Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Women of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement

by Kilaika Anayejali Kwa Baruti
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was founded in 1960.  Sparked by young people leading sit-ins were its primary initiation by four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina on Feb 1st.  It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision for SNCC to serve as the youth wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  They were to independently develop and use their own creative youthful strategy and planning to move the movement of Civil Rights and get the youth involved, but a slightly different approached was taken that conflicted with the whole non-violent approach and it created an ideological divide, nonetheless SNCC still served under SCLC, but with a bit of friction.  Ella Baker was also one of the primary initiators of SNCC.  A veteran organizer of SCLC, she invited with a turnout of over two hundred college students to Shaw University of Raleigh to get involved in the work.  She asked them to carry their own line and so they did.  She seen it was going to take a bit more than turning the other cheek and the students with their youth and vitality would be strong enough to carry the burden of what was to come.  Dr. King however was still struggling with the students to remain and dig deeper into the practice of being non-violent, but they consistently were not convinced.  In May of 1960 SNCC declared itself a separate entity and carried forth the work still with the Freedom rides, which was a movement to end segregation in transportation.  From Alabama to Mississippi riders were viciously attacked, at their best they would try and fight back, but this was again a very vicious battle.  With the consistent Freedom rides the law was eventually changed in 1963.  Below you will read about courageous women who played a role in that.  The JFK Civil Rights Bill was the bill to end this segregation, but SNCC confronted it and said it was “Too Little Too Late” They still seen they had issues that were unresolved and they chanted, “We want freedom and we want it now”.  The chant call sparked a revolution.  Our dear sister and without a doubt frontline revolutionary, Fannie Lou Hamer, organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Mississippi Summer Project, which was instituted to win seats in the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  This position they wanted to occupy was strongly inconvenient to the Johnson Administration and the Goldwater Campaign, which wanted to keep a firm grasp on the South.  What they so strongly opposed they allowed, which were two seats, because the Spokesperson herself, Fannie Lou Hamer was so brutally beaten by officers.  This could not be justified.  So, in public eye, to make them seem somewhat humane they allowed two seats in the convention.  Through consistent struggle, SNCC begin to notice they were at a different phase of organizing and some changes had to be made.  One of those key changes were to expel white members from SNCC, they felt that they should center this movement around the self-determination of their own and on their own.  Shortly after was the Watts Riot, these were two key elements that made SNCC call for “Black Power” under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.  Stokely Carmichael was Chairman in 1966 and H. Rap Brown Chairman in 1967.  The brutal assassination of Dr. King was the final straw in 1968, where James Forman uttered the words, “I don’t know how much longer we can stand to be non-violent.”  They then changed their names from Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to Student National Coordinating Committee and as their struggle increased it was clear that they were not protected by law enforcement.  Not only that but they were attacked by the FBI’s COINTELPRO’s agenda.

As police brutality increased so did the need for what was originally called The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense, which was formed in 1966 until 1982.  It was founded in Oakland by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale on Oct. 15th 1966. Initially set up to protect the people from police brutality it grew in ranks and it grew in practice and ideology.  They begin to see the need to develop not only defense but also a socialist and d communist ideology and reality.  They did things like publishing their own newspaper, which was first published in 1967.  The same year they marched on the capital of the state of California in a protest on select ban of weapons.  The newspaper alone circulated up to 250,00 copies.  By the year 1969 The Black Panther Party of Self-defense had over 10,000 members from New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Denver, and many other cities.   They developed The Ten-Point Program.  This program pushed for the development of black people having their own land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace to name just a few ideas needed for self-determination and freedom.  They more strongly converted in seeing the black peoples struggle as the peoples struggle and focused very strongly on socialism.  They were known for their armed citizens patrol, which evaluated the behavior of police officers, and they were very consistent and respected for their free breakfast for children program.  J. Edgar Hoover called the party the greatest threat to the internal security of the country, go figure, and that is when he invented The Cointelpro operation. Below we will visit a couple of those encounters when we visit the stories of the courageous women of the Black Panther Party.

The Civil Rights Movement, SNCC, and The BPP - The Courageous Women Who Paved the Way

Bernice Johnson Reagan was a member of the Freedom Singers, which was created and organized by the SNCC.  Born the daughter of a minister and raised in Georgia music was always her life.  She was a member of the sweet and harmonious sounds you may know as Sweet Honey and the Rock.  She is none for the quote that goes, “Life changes are not suppose to paralyze you, they’re suppose to help you discover who you are.  She married Cordell Reagon another member of SNCC’s Freedom singers in 1963, because of their contribution with music it gave the Civil Rights movement a very strong voice to be reckoned with.

Ruby Doris Smith Robinson worked in the early 1960’s till her death in October of 1970.  She was an activist in the field and served in administration for SNCC Atlanta, Georgia’s Central Office.  Ruby Robinson acted as The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Executive Secretary in 1963.  At the time she was the only woman to serve with such responsibility, succeeding James foreman.  She was a great successor.  She was born in a predominantly black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia called Summerhill, the year of 1942.  Being the daughter of a Baptist minister some would consider this family of seven children, Ruby the second oldest, a very well off and educated middle class family around that time.  She was a graduate of Prince High school and then became a student of Spellman.  She grew up never really having a social life with whites where she was from, because of segregation of course.  The only thing she said she could pretty much recollect of her memory about them was throwing rocks at them.  Ruby parents were proud parents of a graduate from Spellman the year of 1959.  She soon became a woman of her own.  She was first inspired to be a part of the movement of Civil rights when she observed the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter sit-in and from that point forward she was involved in a massive number of sit-ins and underwent many arrests.  In February of 1961, she joined the national movement of freedom rides and voter registration demonstrations.  Mrs. Robinson left her position as executive Secretary of SNCC and became a campus coordinator of the organization instead.  She was the creator of the “Jail, No Bail policy”.  She discovered that the system had to be beat on all fronts.  If they kept bailing each other out of jail, that would be just feeding the system and making them economically fatter and stronger, so to weaken their position, it was clear-cut that anyone who got arrested would not bail the others out.  Everyone for the most part was in harmony with the policy and understood the consequences were ones of great sacrifice.  So, just as all freedom riders she was attacked, she was beaten, and arrested.  One particular time she was arrested in Jackson, Missisippi and she served 45 days in Parchment Prison.  As Executive Secretary for SNCC, she took the lead in organizing the Sojourner Truth Fleets, which provided civil rights workers transportation.  She had a hardcore line for SNCC; she wanted them to maintain black people being the leading force of their movement because of the growing support from Europeans around them. She did not want the lines to be a blur that this was a struggle that African people must come to dominate themselves.  One day headed to Africa with other members of SNCC the group was denied permission to board the plane with the excuse that they were overbooked.  She knew this was a lie.  The determination in her pushed her to go and sit on the jet way until they were granted to make the flight and so they did.  Upon returning back from Africa she said from this point forward I am a Black Nationalist. 

Diane Judith Nash was another fierce woman leader of the Civil Rights Movement.  She was born in Chicago, Illinois on May of 1938 and just like every other place in America she was not spared the harsh realities of what it was like to be African in America during this point and time.  It all was very clear that you were not deemed as a human being and were treated as such.  This was fortunately unjust in her eyes and something she absolutely would not allow.  This made her a hardcore 24/7 activist.  She was involved with founding SNCC out of the Civil Rights Movement, organized in the Freedom rides, and participated very heavily in the Selma Voters Rights Movement, which resulted in African people throughout the South getting the voting right in the South and it forever changed the course of history.  It disgusted her that people lived segregated and all it’s immoral acts upon her people, so she became a full-time activist at Howard University then later transferred to Fisk where she did the same thing.  Seeing the separate bathrooms in the South was the blow that opened her eyes to it all.  She began to involve herself in student workshops that practice Mahatma Gandhi techniques of how to be non-violent and started to implement the training unto the fields.  What made her more recognized as a leader was her ability to so clearly and authoritatively speak to the press. At age 22 she was called a leader of the Nashville sit-ins, of course throughout this process she just like Ruby endured countless arrest and so firmly denied bail.  She was a part of the historical Rock Hill Nine, a group of nine students that were arrested for sitting in.  One day she asked the mayor of Nashville in front of a whole nation of people does he think it’s wrong to discriminate?  He said yes and three weeks after the lunch counters in Nashville were serving those people that they deemed not worthy.  All in the same year she helped to found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and quit school to lead the direct action ring.  The year of 1962 she was pregnant and arrested for her political activity, she was sentenced to two years and releases on an appeal after serving a shorter term.  She and her husband then moved to Georgia to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  She always said, “We will not stop this is our outcome”, which was freedom.  She believed in self-determination.  Despite all the threats and terrorizing phone calls she continued the struggle.  She was awarded the Rosa Parks Award for her courageous and undying efforts to defeat segregation and prejudices that were detrimentally evil to her livelihood and everyone else that looked like her and for this she will remain an African warrioress.

Carlotta Walls is another name we must never forget.  She was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the first group of young blacks to ever attend Little Rock Central High School.  She was the first black female to ever graduate from that school.  To make it possible she had to face on her first day an angry mob of over 400 people, supposedly protected by the National Guard.  Then the National Guard was removed and replaced by the local police, who may just have been worse as the mob.  Three weeks into this process the mob grew into numbers of thousands and President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought in U.S. Army troops.  The troops were placed there for the rest of the school year even thought he incidents of violence ceased a bit outside of the school it still occurred more heavily inside.  Carlotta was spit on amongst other things that we probably couldn’t wrap our brains around if it were we.  On December 18, 1942 this young girl was born not knowing these conditions that were to be place in front of her, but to achieve the realization of being treated as a mere human being equal to any other, this is what she had to endure. 

A pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Claudette Colvin was the first person, yep the first to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama nine months before the incident with Rosa Parks. Her court case in the U.S. District court ended bus segregation in Alabama, but it was a very peculiar case not really spoken upon for different reasons.  Well, she was pregnant and unmarried during this occurrence.  The NAACP, did not want to use her as a representative of the movement because of the immoral values they thought it would not be a pretty picture of the face of Africans in America. Also, the fact that she whole-heartedly resisted arrest, which they tried to say she assaulted an officer in the process, but was later, charged with disorderly conduct.  This was the trial, Browder vs. Gale, that took place May 11, 1956.  In result of this trial bus segregation was declared unconstitutional in December of the same year.  She faced many challenges after this point in history.  The baby she was pregnant with was very light skinned and because of it her peers accused her of having a white baby.  Not only this, but because of the trial gaining public attention, it made it very hard for her to find work in her town.  She packed up and moved to New York to start a new life.  Resistance was her middle name and for it we are thankful.

Now this little sister soldier was six years old.  Her name was Ruby Nell bridges.  She was born on Sept 8, 1954.  Following the orders of her parents little Ruby responded to a call by the NAACP to participate in the integration of the New Orleans School System.  Known as the first African-American child to attend an all white school this was not an easy task for a six year old, and remembers this is the South.  The school being William Frantz Elementary spring of 1960.  She initially passed a test of acceptance to see if she would first be “good enough” to be integrated in the school and she did.  The court ordered integration on November 4th 1960.  Little Ruby recalls on that first day and she said that when she saw the crowd of angry mobsters out in front of the school she thought it was Mardi Gras.  She never cried, shook, or whimpered.  Teachers at William Frantz refused to teach class with her there and parents took their children out of school.  A lady by the name of Barbara Henry was brought in to teach little Ruby and this went on for over a year where little Ruby was the only student in the classroom.  Ruby’s parents had to send her to school with lunch that they only prepared because of poison threats.  Her most frightening moment is when she saw a protester with a small black baby doll in a coffin.  As a result of little Ruby’s bravery and consistency going to school every day, her father lost0 his job and her grandparents who were sharecroppers were turned off their land.  A lot of sacrifices indeed were made.

A name you hear quite often in the history of the Black panthers, but her story is too often misrepresented, is Assata Shakur.  Born July 16, 1947 as Joanne Deborah Byron, then married becoming Chesimard, she was a vital instrument in the Black Panther movement and also the Black Liberation Army.  She is so often not spoken of when it comes to her contributions to the struggle, but more spoken of when the media and papers talk about alleged crimes she was apprehended and hunted for.  She is the step aunt of the infamous rapper Tupac Shakur, sister of his stepfather revolutionary Mutulu Shakur.  Born in Jamaica queens, New York where she lived for three years, but she spent most of her childhood in Wilmington, NC.  She spent her teen years attending the City College of New York and she became heavily involved in political activity.  Her first arrest was in the year of 1967 in a protest at Manhattan Community College for lack of black studies and faculty.  She married Louis Chesimard that same year as was married for three years.  She then became at the age of 23 a member of the Black Panther Party Harlem Branch and heavily helped coordinate the School Breakfast Program.  Assata then left the Black Panther party, changed her name from Joanne to Assata Shakur and joined the Black Liberation Army.  In 1971 she joined ranks with the Republic of New Afrika.  That same year Assata was shot in the stomach in an incident at the Staler Hilton hotel on April 6, 1971.  It was then she said, “I am no longer afraid to be shot again.”  The FBI called her the Revolutionary mother hen.  Any and every incident that involved a woman in some type of crime they would try no link her to it.  There are countless incidents.  Hoover and the FBI classified her as a domestic terrorist and offered a million dollar reward for her capture.  They also issued in 1973 a search and destroy mission for her and others in the BLA. In 1973 Shakur was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike where a state trooper was killed and a BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur.  She was charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping.  She was convicted of first-degree murder and seven other felonies related to the shoot out.  She escaped from prison victoriously in 1979 and has been living in exile in Cuba ever since.  There have been countless attempts to extradite her.  Her consistent bravery and undying love for the people I a story that should always be told and one we should learn from especially when it comes to examples of strength and courage.

Other names that are not so commonly heard of that participated in sit-ins, Freedom rides, and the Selma Voters’ Campaign are Donna Richards, Fay Bellamy, Gwen Patton, Cynthia Washington, Jean Wiley, Muriel Tillinghost, Fannie Lou Hamer is name we all should know.  We visited her story in our previous article in the AWRO, Annie Pearl Avery, of course Ella Baker who we also visited in the previous article of AWRO.  Victoria Gray, Unita Blackwell, Betty Mae Fikes, Joyce Lander, Dorie Lander, Glorie Richardson, Prathia Hal, Judy Richardson, Martha Prescod, Ruby Sales, Endesha Ida-Mae Hollard, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Anne Moody, who wrote coming of age in Mississippi in 1970 she was a member of SNCC and CORE.  We visited Kathleen Cleaver who served as a militant in The Black Panther Party, but prior to that the served as Communications Secretary in 1968 for the SNCC in our previous article in the AWRO. Black Panther Women of honorable mention also include Erica Higgins, Angela Davis, Regina Davis, and Betty van Patter, and Elaine Brown.  Be sure to check out the previous articles on Women in the struggle at http://piccawr.blogspot.com/2011/10/african-women-throughout-world-and.html Part 1 and http://piccawr.blogspot.com/2011/10/african-women-throughout-world-and_18.html Part 2

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