Women's history and the civil rights struggle

Opinion: Columns

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By Stan West

The idea for this column came from Karen Ford, vice president of the National Writers Union, who assisted Soweto West Press and the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest with the publication of our Suburban Promised Land.

According to Ford, on Feb. 23, a small but lively group met at the Oak Park Public Library to view the film Cracking the Code - The System of Racial Inequity by Shakti Butler. A presentation by Ford followed, centering on her personal experience as a black woman in America, particularly in regard to white privilege. Ford informed her audience of the ways in which "white people are viewed as individuals, as opposed to blacks who almost always have to represent their race."

Supposedly good black people, she said, are extolled as being a "credit to their race" — a phrase only used for people of color. Or how the behavior of one black person is attributed to all black people.

"In the recent Jordan Davis case," Ford said, "Michael Dunn assumed he had the right to assault Jordan Davis and his friends because they were thugs. On the other hand, almost every school shooting in America since Columbine has been committed by young white men but 'tall young white men' have not been characterized as killers. This is one of the great benefits of white privilege: the right to be an individual without carrying the weight of your race on your shoulders."

I thought about Ford's words when three weeks later, as part of the "Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle" series at the Oak Park Public Library, I was moderating a post-film discussion on Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson. He's an award-winning filmmaker I met at Sundance nearly a decade ago when he screened another documentary about upper-class blacks who vacationed in Martha's Vineyard, including his sister, former Washington Post reporter Jill Nelson.

Freedom Riders, on the other hand, takes a look at a rainbow coalition of young blacks, whites, latinos, Christians and Jews, who more than five decades ago, risked their lives to help ignite the lukewarm Civil Rights Movement during the Kennedy Administration.

Since Ford told me to "look at the sheroes and not just the heroes" in the first 30 minutes or so of this two-hour compelling story, I was able jot down names and stories of half a dozen bold women who played a part in history.

There was Joan Mulholland, a young white woman, who, with others, stood up to rabid racists in Montgomery, Ala., because "we were past fear." There was Catherine Burkes-Brooks, a black woman, who proudly rode a bus into Montgomery expecting a confrontation at "high noon" with Bull Conner, a caricature of a Southern sheriff who stood in the Greyhound Bus Station door inspiring his fellow Klan buddies to terrorize anyone who got off. I should mention there were at least a dozen white women cursing the "freedom riders."

Few know the name of Irene Morgan, but you should because a decade before Rosa Parks, she filed a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944, which upheld her right not to give up her seat to whites. The library crowd, which included former Oak Park village clerk Sandra Sokol, was especially impressed by a teenage Fisk University student named Diane Nash. At the time, she also caught the attention of Attorney General Robert Kennedy who asked his advance man in Alabama, "Who the hell is Diane Nash?"

Nash was the coordinator of the Nashville "freedom riders," and she told Kennedy's spokesperson, "We will not be moved. Last night, we all signed our last will and testament because we know someone might be killed." They all survived.

On March 17 at Dominican University, a biracial Brown University professor, Dr. Tricia Rose — who resembles Diane Nash — told a spellbound crowd, that "well-meaning whites cannot on one hand be obsessed with black culture and on the other hand argue for color-blindness." According to the author of several scholarly books on

African-American culture, "To do so is to allow structural inequalities of housing, education, incarceration, etc., to go unaddressed. You can call it post-racial, but I call it white privilege."
Nothing like women to call it like they see it.

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Cynthia from Chicago  

Posted: March 27th, 2014 4:13 PM

Thanks for an excellent article. It's important for us to understand to leadership role of women in order to have a realistic picture of what it takes to make change happen. Women's leadership is an everyday fact that is too often overlooked or ignore. Thanks for sharing Karen Ford's suggestion that we keep looking for the women and their voices.

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