I am doing all kinds of research for a book I am writing. It is just a collection of biographies of a certain kind of person. I won’t tell you what it’s about, but I’ll give you a list of five of the people who will definitely be in it. Perhaps you will be able to figure out what connects them.
One thing that links all these people is that they are all white and male. So I’m working on that. As part of that, I’m researching Medgar Evers. If you’re like me, about all you know about Evers is that he was the guy who was killed at the beginning of the film Ghosts of Mississippi. As I recall the film, he doesn’t even have a word of dialog. So the film, despite its honorable intent, really comes down to: important black man is killed, let’s get on to the story that involves white folk. So other than the fact that he lived in Mississippi, I started the week knowing nothing about him.
I’ve managed to order a couple of books about Evers, but the only one I’ve gotten my hands on is probably the least valuable to me: The Autobiography of Medgar Evers. The problem with the book is that he never wrote an autobiography. The book is just a compilation of “memoranda, telegram messages, personal notes, transcribed public speeches, [and] fragments of written tests.” Fortunately, it has brief introductory articles by Myrlie Evers-Williams (Medgar’s wife) and Manning Marable (who sadly died earlier this year).
The article by Marable is particularly interesting because he discusses a big reason why people like Evers do not receive their due credit.
Their undeserved obscurity and marginalization is partly derived from the politics of gender. As anyone who has seriously participated in grassroots, neighborhood organizing can attest, women are far more likely than males to emerge as the critical leaders in most working-class and poor neighborhoods. Women activists are far more prevalent than males in the building of civic capacity—whether within faith-based institutions or in groups engaged in educational reform, community safety, and/or public health. Day-to-day political-organizing work is rarely glamorous or exciting. Much of it is mundane, boring, and quite difficult: typing and processing letters; making numerous telephone calls; meeting frequently with small numbers of people at their homes; preparing and serving food; fundraising; finding places for people to sleep or to live; organizing childcare; driving people to and from meetings; negotiating with local ministers, businesses, and schools to obtain space for activities; sustaining communication between group members; and representing the interests and objectives of one’s group to other constituencies and organizations. Added to all of this is the profoundly human dimension: the loss of time and intimacy with one’s partner or spouse, children, family, and friends; the financial costs; the physical and emotional pressures; the burden of ostracism and harassment for advocating unpopular views. To be a “leader” in this context is to assume the burden of these necessary responsibilities and tasks. Within a society structured hierarchically by gender, women disproportionately assume these responsibilities. This was certainly the case within the Black Freedom Movement, especially in the patriarchal culture of the U.S. South in the mid-twentieth century.
The general “story” of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956 usually mentions the courageous individual action of Rosa Parks, a respected, middle-aged seamstress whose arrest for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a segregated public bus was the spark that started the public protest. Yet the focus then concentrates on the public leadership of local black ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, ignoring other individuals who actually did as much—or more—to make that boycott successful. A key figure in this regard was college professor Jo Ann Robinson. The Women’s Political Council, an African American women’s group chaired by Robinson, was instrumental in the planning and building of the boycott. After Parks’s initial arrest, for example, Robinson mimeographed 35,000 handbills calling for a mass boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses overnight. Members of the Women’s Political Council made enormous personal and financial sacrifices for nearly one year to win their victory over racism.
Marable provides me with two other names, in addition to Robinson, of unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement that will help on the other aspect of my diversity problem: Septima Clark and Ella Baker. Time will tell.