Historically, Black women have been pivotal figures in every civil rights movement, using their voice and bodies to protect democracy even when it wasn’t for us. Black political women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Mary McLeod Bethune organized voting drives that encouraged more Black people to vote. The collective efforts of these women helped set the tone for today’s changemakers.
Although Fannie Lou Hamer took great interest in voter’s rights, she also focused on the health and wellness of Black people. In 1969, she created an agricultural cooperative that was hyper-focused on creating a self-sufficient lifestyle for African American farmers. The Freedom Farm Cooperative was equipped with a farm and pig-raising program, affordable housing, and other programs that enabled Black people to be less dependent on the system.
Among the changemakers is Ruby Sales. While she was no stranger to the adversities in the 1960’s, her life changed when she was incarcerated at the age of 17 for picketing a whites-only store in Alabama. Upon her release, a white county deputy shot at her and another activist after visiting a local store to buy something to drink. The bullet was intended for Sales, but her White friend and activist Jonathan Daniels pushed her out of the way. This began her long, successful career as a civil rights activist. Sales is the founder of the Spirit Project, a New York City-based non-profit that focuses on social, economic, and racial justice.
Keep scrolling to see how these women and more paved the way for today’s political landscape.
Words by: Shamika Sanders, Marsha Badger, Danni “Amapoundcake” Adams.
1. Shirley Nash WeberSource:creative services
Shirley Weber graduated at the top of her high school class and received her doctoral degree by the age of 26. After graduation, she taught classes at California State University at Los Angeles and Los Angeles City College. Later, she developed the Africana departments curriculum and recruited the faculty for San Diego State University.
She ran for the San Diego Unified School District in 1988 and served as president during her time. She was appointed as the first African American Secretary of State of California. On May 29th, 2019, California passed a bill, spearheaded by Dr. Weber, that changed how officers used deadly force. With over 40 years of public service, Weber has championed racial justice and education bills. Dedicating her life to making the lives of California’s better.
“I ask you not to park my bill but to keep it in the conversation … I know that’s controversial, but I think at some point our children deserve, deserve those of us to stand up for them and to fight to make sure this happens.” –Shirley Weber
2. Ruby SalesSource:creative services
Ruby Sales is a civil rights activist and founder of the New York City-based Spirit Project, a non profit that works on social, economic, and racial justice. She is nationally recognized as a public theologian, social critic, and writer. In “How We Can Heal The Pain of Racial Division”, she calls for an end to racial violence.
When Sales was 17 years old, she was incarcerated for picketing a whites-only story in Alabama in 1965. When she was released, she and her fellow activist went to the local store to purchase drinks. They were met with a white county deputy who shot a gun at them. The gun was intended for Sales but Jonathan Daniel, a white activist, pushed her out of the way and was fatally wounded.
“We must look deeply into the culture of whiteness. That is a river that drowns out all of our identities and drowns us in false uniformity to protect the status quo.” –Ruby Sales
3. Mary McLeod BethuneSource:creative services
Mary Mcleod Bethune was born in South Carolina to formerly enslaved parents. She graduated from the Scotia Seminary Girls school in 1893 is most known for founding Bethune Cookman University. However, she was much more than that. She was an racial justice, women’s rights activist, and government official. She advised Franklin D. Roosevelt which led to more African Americans in government.
In 1924, she was elected the president of the National Council of Negrow Women. She founded racial justice organizations that helped register voters. As the Vice President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), she was the only Black Woman represented at the Founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1948. Later President Truman appointed her as the official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia. Later she returned to Daytona, Florida where she died.
“Next to God we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth living.” –Mary McLeod Bethune
4. Linda Carol BrownSource:creative services
Linda Brown was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1942. As a grade student, she was forced to attend a segregated school across the tracks even though there was a school four blocks from her home. In 1950, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education. Linda Brown was one of 13 children who were a part of the Brown V. Board of Education due to her father not being able to enroll her into the closer school.
In 1979, she worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to reopen the case due to the Topeka School District continuing segregation. In 1993, the Court of Appeals ruled that the schools were segregated.
“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”-Linda Brown
5. Fannie Lou HamerSource:creative services
She was a grassroots organizer, women’s rights activist, and civil rights leader. Organizing voter drives and registering voters to change the political landscape for Black people. Hamer organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer with the National Women’s Political Caucus. Hamer dedicated her life to voter rights. She represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for the Freedom Democratic Party, which she co-founded and served as vice-chair.
She was a victim of medical racism and misogyny. Hamer went to the hospital for a uterine and was given a medical hysterectomy without her consent.
Hamer isn’t as known for her food justice advocate but she organized Black farmers throughout Mississippi. In 1969, she created the Freedom Farm Cooperative, an organization that was created to make land accessible for Black Farmers. She believed in food sustainability.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” –Fannie Lou Hamer
6. Barbara JordanSource:creative services
Barbara Charlie Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 in Houston Texas. Jordan spent most of her education attending segregated schools until attending Boston University Law School in 1959. After college, she volunteered for John F. Kennedy and was later inspired to run for office. In 1962 and 1964, she was unsuccessful at winning the seat as the Texas House of Representative. She was the first Black Woman elected into the Texas Senate in 1966. She was the first Black Woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representative from a southern state.
While serving on the House Judiciary Hearings committee that reviewed the evidence to impeach President Nixon. In 1976, she delivered the Democratic Convention keynote speech
After she learned that she had multiple sclerosis, she was wheelchair bound, and later retired from politics in 1979. She became a professor at the University of Texas Austin Lyndon B Johnson school of public affairs shortly after. She is buried in the Texas State Cemetery and was the first Black Woman buried there.
“If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.” –Barbara Jordan
7. Johnnie TillmonSource:creative services
Johnnie Tillmon, born Johnnie Lee Percey, was a welfare rights activist. In 1948, she married James Tillmon and they had 6 children together. She left him in 1952 due to his ‘running around’. A few years later, she moved to California where she began to organize workers, register voters, and get involved with local grassroots campaigns. While living in the housing projects, she got involved in the Nickerson Garden Planning organization, an organization that focused on improving the community.
In 1963, Tillmon was forced to get on welfare after learning she had tonsillitis. She organized the first welfare rights organizations in this country, Aid to Needy Children (ANC) due to the disrespect she and other poor Black mothers were experiencing from caseworkers. The program provided food, shelter, and clothing for children. The efforts of her organization later created what we know today as WIC, a social service program that provides women, Infants, and Children medical services and food vouchers.
Later she became the first chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). In an essay published in Ms. magazine,”Welfare is a Woman’s Issue”, she establishes welfare rights as a women’s issue. Johnnie Tillmon was a trailblazer and a campaign for women’s rights. She fought for women to be treated better than their wage and race.
“I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all.” –Johnnie Tillmon