Overlooked but Essential: Recognizing Women in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements

Ella Baker, Civil Rights leader, speaking out on the killing of “black mothers’ sons.” Source: The Huffington Post

Second in our International Women’s Week series is Daniel Jellins’ piece on the erasure of women from the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. Our first post for International Women’s Week is here.

When you think of who are the Black Lives Matter movement leaders, does anyone come to mind? While historically movements such as Civil Rights and Black Power had highly visible and recognizable leaders, the Black Lives Matter movement’s leaders do not have much name recognition. Does it have something to do with them being black women? Does it have something to do with them being black and queer? The creation of the BLM movement by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi only reaffirms the ingenuity of women in movements that have shaped our nation.  And, I can think of no other story to tell then theirs during International Women’s Week!

First, we must recognize the historical marginalization of women in these kinds of movements. Looking back on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, men dominate the story. In leading civil rights organizations such as SNCC and NAACP, men were in charge. Yes, women like Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks did lead parts of the movement, but there were so many more women that had huge impacts whose stories were shunned for more marketable stories:


These names are largely forgotten to history, though each contributed significantly to the progress of the Civil Rights movement. Whether it was voting rights with Hamer, marching like Boynton Robinson, organizing as Baker, or refusing to get off the bus (before Rosa Parks), these women helped the cause tremendously but were obscured by the shadow of MLK and Malcolm X. It is important to remember that historically, women were not recognized for the role they played in organizing, leading, and marching for civil rights.

Today, the women of the Black Lives Matter movement do not get credit for starting a national movement. The catalyst of the movement was the response to the death of Trayvon Martin. During the time after, Patrisse, Alicia, and Opal created the hash tag, #BlackLivesMatter and started organizing around not just predicament of Black men being shot in the streets by police but of the systemic and pervasive racism that effects Blacks across the country. Unfortunately, now some are attempting to hijack the phrase Blacks lives matter by the co-opting phrase, “(insert here) lives matter.

This is dilution. This is concealing the work of BLM’s founding women through the erasure of the distinct struggle of African Americans, and the work that the women went through to raise consciousness. The Black Lives Matter organizers challenge co-option of the movement for non-Black agendas, as the Black Lives Matter movement is so much bigger than a hash tag and needs to be recognized as such.

The problem with movements is that they can easily become diluted in order to make them marketable to a larger mass of people. We forget the important and critical contributions of people who are deemed not “commercial.” However, the point of this article is to acknowledge the WOMEN who have started, fought, and advocated for human rights and who have been looked over. They should be recognized.

So thank you. Thank you to the women of the Civil Rights movement. Thank you, Amelia, Ella, Fannie, and Claudette. Thank you to those women who are being looked over for their work today. Thank you to Alicia, Patrisse, and Opal. Thank you to the unnamed and unknown female fighters for the rights of African Americans.

(from left) Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi

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