Mollie Moon and Funding the Civil Rights Movement

Young girl at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (Flickr)

Elegance. Galas. Balls. Fashion shows. Fine dining. When we think about the Civil Rights Movement these words typically do not come to mind. Instead, our thoughts tend to gravitate toward grassroots organizing, charismatic leaders, and, of course, oppressive Jim Crow segregation and widespread racial violence. These familiar narratives shape mainstream media portrayals, significantly mold our collective perception, and influence our understanding of the movement. Rarely do we ponder the acquisition of financial resources in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

Historian Tanisha Ford makes us consider just the resource question in her latest book, Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Hidden Power of Fundraising for the Civil Rights Movement. She prompts us to reconsider movement dynamics by exploring the life and fundraising endeavors of socialite Mollie Moon, exemplified by her renowned event, the Beaux Arts Ball. This event attracted interracial attendees ranging from domestic laborers to well-known celebrities. In Our Secret Society, Ford reexamines the Civil Rights Movement by taking a deep dive into Mollie Moon’s role as the President of the National Urban League Guild, unveiling the crucial role of fundraising from the 1940s to the 1960s. Ford invites us to reassess this pivotal period of history and to focus on the often-overlooked power of the donor’s purse–a concealed history that is “an essential part of understanding the business of movement building and the real cost of pursuing social justice” (8).

Structured as a biography chronicling the life and journey of Mollie Moon, the narrative begins with her international experiences in Moscow and Berlin. During this time, Moon underwent a political and conceptual awakening, recognizing the connections between Nazism and global anti-Blackness that reinforced her determination to combat Jim Crow discrimination. With her husband, Henry Lee Moon, a notable NAACP publicist, Mollie Moon became an influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement. For instance, Moon’s friendship with Winthrop Rockefeller, the wealthy grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, resulted in the joint hosting of the Urban League Guild’s 1948 summer party at the prestigious yet formerly segregated Rainbow Room in Manhattan, marking a groundbreaking event that broke the color line. The biography ultimately culminates in her rise as a prominent civic leader and a revered fundraiser among the Black elite.

Similar to other scholars of Black women’s histories such as Deborah Gray White, Saidyah Hartman, Marrisa Fuentes, Treva B. Lindsey, and others, Ford addresses the limitations and violence inherent in archival records, acknowledging their roots in anti-Blackness and the omissions concerning Black people, especially Black women. In regard to Moon specifically, Ford asserts that her status as a “socialite,” often highlighted in various newspaper archives, may have intentionally demeaned her role in the movement. Ford explained, “I determined that Mollie’s socialite label had been the result of a concerted effort on the part of some society editors and made civil rights leaders to marginalize her role in the movement” (305).

As Black women are affected by various systems of oppression, this simultaneously shapes their representation in archival records. Ford, in part, unveils how these influences impact the legacies of Black women. For instance, when analyzing Moon’s obituary, Ford asserts that silences reduced her memory to only the socially respectable aspects of her life. Therefore, the omissions reshaped Mollie Moon’s narrative into one primarily focused on her status as the most prominent Black high society socialite, overshadowing her pivotal role as a key figure in the civil rights era, an institution builder, and an architect of Black philanthropy.

In her efforts to create a Black woman’s biography, Ford underscores the necessity of employing imaginative thinking. Actively seeking a diverse array of source materials, she weaves together Moon’s narrative using experiences from her close intellectual associates, social workers, and journalists; she includes a thorough examination of letters, newspapers, Urban League Guild fundraiser cookbooks, and nightclub advertisements. Through this meticulous approach, Ford uncovers the complexities of the world Mollie Moon navigated, shedding light on nuances related to class dynamics and gender. For instance, allegations of a sexual or intimate relationship between Moon and Rockefeller emerged, highlighting the persistent notion that the success of Black women was often perceived as contingent upon the support or involvement of white individuals, particularly men.

Our Secret Society explores the intricate relationship between respectability and class tensions, adding complexity to Higginbotham’s “politics of respectability.” Ford’s book challenges conventional ideas about Black perspectives on respectability during that era. It unveils the criticism directed at Mollie’s glamorous fundraising efforts from younger Black radicals who openly denounced capitalism and wealthy white philanthropists, offering a nuanced perspective on the intraracial class dynamics of that time. Consequently, Ford broadens our perspective on respectability by showing that it was not a universally embraced strategy among Black people. Ford’s book shares similar themes of Black women and philanthropy with Tyrone McKinley’s Madam Walker’s Gospel of Giving. His work challenges the misconception that philanthropy is exclusive to white people. McKinley argues that Madam Walker, often overlooked, emerged as a significant American philanthropist and a trailblazer for Black philanthropy today. Our Secret Society expands this scholarship, as Ford reveals that both elite and working-class Black people contributed to garnering financial resources and goes further by portraying Moon not merely as a Black socialite but as a key organizer of philanthropic events directly contributing to the Civil Rights Movement.

Our Secret Society seamlessly aligns with the genre and scholarship of Black women biographies, akin to notable works such as Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Keisha Blain’s Until I Am Free, Matthew Guterl’s Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, Anastasia Curwood’s Shirley Chisholm, and others. Our Secret Society also shifts the focus from male-dominated charismatic leadership and illuminates the enduring contributions of Black women leaders and activists who played pivotal roles throughout the extensive Black freedom struggle. Ford’s book distinguishes itself as she adeptly reshapes prevailing narratives of Black politics and activism, incorporating the often overlooked elements of glamour and opulence that were integral to funding the movement.

Ford’s biographical approach renders the text captivating for both academic and non-academic audiences. However, the inclusion of uncertainties and qualifiers, such as “likely” and “might not have,” arising from archival gaps, might lead readers to question the authenticity of certain aspects of Mollie Moon’s life, encouraging further investigation. Nonetheless, to address the incompleteness of the archive, Ford speculates carefully where necessary, as the alternative would be to leave some stories untold. When coupled with historical context, Ford’s approach offers a profound insight into local and national politics, fundraising, philanthropy, and economic justice during the mid-20th century. Ford encourages us to consider the nuances of funding movements and invites contemplation of the complexities of class, gender, and race. Consequently, Our Secret Society acts as a testament to the innovative and expanding genre of Black women biographies, providing an exciting glimpse into the future of this field.

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Mickell Carter

Mickell Carter is a doctoral student in the department of Africana Studies at Brown University. Her research interests include Black Internationalism, 20th-Century Social Movements, and the intersections between culture and politics. Her current project examines linkages between Black men’s style during the Black Power Movement, Pan-Africanism, and masculinity. Follow her on Twitter @MickellCarter.

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