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The Importance of Women in the Civil Rights Movement & Social Justice Organizing

On Thursday, President Elisabeth MacNamara and staff of the League of Women Voters, including Executive Director Nancy Tate, attended the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s (NCBCP) Black Women’s Roundtableevent, “Women Leaders of the Movement: Past, Present & Future.” The three-part event included stories directly from women who participated in the 1960s Civil Rights movement, as well as an intergenerational discussion on the future of the civil rights movement.

The panel, sparked by the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, featured a powerful group of women leaders, including Clayola Brown of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), Dr. Thelma Daley of the NAACP, Christine Chen of Asian Pacific Islander Vote, Beverly Alston of the National Action Network and Kimberly Inez McGuire of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Speakers, including those who had attended the 1963 march, noted that although both men and women had campaigned for civil rights, women have been given little credit for their work in the movement. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted how the very idea for the Montgomery bus boycotts originated with women. “The movement that my father led wouldn't have happened without women,” said King. Throughout the event, speakers sang the praises of civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women and a key organizer of the 1963 march.  

Those who had taken part in the civil rights movement shared the leadership lessons they learned with the new leaders of the movement, who asked thought-provoking questions on how best to honor the past while actively pushing towards the future. A robust discussion on the importance of trusting new and young leaders followed, along with the recognition that we need to create a multi-issue movement that respects the perspectives of people advocating for change from all walks of life.

“This is not something we do. This isn’t a job; it’s a way of life,” said Jamida Orange, executive director, MLK Jr. March Committee-Africa. Fellow panelists echoed Orange’s remarks on social justice activism being a key part of their identity – something that they have spent their entire lives fighting for, and for which they will continue to do so.

The women leaders reminded the crowd of the powerful words of civil rights leader Daisy Bates, who was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March:  “We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-on and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”

As members of the League joined thousands of other activists this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, they kept Bates’ words close – our focus must be on action as we continue to fight for elections that are free, fair and accessible to all citizens.