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Invisible Leaders

By February 4, 2019 4 Comments

Why are women in civil rights typically so invisible?

There is some debate over the extent to which women served as organizers or leaders during the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). Charles Payne, in his study of activism in the Mississippi Delta, suggested that “men led, but women organized.” Scholars such as Bernice McNair Barnett, Belinda Robnett, Katherine Mellon Charron, and Barbara Ransby, among others, suggest that organizing is a critical form of leadership. In addition, women’s participation extended beyond organizational skills to provide the ideological foundation and mobilization infrastructure of the movement. In general, women were excluded as formal leaders due to their gender, but this did not deter their leadership efforts in the movement.

On their own initiative, women pressed male leaders to act against the system of segregation long before the formal organization of the Montgomery Improvement Association of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), both key organizations central to the origin and success of the CRM. The organization centrally responsible for the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, AL.  Founded in 1946 by Mary Fair Burks, a scholar and professor at Alabama State College, the WPC was designed to combat institutionalized racism in Montgomery.  Between 1954-1955, WPC women met with city bus officials 6 times to negotiate better terms on the buses.

This image of Rosa Parks is the one most of us associate with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What is the usual reason given for why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat?
Is she really just tired?

The WPC women waged a previously planned boycott on December 1, 1955 when Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Her decision to resist this system was based on years of civil rights activism. Parks was not merely tired – she was tired of injustice and had been working to change it. She was active in the NAACP for 15 years, she was secretary of the local chapter, and trained in activism at the interracial facility of Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN during the summer of 1955. Jo Ann Robinson, President of WPC, called the bus strike.

Is organizing and implementing a successful boycott a form of leadership?

Septima Clark began teaching in a one room schoolhouse in 1916. By 1919, she joined the NAACP in a successful campaign to force the city to hire black teachers in its segregated public schools. She taught literacy classes, took a stand for integration in 1950, and was fired in 1956 for refusing to conceal her membership in the NAACP. Four decades of teaching and political organizing gave Clark the wisdom and experience to develop the Citizenship School curriculum and training program. According to former UN ambassador Andrew Young, who worked with SCLC, the Citizenship Schools became a foundation for the non-violent movement with graduates playing key roles in the SCLC campaigns. From 1961-1970, Clark and her coworkers prepared a network of Citizenship School teachers, “people with PhD. minds who never had the chance to get an education,” to train others to become community activists.  Those teachers collectively taught more than 25,000 people.

Inside city churches, country homes, beauty parlors, and tents that served as classrooms, black adults studied so they would past the bogus literacy tests that states administered to prospective African American registrants. Typical comments when they succeeded included, “this is the first time I have felt like a human being” and, “so proud to get my registration certificate, I almost ran a stoplight.” Students of Clark’s Citizenship Schools learned not just reading and writing, but a range of citizenship responsibilities that ranged from establishing local voting leagues to paying taxes and lobbying for improved municipal services. African Americans who passed through the Citizenship Schools acquired the knowledge and the confidence to act.

Is training the next generation of leaders a form of leadership?

SCLC’s first project, the Crusade for Citizenship, proved ineffectual when ministers failed to sustain registration efforts in their own communities and would not take direction from Ella Baker. Baker used a citizenship education program designed by Septima Clark that taught literacy and connected people’s personal concerns to the strategic politics of the movement. Baker’s leadership ideology of building leadership from the ground up rather than from the top-down was at odds with many of a formal leaders. But clearly Baker and Clark’s ideology built an indigenous leadership base: in 1961, they trained 82 teachers to work in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee and substantially increased African American voter registration.

A seasoned activist, Baker served as the NAACP national director of Branches in 1943, a freelance consultant to civil rights groups in the 1950s, and by 1957 Baker was a co-founder of In-Friendship, a northern organization that raised funds to send to activist groups in the South. Incidentally, Ella Baker was appointed the acting executive director of the SCLC, while a “suitable” replacement was found. 
According to historian Barbara Ransby, “Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle. If larger and larger numbers of communities were to engage in such a process, she reasoned, day in and day out, year after year, the revolution would be well under way. Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people, ordinary people, infusing new meanings into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history.”

Is organizing and empowering others to speak for themselves a form of leadership?

When it comes to leaders, people like Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker emphasized group-centered leadership through group consensus and created environments in which everyone was expected to fully participate. Everyone.

What does leadership look like in the body of Christ?
What should leadership look like in the body of Christ?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • LKG says:

    Reading about women leaders during the Civil War reminded me about a woman from Ohio who came to Keokuk, Iowa with her husband. Her name was Annie Wittenmyer. She worked tirelessly and often at great personal risk seeing that soldiers, especially Iowa soldiers, received good medical attention and proper, nutritious foods. One of her most significant contributions was advocating for dietary reform essential for wounded and diseased soldiers. She was also instrumental in opening orphanges for children of soldiers who had died. Wittenmyer had a gift for seeing how to organize and direct women to fight postwar problems caused by the Civil War. Annie Wittenmyer organized women groups to fight for many moral, economic and social reforms.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks for sharing about Annie Wittenmyer. I would love to know more about her – is there anything written about her or available at local archives? There are certainly lots of examples of women in the past doing the work that today is generally considered the work of bureaucracies or non-profit organizations.

  • Willa Brown says:

    Rebecca, as I read your essay and questions, I thought of my growing-up days in a rural, small Reformed church in Illinois. The men in the church were the only ones who could be elected to Consistory but the women of the church, it seemed to me, did most of the work. My mother was one of the leaders (without being on Consistory) and because she was always studying the Bible and sometimes teaching Sunday school as well as giving the message at local nursing homes, I told her that she should be an Elder. But because the church didn’t allow women to be elected to Consistory, her gifts were never acknowledged. And she wasn’t sure if she should ever be an Elder. I don’t know if my home church elects women to Consistory, even today. Fortunately, since my husband’s seminary days I have been in churches that do allow women in leadership positions in Consistory. I have had the privilege of serving two terms as a deacon and am currently serving a second term as elder. I feel blessed to have had these roles.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Willa. As a high schooler, I also noticed that while my church’s leadership was all male, it was my faithful Sunday School teachers and catechism leaders, all female, that had the most significant effect on my spiritual growth and knowledge. I also noticed that the reluctant male elders who taught some of my high school Sunday School classes did not particularly exhibit the qualities of good teachers, which I had always thought to be a key attribute for an elder. That struck me as odd, to see so many women faithfully teaching and leading but not seen as leaders.
      On the other hand, it seems like the best leaders are the ones who don’t much care about the label of leader and will do the work regardless of what others see or think.

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