Jan. 16 marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day honoring the legacy and achievements of one of the foremost leaders from the civil rights movement.
But while male leaders like King and Malcolm X are renowned for their contributions to the influential movement, the role women played in the civil rights struggle goes largely unnoticed. Americans may know the names of Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King, but the numerous other women who played key roles in the fight for equal rights are too often wiped from the history books.
“There’s a Chinese saying, ‘Women hold up half the world,”‘ the late civil rights historian and NAACP chair Julian Bond told NBC News in 2005. “In the case of the civil rights movement it’s probably three-quarters of the world.”
Here are just nine of the lesser-known women who made indelible contributions to the civil rights era:
Described by President Barack Obama as “the godmother of the civil rights movement” upon her death in 2010, Dorothy Height served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, making her, the Washington Post notes, “arguably the most influential woman at the top levels of civil rights leadership.”
During the civil rights era, Height coordinated on strategy with King and other civil rights leaders, the Post reports. Programs spearheaded by Height in her role at the NCNW included providing support to students who interrupted their studies to do activist work and “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” in which interracial groups of women traveled weekly to Mississippi to foster communication and encourage black voter registration.
In addition to her civil rights work, Height was also a tireless champion of women’s rights. “Dorothy Height deserves credit for helping black women understand that you had to be feminist at the same time you were African … that you had to play more than one role in the empowerment of black people,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said, as quoted in the Post.
“At every major effort for social progressive change, Dorothy Height has been there,” Rep. John Lewis said in 1997, the Post reports.
After serving as the director of branches for the NAACP, Ella Baker went on to play a key role in the civil rights movement by helping to organize both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by King, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which went on to become one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country.
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son,” Baker said. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
Amelia Boynton Robinson
Amelia Boynton Robinson played a key role at the iconic Selma march, including helping to persuade King to focus his efforts on the city. During the influential march, which was nicknamed Bloody Sunday, Boynton Robinson was knocked unconscious and hospitalized. Her plight was immortalized in a famous photo from the demonstration.
In addition to her work in the Selma march, Boynton also holds the distinction of being both the first African-American and first woman to run as a Democratic congressional candidate in Alabama. She ran in 1964, prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and earned 11% of the vote.
Jo Ann Robinson