James Lawson Institute

Women and Civil Rights : A Personal Reflection

August 1, 2017 Recovering History 0

By Mary Elizabeth King.


In 1838, when the Antislavery Convention of American Women adopted a policy of using sit-ins and protest rides to resist slavery in the United States (Mabee, 1970, p. 115), it underlined the importance of refusing to cooperate with that cruel and inhumane system and foreshadowed the crucial role of women in the U.S. civil rights movement more than a century later.

A fundamental issue in the history of political thought that underlies nonviolent struggles is an appreciation that oppressive rulers, regimes, and systems require at least some complicity of the oppressed. In practice this is complex, and in theory oversimplified, yet it is at the core of the use of noncooperation—which is how people power manifests itself. Resistance was characteristic during the centuries when the trade in human cargo brought enchained Africans to the United States. At no time was there an absence of individual or group resistance or refusal to cooperate. Nonviolent movements fought to end slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787 to coordinate a national campaign, preceded the American efforts, such that 100,000 throughout Britain signed abolitionist petitions in 1787–1788 (Tilly and Wood, 2009, p. 150).

By the early twentieth century, from 1919 to 1955, a great interchange was taking place between individual African Americans and participants in the nonviolent independence struggles of the Indian subcontinent, at a time of ocean voyages and well before the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. For nearly four decades, particularly in the 1930s, concepts of Kurtz_Women War and Violence_Volume II.indb 447 7/23/15 7:07 AM 448 Women, War, and Violence resistance and noncooperation traveled 12,000 miles in a great historical interaction, until World War II made sea travel difficult. As historian Sudarshan Kapur shows, black leaders journeyed to India and formed personal relationships with individuals working alongside Mohandas K. Gandhi, while notable Indians visited the United States to lecture and build links with a nascent civil rights movement. Pockets of the U.S. black community became well informed about the Indian struggles, as knowledge of basic theory and methods of nonviolent action percolated into African American communities (Kapur, 1992).

As of the 1950s in Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, the black women’s political caucus had for three years been planning a citywide action against the indignities of a racially segregated bus system. When on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (Figure 25.1) was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, Jo Ann Robinson, an instructor at the local black college, and the women’s caucus moved their plan into action. The resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott would last 381 days and become one of the two most salient transformative events of what was coalescing into the U.S. civil rights movement, in the sense of representing a climactic turning point that increased the breadth of mobilization. The influence of the bus boycott was of far greater magnitude than its exertion of one method against one system of one city. Its success, upheld by the Supreme Court on December 17, 1956, in a landmark decision that segregation on Montgomery’s buses was unconstitutional, persuaded black onlookers across the South who were closely following the campaign, that nonviolent direct action could be effective and practical. Observing what had occurred in Montgomery, they concluded that this was the most important development for African Americans since the Civil War and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, and that it must be repeated (Lawson, 2013–2014).

The other transformative watershed was the Southern student sit-in movement, prompted by the nonviolent direct action taken on February 1, 1960, by four black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro. They decided to seek lunch counter service, and, when refused, they remained in place to accept the consequences. Unheard of until the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, students in other places were already preparing themselves for action. The Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, the first affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), established in 1957 by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after Montgomery’s success, had in winter 1958 and spring 1959 begun nonviolent direct action targeted at discrimination in downtown Nashville restaurants and stores. Throughout autumn 1959, the Reverend Dr. James M. Lawson Jr. led weekly Monday evening sessions, instructing students from the city’s institutions of higher learning toward a profound understanding of what it means to take nonviolent action and guiding them in the development of strategy and discipline.

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