Why black women were crucial to civil rights movement

OPINION - A long list of 'unsung' black heroines marched, sat, rode, bled and died in the struggle for equality during the civil rights movement...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott-King, Fannie Lou Hammer, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height, Septima Clark, Marian Wright Edelman, Mylrie Evers and Constance Baker Motley.

We all know their names, because these are some of the more notable names on a very long list of “unsung” black heroines who marched, sat, rode, bled and died in the struggle for equality during the Civil Rights Movement.

However, as hundreds of thousands and perhaps, millions gather in Washington D.C. this weekend to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the official unveiling of the long awaited King Monument on the National Mall on August 28th, I cannot help but wonder when will the black women of that era finally get their due?

I am not necessarily calling for the establishment of a new memorial in honor of black women on the National Mall, but I am suggesting that in this “age of Michelle Obama” that we start to acknowledge and celebrate the incredible sacrifices and service of the black women who did so much of the important work that helped propel the civil rights movement forward.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of unsung heroes of black history

Whenever we see the newsreels from that time, we see black men in the room with President John F. Kennedy, or President Lyndon Johnson. We see black men in the great struggle leading the way, making the decisions, fighting the good fight.

With the exception of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat one day; we rarely see images of black women from that era or “freedom sisters” as they have come to be known sitting at the table of negotiation, decision or action.

I find it ironic, however, that when we see documentaries such as PBS Eyes on the Prize, we visibly see black women and girls being hosed down with water and beaten by policemen. Yet, for the most part even the most celebrated female civil rights figures had no voice; they mostly remained silent and supportive of their male leaders.

What a difference a few decades makes.

We now have black women billionaires like Sheila Johnson, and Oprah Winfrey. We have black Fortune 10 CEOS like Ursula Burns. We have a black first lady in Michelle Obama. We have black female lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, college Presidents and even astronauts.

We have come a long way.

And although historians now openly acknowledge that black women were pivotal in the critical battles for racial equality, the recent deaths of Dr. Dorothy Height, Clara Leper, Coretta Scott King, and Rosa Parks highlight the fact that very few female civil rights figures were widely known.

We can most certainly attribute this to what I refer to as the two evil twin sisters: racism and sexism.

Black women historically and even during the height of the civil rights movement played background roles, either by choice or due to bias (when they were qualified to do much more), since being a woman of color meant facing the worst of race and gender discrimination.

While we all feel joy and a sense of accomplishment that Dr. King is now memorialized in stone on the nation’s Capitol Mall; I can’t help but feel that once again black women, who loyally carried the race once again through one our most challenging hours, are expected to be seen and not heard; silent and supportive, and in doing so — forgotten.

Sophia A. Nelson is author of the new book, “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” (Benbella, May 2011).