Civil Rights History: Six women you need to know of

Feb 24, 2023 | Activism, Articles, Media, People

Martin Luther King Jr. is the synonym for civil rights. The American Baptist minister was known for preaching nonviolent civil disobedience. He preached that philosophy in a way to improve the civil rights in the United States of America. But his preaching touched the entire world, not just the United States of America. He was the leader of the Civil Rights movement. But when it comes to civil rights, Martin is not the only one. People often forget the contributions from other individuals, especially women. We would like to remind you about six women that are responsible for the civil rights we all enjoy today.

Dorothy Height

When Dorothy passed away in 2010, US president Barack Obama called her the “godmother of the civil rights movement”. She was president of the National Council of Negro Women in America for 40 years. She was arguably the most influential woman in the upper echelon of the civil rights movement leadership.


She worked closely with King during the civil rights movement. Some of her roles included providing support for students who had to interrupt their studies and start activist work. She was also responsible for the success of “Wednesdays in Mississippi”. The goal of the of program was to help women travel to Mississippi once a week, and encourage black voter registration through direct communication with the voters.

She started working as a caseworker with the New York City welfare department. At the age of 25, she joined the council, and began her career in civil rights.

In addition to civil rights, Dorothy was largely responsible for women rights as well.  She was one of the 15 founders of the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom organization in 1990. During her career, she won the Candace Award in 1986, the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom from Want award in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Ella Baker

Similar as Dorothy, Ella had a long career in the civil rights movement. Her career spanned over five decades. Her first significant role was a director of branches for the NAACP (National association for the advancement of colorful people).

Few years later, she organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was led by King. She also organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Her most significant quote was the following:

“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. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens”.

Baker was instrumental in creating of the “participatory democracy”. The new formulation brought the traditional appeal of democracy to a broader participation. The three primary emphases of the movement were appeal for involvement through society, minimization of bureaucratic hierarchy, and call for direction action as an answer to fear and intellectual detachment.


She had different opinions than Martin, but the two worked closely together. Baker was supportive of the idea for activists to take control of the movement. She advocated that “strong people do not need strong leaders”. Martin, on the other hand, wanted them to rely on a leader with heavy feet of clay.

Jo Ann Robinson

Jo Ann is often a name that is overlooked in the Montgomery bus boycott. She was just as instrumental as Rosa Parks. When Parks was arrested in 1955, it was Robinson who printed out and distributed flyers. She encouraged people to boycott the buses. She later on worked directly with King to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

Robinson and others initially planned for the boycott to last just one Monday. After the success, they decided to continue the work in the MIA. She published a memoir explaining the details of the boycott, called “The Montgomery bus boycott and the Women Who Started it”. The book was published in 1987.

During her life and career as an activist, Robinson was the target of several acts of intimidation. And following her involvement in the civil rights movement, she started teaching English in public schools from 1970 to 1976.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie worked closely with Martin in the SNCC (Student nonviolent coordinating committee). She was also one of the founders of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, founded in 1964. But she is best known for delivering one of the most powerful speeches during the 1964 convention of the Democratic Party.

“Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Her Freedom Democratic party drew national attention and was a big challenge for President Lyndon Johnson. Her speech was one of the few back then that ran unedited at national television. In 1964 and 1965 she also tried to run for the Congress, but failed to win.


Septima Clark

Martin Luther called her “the mother of the movement”. Septima was tireless champion of education, and worked as a teacher for 40 years. She was fired because she refused to resign from the NAACP.

After being fired as a teacher, she started workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She taught literacy and helped people understand how to fill out voter registration. She educated students on their rights and duties.

Her biggest contribution is establishing citizenship schools all across the South. She wrote two autobiographies during her life, “Echo in my Soul” and “Ready from Within”. The first one was life story and her work at the Highlander school, while the second was collection of lifelong experiences. In 1979, Clark was awarded Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter.

Daisy Bates

Daisy was president of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. She became the poster child for black resistance. Her biggest contribution is the event known as the “Little Rock Nine”.

She played a key role in helping nine African-American students to integrate into an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The fight for the students attracted national attention. She later on played key role in planning how desegregation would be carried out. She voluntary gave her house to be the drop off and pick up place for the nine students at Little Rock.

Later in her life, she said that biggest influence was by her father, who gave her some wise words on his death bed. He said “You’re filled with hatred. Hate can destroy you, Daisy. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum—and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell a thing”. That is the memory that she used to draw strength and inspiration.

Aside from helping the Little Rock Nine, she also played key role in establishing Arkansas State Press. The weekly newspaper focused on advocacy journalism, following other African-American publications, and became a big voice for the civil rights movement.

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Thomas B.