When you think of Black women activists in the United States, your mind likely goes straight to Rosa Parks—a weary old woman who was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Except Parks wasn’t weary and she wasn’t old. When she was arrested for her refusal to relinquish her seat on Dec. 1, 1955, she was a 42-year-old trained activist who did much more than sit during the American civil rights movement. The abridged narrative we are taught about Parks is emblematic of the way Black women are—or aren’t—remembered for their contributions to social justice movements in America.
“We have a problem on a fundamental level with the very structures of education in this country when someone is as basic as Rosa Parks’ story is still not being told to its fullest,” says Amrita Myers, PhD, a 19th-century historian in the Department of History and the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University who specializes in Black women’s history. “What we see in the newspapers, who we see on TV, and who gets written about in the big master narrative books are often the men—and I’m not trying to say that the men’s stories aren’t important. What I’m simply suggesting is that the contributions of all the members of the community are important because without the work of the women the work of men would never have been done.”
The reason Black women have been excluded from the larger conversations of social justice in the U.S. is because of they experience intersectional discrimination. “Black women simultaneously experience both racism and sexism,” says Dr. Myers. Black women were behind major organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. But they’ve never gotten the widespread recognition they deserved, explains Dr. Myers.
“It’s Black women who have been doing the groundwork at the local level for hundreds of years,” says Dr. Myers. “They’ve never gotten the name recognition of men like Martin Luther King Jr. because America wasn’t ready in the 1950s and the 1960s—it wasn’t ready for Black people, and it certainly wasn’t ready for the leadership of Black women.”
There are countless Black women activists who haven’t gotten the acknowledgment they deserve for their contributions to social justice movements in America. Below, just a few Black women whose names we should all know.
Black women activists who have been overlooked in history
(1797 – 1883)
Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and early proponent of the civil rights movement. Born Isabella Baumfree as a slave in New York, Truth escaped at the age of 29 with her infant daughter. After the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed a year later, Truth’s former master illegally sold her 5-year-old son. She took him to court and became the first African-American woman to sue a white man and win. She established herself as an equal rights activist, working with people like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. ” Black women were fundamental in both the abolition movement and the really serious lengthy battle for women to acquire suffrage in the United States, two movements that really arose simultaneously. And yet no one talks about women like Sojourner Truth, who straddled both of those movements,” says Dr. Myers. In 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, Truth gave her most famous speech in which she shared the unique discrimination she faced as a Black woman and asked the rhetorical question “Ain’t I a Woman?”
(1862 – 1931)
Ida B. Wells was a journalist, activist, and researcher. She was born into slavery during the Civil War. She was introduced to politics by her parents who were very active in Reconstruction Era politics. After one of her friends was lynched, she began to focus on white mob violence and investigated cases of Black men who were lynched. She published her findings in a pamphlet and in several columns in local newspapers. She was one of the only women to sign the founding papers of the NAACP, she helped to found the National Association for Colored Women, and she marched in suffrage parades. “White women like Stanton and Anthony and others actually would ask Wells to not March because they felt that her presence and the presence of Black women would bring too much controversy,” says Dr. Myers.
(1903 – 1986)
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in North Carolina hearing stories of resiliency from her grandmother, a former slave. After graduating from the Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, as class valedictorian in 1927, she moved to New York City and joined social activist organizations. She was an active member of the NAACP and later moved to Atlanta to help organize Dr. King’s then-new organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Inspired by a group of Black college students who refused to leave a lunch counter where they were denied service, Baker founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It became one of the most radical and influential branches of the civil rights movement.
(1898 – 1987)
Septima Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to parents who recognized the importance of education. When they saw how poor the conditions of Clark’s school were compared to those of the schools that white children attended, they were enraged and sent her to a woman who taught neighborhood children in her home. Clark later went on to become a teacher. She was a member of the NAACP the director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice leadership training school. Clark developed the curriculum for Citizenship Schools, which allowed Highlander staff to train leaders of communities to run their own schools. She worked along with Baker and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, bridging the gap between those young activists and the older generation.
(1913 – 2005)
Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. At 19, she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated and distinguished man who played an active role in the American civil rights movement. In the 1930s, Rosa Parks was an activist in the Scottsboro Boys case, a case where nine Black boys (ages 13 to 19) were falsely accused of raping two white women. Both Raymond and Rosa worked with the NAACP; she served as secretary and later youth leader of her local branch. When she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, she knew exactly what she was doing. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” she wrote in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story. “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
(1917 – 1977)
The 20th and last child of sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She grew up in poverty picking cotton and worked as a sharecropper herself until 1962. She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became incensed about the fact that Blacks were denied the right to vote. She became an SNCC organizer and on August 31, 1962, led 17 Black volunteers to register to vote. They were denied after failing a literacy test, an early form of voter suppression. She successfully registered to vote in 1963 and in 1964 she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the local Democratic Party’s efforts to block Black participation. She also launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative which bought 640 acres of land for Black people to own and farm together.
Audre Lourde was born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. She published her first poem in Seventeen magazine when she was in high school. She was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and wrote works that addressed racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She was heavily involved in many liberation movements and activist circles, including second-wave feminism, the civil rights movement, Black cultural movements, and LGBTQ+ rights. In addition to calling for social and racial justice, Lourde’s work also illuminated the queer experience.
(1945 – 1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She is lauded by many as a pioneer in the trans community, though that vocabulary didn’t exist during her lifetime. She used female pronouns, but also referred to herself as “gay, as a transvestite, or simply as a queen.” An activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and sex worker, Johnson was a key figure in the uprisings known as the Stonewall Riots, which ensued after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Today’s Pride celebrations commemorate this event. Along with Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, to help advocate for, feed, house, and clothe young transgender people. Rivera and Johnson will be honored with a permanent monument in Greenwich Village. Circumstances surrounding her untimely death remain unclear.
Alicia Garza was born in Los Angeles, California, to a white Jewish father and a Black mother. She received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology from the University of California, San Diego, and her master’s degree in ethnic studies from San Francisco State University. She is the former executive director for People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) for the San Francisco Bay Area and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She is also a principal at the Black Futures Lab and the strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Her work as a writer has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, Time, and Cosmopolitan, among others.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors was born in Los Angeles, California. She came out as queer when she was 16 years old and moved out of her parent’s home. At the age of 22, Cullors received the Mario Savio Young Activist Award. She is an artist and received her degree in religion and philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles. Enraged by the acquittal granted to George Zimmerman after his 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, she co-founded Black Lives Matter. She also founded and chairs Dignity and Power Now, a nonprofit that fights for the dignity and power of all incarcerated people, their families, and their communities.
Opal Tometi was born in Pheonix, Arizona to Nigerian parents. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public/applied history from the University of Arizona and an master’s degree in communication studies from Arizona State University. A fierce advocate for Black immigrants, she serves as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization that educates and advocates to further immigrant rights within African American, Afro Latino, African, and Caribbean immigrant communities. BAJI also helped win family reunification visas for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake. Tometi is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
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