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They cooked and fundraised, helped people to vote, and put their lives at risk in the name of racial equality. But the Black women who helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement from behind the scenes are rarely recognized — even on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
On Monday, a panel event at the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia sought to change that for at least one afternoon. While honoring the legacy of the holiday’s namesake, the discussion focused on the movement’s many hidden figures and their critical roles.
Women like Amelia Boyton Robinson: A voting rights activist who was knocked unconscious on “Bloody Sunday,” when law enforcement officers beat unarmed marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Women like Ella Baker: A shrewd organizer who helped form the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, commonly known as SNCC.
Women like Dr. Prathia Hall: A native Philadelphian whose words in 1962 inspired King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington about a year later on a stage with just one woman.
“The women weren’t seen as threatening, they weren’t seen as contributing, they weren’t seen. It doesn’t mean they weren’t transformational. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t taking great risks,” said Rev. Donna Lawrence Jones, executive director of the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia.
While men like King became the faces of the movement, countless women were the glue that held it together and kept it going.
Through their churches, they raised money to send people to the South to do voter registration. They opened up their households for organizers to meet. They helped activists get their driver’s licenses.
“When you’re in a movement, you have to be able to get away at a certain time,” said Dr. Doreen Lowry, founding executive director of Arcadia University’s Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy and Action.
Going forward, Lowry said women, particularly Black women, must continue participating in movements centered on equality, especially political ones. If they don’t, she said, their voices, values and power will go unrepresented and marginalized.
“Fannie [Lou Hamer] said it: You got to be ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired,’ And I know we all are, but it’s time for us to take those words and put them into action,” said Lowry.
Monday’s event, hosted by WHYY and NewCORE, also included remarks from Mayor Cherelle Parker, who last year became the first woman elected to the post in Philadelphia. After marveling at the organizing logistics women employed without cell phones and emails during the Civil Rights Movement, Parker told the audience that she got to where she is today because of other women — “hidden faces” whose names sometimes go unmentioned — who laid the groundwork for her leadership and political success.
“I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude for the women on whose shoulders I stand. Because there were a whole lot of other women who did a whole lot of significant work and who had the academic credentials…and experience, but for one reason or another, they were not afforded the opportunity to lead in this city,” said Parker.
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