23. ibid.,102.
  24. ibid., 208.)
  25. ibid., 235.
  26. ibid., 235.
  27. Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Gender & American culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 6.
  28. ibid., 264.
  29. ibid., 3.
  30. Baker’s motto that “education leads to self-directed action” (Ransby 95) corresponded with Payne’s argument that early female activists argued for a more democratic, diffuse form of leadership, showing how this disjuncture from prominent male figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter White often created gendered struggles with male leadership. Both Ransby and Payne recognized Baker was opposed within the movement because of her alternative view on class. Baker was schooled in W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of the “talented tenth” while at Shaw University, but did not believe racial uplift could occur without drastic shifts in consciousness at the ground level.
  31. ibid., 110
  32. ibid., 110.
  33. Frystak, Shannon L. Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 2009, 9.
  34. ibid., 9, 238.
  35. ibid., 8, 182
  36. ibid., 29.
  37. ibid., 15.
  38. Evans, Sara M. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf, 1979, 48, 85-86.
  39. Frystak, Shannon L. Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 2009, 4
  40. ibid., 237
  41. Frystak, Shannon L. Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 2009, 109
  42. McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 13.
  43. ibid., xix.
  44. ibid., xiv.
  45. ibid.,39.
  46. ibid., xvii.
  47. ibid.,159.
  48. McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 13, 157.
  49. ibid.,146.
  50. McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010,167.
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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