Every February, in recognition of Black History Month, we’re reintroduced to influential people in our history who have left marks in their respective industries. These people were great. Their courage surpassed their fear and they held steadfast in their fight for justice and equality for the human race. Yet, while we’re constantly reminded of the Dr. Martin Luther Kings, Harriet Tubmans, Malcolms, and Rosa Parks of the past, there are many other Black leaders that often go unrecognized. Their paths were just as difficult and their fights just as courageous.
So as Black History Month gets ready to come to a close, we would like to acknowledge seven of the least recognized women in Black history. Some you may be familiar with by name, but not aware of their stories. Others you will be introduced to for the first time. These women paved the way for other women and blacks in general.
Check out our list of influential Black women who may have missed the mainstream recognition, but nevertheless played a pivotal role in our history.
While we’re constantly reminded of the civil rights leaders who worked in front, those who were behind the scenes often go unrecognized. Ella Baker is one of those people. An active civil rights leader in the 1930s, Ms. Baker fought for civil rights for five decades, working alongside W.E.B Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She even mentored well-known civil rights activist, Rosa Parks.
Ella Baker is quoted as saying, “You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
A leader and strategist of the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash was a member of the infamous Freedom Riders. She also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Selma Voting Rights Committee campaign, which helped blacks in the South get to vote and have political power.
Raised in Chicago, Nash initially wanted to become a nun as a result of her Catholic upbringing. Also known for her beauty, she would later become runner-up for Miss Illinois. But Nash’s path changed direction when she attended Fisk University after transferring from Howard University. It was there that she would witness segregation first hand, since coming from a desegregated northern city. Her experiences in the South resulted in her ambition to fight against segregation.
Historian David Halberstam considered Nash, “bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis; as a leader, her instincts had been flawless, and she was the kind of person who pushed those around her to be at their best—that, or be gone from the movement.”
Septima Poinsette Clark
Known as the “Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement,” Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator and civil rights activist who played a major role in the voting rights of African-Americans.
In 1920, while serving as an educator in Charleston, Clark worked with the NAACP to gather petitions allowing blacks to serve as principals in Charleston schools. Their signed petitions resulted in the first black principal in Charleston. Clark also worked tirelessly to teach literacy to black adults. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded her a Living Legacy Award in 1979. Her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, won the American Book Award.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Coining the phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and civil rights leader. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Hamer stood firm in her religious beliefs, often quoting them in her fight for civil rights. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and was then seated as a member of Mississippi’s legitimate delegation to the Democratic National Committee of 1968, where she was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
Hamer died of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59. Buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, her tombstone reads ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired’.
Daisy Bates was an American civil rights activist, publisher and writer who played a leading role in the Little Rock integration crisis in 1957. Before that, Bates and her husband started their own newspaper in 1941 called the Arkansas State Press. The paper became a voice for civil rights even before the nationally recognized movement.
Bates worked tirelessly until her death in 1999. After moving to Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, she served on the Democratic National Committee and also served in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, working her magic on anti-poverty programs. In her home state of Arkansas, it has been established that the third Monday in February is ‘George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day,” an official state holiday.
Anna Arnold Hedgemen
A civil rights leader, politician, and writer, Anna Arnold Hedgemen was also the first African-American student at Hamline University, a Methodist college in Minnesota. After college she became a teacher. During her tenure as a teacher, Hedgemen witnessed segregation and decided to fight for its end.
After holding a position as assistant dean of women at Howard University in 1946, Hedgemen later moved to New York and became the first African-American woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in the history of the state.
Hedgemen, who died in 1990, is the author of The Trumpet Sounds: A Memoir of Negro Leadership (1964), Gift of Chaos: Decades of American Discontent (1977) and many articles for numerous organizations.
While the name Dorothy Height is recognizable, many of her accomplishments are not. Height, who died recently in 2010 at the age of 98, was a social rights activist, administrator, and educator. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at New York University, Height later became active in fighting for social injustices. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Also during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi” which brought together black and white women from the North and South to engage in dialogue about relevant social issues.
Dorothy Height is quoted as saying “I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom…I want to be remembered as one who tried,”a motto she lived by until her death.
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