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'Freedom's Sisters' Spotlights Women in Civil Rights

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Women were active in the human and civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries but very few were given leadership credit. A traveling exhibit that arrives in New York in February is trying to shake that.

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Women were active in the human and civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries but very few were given leadership credit. A traveling exhibit that arrives in New York in February is trying to shake that.



NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Myrlie Evers-Williams, the first full-time female chairperson of the NAACP, finds honor in being the widow of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader whose 1963 murder energized the protesters who brought an end to legal forms of segregation.

But she doesn't want her identification to end there.

"I am much more than that," she said in a recent phone interview.

"So was Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz," she added, referring to the widows of civil rights martyrs Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

These women, among 20 in all, get a fuller-than-usual recognition in the traveling exhibit "Freedom's Sisters," a project sponsored by Ford Motor Company Fund and produced by the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The interactive exhibit offers photography, video and audio.

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Launched in March 2008 in Cincinnati, it includes educational and community outreach and scholarships for local students. In its final leg, the exhibit comes Feb. 4 to the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Harlem and runs through April 22.

The exhibit focuses on the under-acknowledged roles of women in the fight for civil and human rights throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Another woman honored by the exhibit is Sonia Sanchez, who in late December was named poet laureate of Philadelphia. Sanchez, a poet-activist known for her writings on "neoslavery" and sexism and who helped raise the political consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, is honored by the exhibit as a pioneer in academia and activism. She also helped introduce black studies to universities and taught the first course on black women in literature at the University of Pittsburgh at a time when using the term "black," rather than Negro, was considered radical.

"Young women (and men) need to know these 'herstories' because they need to know where they are at this point in history," Sanchez said in an interview. "Whatever young people have in jobs, in universities...it's because of the work of many of these women that you didn't even hear about."

Filling the Gender Gap

Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1955, is part of the media iconography of the civil rights era. But very few other women are portrayed as being part of that realm.

This exhibit fills in the gender gap with testimonials to women such as Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years who died in 2010; Ella Jo Baker, a community organizer who guided emerging leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations; and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention helped influence the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"During the civil rights movement Dorothy Height was at the table, she was one of the big six," said Pamela Alexander, director of Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services, the exhibit's funder, based in Dearborn, Mich.

Alexander said Height once told her about getting left out of photographs or cropped out when she was standing at the end of a lineup. "She wasn't going to stand to the side. She learned to put herself in the middle of the picture both literally and figuratively," Alexander said.

Evers-Williams said Height played a critical role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, where more than 200,000 people gathered in the capital to protest the social and political obstacles facing African Americans.

"The men were in disagreement over who should do what," said Evers-Williams. "Dorothy Height stepped up and said, 'If you can't do this, move out the way and let us take it over.' She was the epitome of what women stood for and what they did do."

An Unwritten Rule

An almost unwritten rule of the civil rights movement was that the women would step back and let the men take the credit, said Evers-Williams.

"We were always the base for the success that the movement had and it's important to leave a fine record for young women of how we worked through problems," she said.

One of these young women is Walidah Imarisha, 32, on the editorial collective of Left Turn Magazine and a member of Decolonize PDX, a radical organizing collective of people of color.

Imarisha echoes the need for younger generations to connect with their predecessors.

"Having the guidance, insight and experiences of elders--many of whom are currently incarcerated, in exile, murdered or dealing with the emotional, psychological and physical repercussions of rebellion--would be a valuable asset to younger organizers," Imarisha said. She added it could help younger activists avoid pitfalls.

Imarisha, who also works for Western States Center, a social-advocacy group based in Portland, Ore., also regards this as a good time for her brand of political work.

"The Occupy movement is not the end-all, be-all of radicalism. In fact, it is just part of a current global rebellion, as we see from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, that in many ways have come to define this current moment of resistance--images of Tahrir Square inspiring a generation," Imarisha said.

'Stories Get Lost'

Dani McClain is a 33-year-old journalist and campaign organizer for the 800,000-member political and media advocacy group ColorofChange.org, which tackles race-baiting and political injustice via online campaigns.

McClain thinks it's a shame that an exhibit such as this is s2till necessary in 2012.

"When are we going to reach a time where in an exhibition, women's names are right alongside the men who have been consistently labeled our leaders?" McClain asked. "Our names get lost when we take a purely selfless approach to the work toward justice. Our efforts get credited to others. We may be happy in the moment to be in the background, but our stories get lost."

Evers-Williams is only too familiar with what McClain is talking about. Even in the NAACP she said women had difficulty being seen as true leaders.

"I was told that I could not serve in that position because, after all, I was only the widow of Medgar Evers," she said, referring to the chair post that she held for three years. "And that was an insult . . . I replied, 'You don't know me; if you read my resume you would not say that.' I was told that hell would freeze over before I was chairman of the board."

Evers-Williams said a true portrait of women's place in civil rights helps everyone.

"We have power that we aren't even aware of. And the more we know about people or women who gave so much, it enlightens us all," she said.

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Dalila-Johari Paul is a journalist and producer based in New Jersey. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Star-Ledger, the Hartford Courant and Newsday.