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Black Women During the Civil Rights Era


The history of social justice movements in the US has left out women while glorifying men black men for their role in the strife for civil rights. When black women’s role in the struggle for social justice and freedom is mentioned, it is usually the few women like Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her sit on a bus for a white person. Another example is the Ruby Bridges Nell, who, at six years of age, was the first black girl and student to attend a desegregated school in the South. There are many more examples of women who overcame insurmountable odds at a very difficult time, but their roles in the strife for justice and freedom have been generalized and left out by historians. This essay seeks to push the narrative that black women played an active and vital role in the push for civil rights during the civil era, but historians have failed to recognize the sacrifice and the contribution of women to the civil rights movement.

When readers of history look into Rosa Parks’ bus saga, there is often an attempt to simplify what that act means. Despite this simplistic approach to the saga, it is not the reader’s fault. There has been a deliberate attempt by historians to exclude women and their contributions to the strife of civil rights. Because of the failure by historians to capture these efforts by black women, there is a misplaced notion that women contributed insignificantly to the civil rights movement. However, historians are not to blame. The American society is riddled with patriarchy and male domination. The desire for a male hero is heavily desired. Historians have gone to greater lengths to line up male heroes, while going as far as distorting history. Every year during Black History Month and Martin Luther Day, stock of the struggle is taken and memories are rekindled through autobiographies and memoirs. However, these take the form of dominant history, which is sifted and twisted to fit a certain political perspective (Hall, 2007). When these events are remembered through mass culture, textbooks and visuals, the role of women is missing. The next section presents theories that explain why women’s role in the civil rights movement was largely ignored.

One perspective posits that micro-mobilization is an important role in determining how people take part in movements. Notably, many of the leaders of the civil rights movement and the social justice movements of the time were men (Robnett, 1996). According to (Robnett, 1996) these men had something in common: they were all preachers or ministers. As a result, these men could micro-mobilize people at the community level through the church (Robnett, 1996). Robnett’s (1996) makes sense when the issue is analyzed from the gender roles’ perspective. It is largely known that women were relegated to domestic chores and home making. In fact, Hall (2007) notes that when segregation halted in the South, women were employed to do household chores and had to work double to have enough to pay for the family upkeep. During these times, black men were given the meanest jobs in factories and paid low wages. Therefore, women were the breadwinners of their families. Hall’s (2007) argument is on point because it brings across the message that Robnett (1996) cannot pass to the reader. This message is that men took the lead role in Civil Rights Movements because they were the church ministers who played a crucial role in mobilizing people. However, this theory still does not justify the exclusion of black women in the struggle for civil rights. The reason is discussed in the next section.

Women played an important role in the social justice and civil rights movement. In fact, women played an equally important part in the struggle for freedom and social justice. According to Gamson (1992), women were the bridge leaders in the sense that they connected the community and the movement. According to Robnett (1996) the problem with social justice movement history, scholarship, and theorization, is that it has always used a dichotomization approach where participants are grouped into leaders and followers. For Robnett (1996), the role of women in these movements is lost within this dichotomization. Both Gamson (1992) and Robnett (1996) provide a complete picture of how women’s leadership in the struggle is often sidelined. Tarrow (1992) also supports the above ideas by noting that the role of women was to ensure execution of strategies targeting, identity, consciousness, and individual change, not to mention strategies that challenged the institutional and political relationships that characterized the era. For Breines (1982), the failure by historians arises because they ignore the social location of the members of the movement. It is only by understanding the negative relations between the northern blacks and the Southern blacks a scholar gets to understand the role female leadership played in mobilization. The South was harsh and the blacks there feared that the northerners would lead them to harm with the movement. The social location of women, as highlighted by Hall (2007) as working only in the home, provided an important bridge for the expanded membership of the movements in question.


Clearly, history continues to ignore the role women played in the civil rights movements of the past. The focus on male leadership is characteristic of the patriarchal nature of historical studies. As shown above, women were in the best position to connect the movement with the community. The men only took credit because they were prominent faces of the movement and occupied powerful positions in the church. The analysis above proves that the study of social movement’s history leadership needs to be broadened to include gendered analysis. It is only through such an analytical framework that the role of both men and women can be understood. The research above shows that scholarship in the history of social movements has been simplistic and erroneous because it has excluded women who played a very important role in the struggle. Perhaps future research could focus on this area.


Breines, Wini. 1982. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968. New York: Praeger

Gamson, W. A. (1992). The social psychology of collective action. .” Pp. 53-76 in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, edited by A. Morris and C. Mueller. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press

Hall, J. D. (2007). The long civil rights movement and the political uses of the past. In The Best American History Essays 2007 (pp. 235-271). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Robnett, B. (1996). African-American women in the civil rights movement, 1954-1965: Gender, leadership, and micromobilization. American Journal of Sociology101(6), 1661-1693.

Tarrow, S. (1992). Mentalities, political cultures, and collective action frames. Frontiers in social movement theory, 174-202.


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