Black Women’s Activism and the Long 1960s: A CBFS Interview

Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm (LOC)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. On March 7th, the CBFS hosted a discussion on “Black Women, Freedom Making, and the Long 1960s.” Today we are highlighting the scholarship of three of the guests, Anastasia Curwood, Suzanne Cope, and Christina Greene.

Anastasia Curwood is professor of history and co-founder of the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Curwood’s scholarship focuses on the interface between private life and historical context for Black Americans in the twentieth century. In particular, she studies the workings of gender in African Americans’ social, cultural/intellectual, and political history. Her newest book, Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics, is the first comprehensive biography of the Congresswoman and Democratic candidate for United States president.

Suzanne Cope, PhD is a narrative journalist and scholar whose recent book is POWER HUNGRY: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement. She has published with the New York Times, Atlantic, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, among others and also actively publishes and presents in academic forums. She is a professor at New York University.

Christina Greene is a historian whose teaching and research focuses on African American women’s activism, the civil rights/Black Power movements, War on Poverty, and incarceration. She is a faculty affiliate in the History Department and Gender & Women’s Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her 2022 book, Free Joan Little: The Politics of Race, Sexual Violence, and Imprisonment most recently won awards from the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What led you to write your recent books and what do you hope readers take away from reading them?

Anastasia Curwood (AC): I was raised on the story of Chisholm’s 1972 run for US President. In 2007 I went looking for a biography about Chisholm and could only find books written for children, or written forty years earlier. I was stunned that there was still no academic conversation around her significance. I think now that she is deeply symbolic, and sometimes it is hard to see symbols as human and situated in time and place. But at the time, I was just curious about her life. Why did this early childhood education teacher, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, become the first Black person to run for president in a major party?

What I hope people take away from the book is that Chisholm was both heroic and human. Her actual life and career are way more interesting than her symbolic presence in our collective memory might suggest. She was truly brilliant as an intellectual, and also a complicated person. Her gift was bringing people together across differences to understand their common interests. And her political career was decades long. She was in Congress for ten more years after her run and she became one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.

Suzanne Cope (SC): I was originally drawn to thinking about how women in the civil rights and Black Power movements used food as a tool for social and political change, particularly within the context of both racism and sexism, when Black women had fewer options available within the dominant culture to demonstrate leadership. My goal was to amplify these women’s stories—and the stories of many others who worked similarly—to teach and inspire people today as we face similar threats of oppression.

Christina Greene (CG): I’m old enough to remember Joan Little’s case; I have a vague memory (I was young) of attending a rally in support of Joan Little in NYC, probably during her extradition battle between New York and North Carolina in the late 1970s. Additionally, I have spent decades researching, writing, and teaching about women’s activism. My first book, Our Separate Ways: Women & the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina, ends with a brief account of the 1974-75 Joan Little case. Research for that book, which began as my dissertation, led me to Black women’s activism and organizing in places many might not think to investigate: Black-owned beauty shops, juke joints, Black women’s bridge clubs, garden clubs, literary societies, front porches, etc. Then as now, Black women also were often the majority of well-known groups like the NAACP or local War on Poverty groups, and they frequently did most of the work.

Free Joan Little similarly recognizes the multiple and seemingly unlikely places that organizing occurs and the expansive vision of liberation Black women have embraced for centuries. For example, most people don’t think of the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP), started by Black feminist health activist Byllye Avery in the early 1980s, as an anti-rape group. Yet sexual violence, including the creation of spaces where Black women could share their stories and heal from sexual violence, was a key feature of the organization. Similarly, many might be surprised to learn that Black feminist leaders in one of the first Rape Crisis Centers started in the early 1970s—who were inspired by the Joan Little case—also worked with Prisoners Against Rape, a group of male prisoners in Lorton Prison in Virginia who were serving time for sexual assault. These same women also worked with low-income tenant groups and well-known Black Power organizations. I hope readers of Free Joan Little will appreciate the long legacy of women’s anti-violence and prison organizing, especially among African American women.

CBFS: Our March 2014 panel was on “Sisters in the Struggle: Sustaining Black Women’s Emancipation from Racism, Sexism, and Violence.” How has scholarship on Black women in the freedom movement changed over the ten years since this event took place, and where does your book fit into this dynamic field?

AC: It is hard to believe that ten years have elapsed! But what I have noticed in the last decade is the increased interest in Black women’s biographies and life writing. Historians used to look at biographies with some disdain, as more popular works of history. But there is much to learn from looking at one life over its decades of existence, and how individuals have interacted with their historical contexts over a lifetime. It also suggests the humanity and full personhood of Black women historical subjects at a time when we are still needing to claim our own subjectivity.

SC: I looked up the amazing scholars who spoke at this event—and found that I had spoken with two of them over the course of my research, and I knew of one of the two others. While it makes sense that I would be connected to these experts, I do believe that this shows that this field was relatively small in 2014. I believe that there is only more space for stories and research focused on the experiences and leadership of Black women—in the academy and more broadly. While I am an academic, my book is published as trade narrative nonfiction. I have seen more willingness, for example, within trade publishing to put resources behind books by and about Black women – and I do see this as a more recent evolution, thanks in no small part to these amazing scholars who came before me.

CG: Some important work has appeared since then, but popular misconceptions remain. For example, despite outstanding studies about women in the Black Power movement, and about Black feminism of the 1960s-1980s (e.g. Robyn Spencer Antoine, Ashley Farmer, Ula Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, etc.), many of my students, including African American women, are certain that Black women were not involved in the multiple iterations of feminist organizing or women’s movements of the 1960s-1970s, erroneously known as the “second wave.” Despite the outpouring of work on women in the Civil Rights/Black Power movements—much of it biographical (including an award-winning just published biography of Constance Baker Motley by Tomiko Brown-Nagin and another about Fannie Lou Hamer by Keisha Blain)—few know anything about women in these movements, and what they have gleaned is often sanitized fiction. Many people (not only students) believe Black women were not part of the women’s anti-rape movements of the era; but Black women often organized not in Rape Crisis Centers, but through other venues, like the NBWHP or campus Ys at HBCUs. Similarly, too little attention has been given to Southern Black women and their white allies who backed Joan Little, many of whom identified as lesbians. Free Joan Little addresses these omissions.

Earlier histories of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Black convict labor mostly ignored women’s experiences. Mary Ellen Curtin, whose book on Black convict labor in Alabama (published nearly a quarter century ago in 2000), was virtually alone among historians of convict labor in examining Black women. Two excellent books by Sarah Haley and Talitha LeFlouria explore Black women’s convict labor and organizing in that period. Jen Manion’s recent study on early American imprisonment includes material on Black women. Several excellent documentary films on Black women’s activism have been released: e.g. one on Rosa Parks, based on Jeanne Theoharis’ pathbreaking biography of Parks; another is based on historian Annelise Orleck’s study of Black welfare mother’s amazingly successful organizing efforts in Las Vegas; and another depicts the life and work of Pauli Murray, often viewed as a transgender activist/attorney.

Historians of the post-WWII US came somewhat late to carceral studies. In an influential 2010 Journal of American History article, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” Heather Thompson urged historians to apply a carceral framework to post-WWII US histories. Yet this work often continues to ignore women. For example, there has been very little scholarship on women’s prison activism in the 1960s-1980s or on Black women’s organizing against sexual violence in this period, with several important new exceptions: Emily Thuma’s All Our Trials; Anne Fischer’s new book on policing Black and white women in urban areas; a just-published book of female prison activists in Michigan; and a forthcoming book by Miya Hislop on Black women, justice and sexual violence are a few examples. FREE JOAN LITTLE is part of this emerging scholarship.

Among Black, Indigenous, and other women/people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ scholar/activists, many of them prison abolitionists and/or working with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), some outstanding work has appeared about current anti-violence and anti-carceral organizing by Black women and Black trans people: e.g. Angela Davis, Beth Richie, Andrea Richie, Ruth Gilmore, Donna Murch, Barbara Ransby, Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law, Mariame Kaba, to name just a few. Others, such as legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, are revealing not only the ways that Black girls and women are currently victimized by heightened policing and state surveillance (in schools, on the streets, in homes, by government agencies, etc.) yet remain mostly invisible to the larger public; Crenshaw and others are also documenting how Black women in particular are organizing against this abuse. (e.g. Crenshaw’s #SayHerName: Black Women’s Stories of Police Violence and Public Silence; and Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced & Under-protected, etc.). Several anthologies by INCITE! (formerly INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence) have also appeared documenting scores of grassroots efforts here and abroad.

CBFS: How do histories of Black women’s organizing in the long 1960s resonate with the movement today?

AC: First, it’s important to think that American electoral democracy was only three years old when Chisholm was elected to Congress in 1968. The Voting Rights Act was young, and the wave of Black legislators getting elected was hoped to be a sea change. And it was. However, we also know that existing structures of power did not let go easily. Over the course of her time in politics, Chisholm saw the weight of political consensus swing rightward and away from the interests of the Black freedom struggle. However, she understood that remaining committed to core values was more important than triangulating in order to attempt to appease more voters. Instead, coalition was the strategy that united people across a diverse set of interests, for the cause of expanding democracy. We still have that strategy available to us now.

SC: When I was researching and writing this—in 2020, 2021—I was struck by how many issues around civil rights and voting rights and police brutality were in the headlines. While much had changed, so much had not. Of course I’m not saying these issues were new, more so the fact that the media was actually focusing on them was resonant.

Digging into the experiences that Black women were fighting against and organizing around in the 1960s, I saw how their work HAD made a difference, and also how far we still had to go to achieve their goals. But what really struck me was their optimism and their drive. Their leadership was so tenacious that so many of the women with whom I spoke said that they truly believed revolution was coming; they were willing to give their lives for the movement.

I do believe that Black female-identifying leaders are being respected more by the larger dominant culture (in some locations and fields more than others) even as their leadership had been recognized and lauded for much longer in the Black community. I do hope we continue to move in that direction as we see—so obviously—how much experience and skill so many Black female leaders have to offer all of us.

CG: I’ve been struck how often women activists and scholars have referenced Joan Little’s rape-murder case over the years, even though her case is largely unknown among the general public. It’s a triumphalist tale that celebrates Little’s court-room victory. Yet Little’s experiences in the criminal legal system as a teenager prior to her commemorated rape-murder trial were far more typical of the treatment most low-income Black women (and other marginalized people) received then and still encounter today. It’s also important to remember that Joan Little’s acquittal in the rape-murder trial was, by and large, due to a massive organizing and publicity campaign on the part of activists and her attorneys. As most activist attorneys will tell us, criminal trials alone rarely bring about sustained social change. They can, however, raise important issues and educate people, which in turn can inspire broader, longer-lasting social justice movements. And of course, a central lesson that I hope Free Joan Little conveys, is that social change usually occurs slowly, often led by ordinary people engaged in local, grass-roots struggles, and that radical transformation and liberation demands engagement for “the long haul.”

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.

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