Women of color played significant roles in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality in America
Aside from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps no other figure is viewed as an iconic figure who personifies what the Civil Rights Movement stood for as the late Rosa Parks, who displayed the courage of a lion with the dignity of an African queen. Rosa Parks will forever be imbued as a symbol of how powerful the human spirit can be in the face of adversity.
By Charles Moseley
The 50th Anniversary of the March On Washington affords Americans an opportunity to witness once again history in the making. This historical occasion should serve as a benchmark by which to measure not only how far America has come in achieving socio-economic and political justice for all of its citizenry, but also as a barometer of how much work still remains to be done by this country to achieve racial equality.
Not until every American is afforded an equal chance at realizing the “The American Dream,” which was so eloquently conveyed in the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” Speech, will America truly realize its full potential as a nation.
As America celebrates this historical event and embraces those who participated in the March On Washington, we must never forget those who paved the way before the March On Washington, who helped build the foundation for generations of others to build upon until this day.
Women of color have played a vital role in the struggle for civil rights, often standing alongside their male counterparts, in a unified effort, championing the cause for social change in America. Although these women often hailed from very humble beginnings, time after time they rose above their immediate circumstance to have a major impact on the lives of their fellow Americans.
These women refused to al-low their own personal circumstances or societal notions to dictate what they should be able to achieve in life; rather, they chose to look beyond their circumstance and to ascend far beyond what society expected of them. Because they dared to be different and dared to have the audacity to press on in the face of adversity, they emerged as shining examples of what individuals are capable of achieving, through perseverance, personal sacrifice, and self-determination.
There are many examples of women of color who have refused to accept the status quo, women who have challenged the commonly accepted mores of their time. Some dared to risk life and limb in pursuit of freedom. These brave souls must forever be remembered and given all honor afforded to all other American heroes and heroines.
In the spirit of the iconic March On Washington in 1963, five women of color stand out as beacons of light, among many others who stood up against systematic racism, stared it in the face, and ultimately suppressed their suppression. These remarkable women are briefly described in the following excerpts as America looks toward the future and celebrates its past, those who help make the world a better place by their words and deeds as living examples of the American hero.
Aside from the late Dr. Mar-tin Luther King, Jr., perhaps no other figure is viewed with such iconic reverence in regards to The Civil Rights Movement than the late Rosa Parks. This quiet and humble woman of color displayed the courage of a lion while maintaining the dignity of an African queen. Rosa Parks will forever be imbued as a symbol of how powerful the human spirit can be in the face of adversity. Because of one courageous act in the summer of 1957 when Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white passenger, as was customary during those days in the Jim Crow days of the segregated South, Parks helped elevate The Civil Rights Movement to another level. Because of Parks, America would never be the same.
Mrs. Parks recalled in an interview, “We didn’t have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” In the same interview, she cited her lifelong acquaintance with fear as the reason for her relative fearlessness in deciding to appeal her conviction during the bus boycott. “I didn’t have any special fear,” she said. It was more of a relief to know I wasn’t alone.”
Born February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Marian Anderson displayed vocal talent as a child, but her family could not afford to pay for formal training. Members of her church congregation raised funds for her to attend a music school for a year. Anderson’s acclaimed performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 helped set the stage for the civil rights era.
Deemed one of the finest contraltos of her time, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
“I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country,” recalled Anderson in response to what she foresaw as the direction that America was headed regarding the question of race relations in the United States.
MADAM C.J. WALKER
Before there was an Oprah Winfrey there was Madam C.J. Walker. Madam Walker is widely heralded as America’s first Black female millionaire. Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, near Delta, Louisiana. After suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss, she invented a line of African-American hair care products in 1905. She promoted her products by traveling about the country giving lecture-demonstrations and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. Her savvy business acumen led her to become the first female self-made millionaire in the United States who donated the largest amount of money by an African-American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913. She was rivaled only by the countless philanthropic endeavors for which she is also known.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”
Racial barriers in America carried over into the world of professional sports so whether it was pro football, pro basketball, or pro baseball- America’s favorite past-time, Blacks were excluded from competing professionally.
Athlete Althea Neale Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. At a young age, Gibson moved with her family to the Harlem borough of New York City. Gibson’s life at this time had its hardships. Her family struggled to make ends meet, living on public assistance for a time, and she struggled in the classroom, often skipping school all together.
However, Gibson loved to play sports—especially Ping-Pong. After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, she was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after picking up a racket for the first time, Gibson won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association(ATA), an African-American organization established to promote and sponsor tournaments for Black players. For Gibson, two more ATA titles followed in 1944 and 1945. After losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947 to 1956. Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport’s biggest titles in the 1950s and becoming the game’s first Black champion. Gibson kept playing (and winning) until her skills could no longer be denied, and became the first African American to play at Wimbledon. She also broke racial barriers in professional golf.
For her part, however, Gibson downplayed her pioneering role. “I have never regarded myself as a crusader,” she states in her 1958 autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. “I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the Negro in the United States.”
Zora Neale Hurston
You cannot mention authors Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, James Weldon Johnson, or W. E.B. Dubois without mentioning Zora Neale Hurston in the same breath. Born in Alabama on January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston spent her early adulthood studying at various universities and collecting folklore from the South, the Caribbean and Latin America. She published her findings in Mules and Men. Hurston was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, rubbing shoulders with many of its famous writers. In 1937, she published her masterwork of fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston died in Florida in 1960.
Hurston’s mother died when she was a young girl. Following her mother’s death, Hurston’s father took her out of school to care for her brothers. Still devastated by her mother’s passing, Hurston left home a year later to pursue her “dreams” of becoming an author. Heeding her beloved mother’s advice to her and her siblings ‘to jump at the sun’. Hurston said, “We may not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”