Standing up for Change: African American Women and the Civil Rights Movement

By National Women’s History Museum

National Women's History Museum

Civil Rights Demonstration -- San Francisco Housing Authority Headquarters (1965-04)The Bancroft Library

Civil rights

As far back as the 19th century, African American women fought for civil rights. They resisted slavery. They spoke out against racism. They established women’s clubs to improve conditions for African Americans. They worked in politics and journalism, organized black labor, and supported education. In the 20th century, they formed the backbone of the modern Civil Rights Movement. African American women were the critical mass, the grassroots leaders challenging America to embrace justice and equality for all.

Woman Suffrage (1971) by Henry GroskinskyLIFE Photo Collection

The 20th-century Civil Rights Movement was rooted in 19th-century movements including abolition and woman suffrage. Many reformers adopted the cause of woman suffrage after being marginalized in other movements.

LIFE Photo Collection

A former slave, Sojourner Truth spoke out for abolition and civil rights. At the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, Truth challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority declaring,

“I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? ... I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”

Ida B. Wells (1891) by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.National Women’s History Museum

Ida B. Wells-Barnett challenged discrimination and sexism, exposed injustice, and fought for equality. Wells-Barnett wrote scathing articles decrying the scourge of lynching. Her expose about an 1892 lynching enraged locals who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. She relocated to Chicago where she founded the first black woman suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club, and campaigned nationally for civil rights.

5 female Negro officers of Women's League, Newport, R.I. (1899)National Women’s History Museum

The black women's club movement that emerged in the late 19th century encompassed a number of local reform organizations dedicated to racial betterment. Like their white counterparts, these grassroots organizations were primarily comprised of middle-class women who were part of the larger progressive reform effort. In 1896, several clubs joined to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), adopting the motto “Lifting as We Climb.”

Mary Church Terrell (1880/1900) by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.National Women’s History Museum

As NACW’s founding president, Mary Church Terrell passionately championed social reform and ending discrimination. She saw voting rights as essential to equality but argued that--for black women--access to education and employment was equally important. She condemned African American women’s double bind when she said, “Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race as well as that of sex.”

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune (1949-04-06) by Carl Van Vechten and Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.National Women’s History Museum

Known as the "First Lady of the Struggle," Mary McLeod Bethune first achieved national prominence as the founder of Bethune-Cookman College. In 1935, she founded the politically active National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women's organizations focused on ending segregation and discrimination. Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to a position in the National Youth Administration, where she worked to ensure equality under federal programs. But more importantly she chaired the informal Black Cabinet, a group of federally appointed black officials who met regularly to plan strategy and set priorities for social change.

Mary McLeod Bethune at Phyllis Wheatley YWCA (1943-07) by Roger SmithNational Women’s History Museum

In her Last Will and Testament, Bethune bequeathed to the African American community faith, dignity, harmony, the challenge of developing confidence in one another, a thirst for education, and respect for the uses of power. She said, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”

Platform of the National Negro Committee (1909)National Women’s History Museum

An integrated group of men and women, drawn together by their abhorrence at the growing violence against African Americans, formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Many of the founders had ties to previous civil rights and women’s rights causes. During its early years, the NAACP focused on legal strategies to confront serious abuses. They called for federal anti-lynching laws and coordinated a series of challenges to state-sponsored segregation in public schools. African American women quickly became active in the NAACP’s local chapters.

By Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

Civil rights at mid-century

Hundreds of African American women organized and led grassroots efforts during the Civil Rights Era. They formed a composite image of the new black woman leader. Some were college-educated, club women, while others were grassroots organizers. Some were young adults displeased with the conditions of black, poor, and working class people, while others were middle age women whose lives were testaments of struggle and survival.

Naacp Convention by N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

A simple act of defiance in 1955 ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement, earning Rosa Parks the title “mother of the civil rights movement.” As a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama and an active member of the local NAACP chapter, Parks refused to give up her seat in the assigned section for blacks in the bus to a white man. Parks’ actions led to her immediate arrest.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956-02) by Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

Parks’ protest sparked the modern Movement. Her calculated decision to remain seated was the culmination of decades of municipal abuses. Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system, organized by a little-known Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956-02) by Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

The Women’s Political Council, an organization of black women active in anti-segregation activities and politics, provided the hands, feet, and voice of the Montgomery bus boycott. WPC's president Joanne Robinson seized the opportunity to protest the bus system's systematic discrimination.

The Second Siege Petersburg, Va. (1960-05-23) by Howard SochurekLIFE Photo Collection

There had been other protests and acts of civil disobedience, but the structure, media attention, length, and location of the Montgomery bus boycott led to a national movement by blacks, whites, men, women, and children to demand an end to de jure segregation.

Second Siege (1960) by Howard SochurekLIFE Photo Collection

As momentum built, black women became involved in all aspects of protest during the 1950s and 60s. While many rose to national importance, none achieved the prominence of the male leadership team.

Naacp Convention by N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

As president of the NAACP’s Arkansas chapter and co-owner of Arkansas’ largest black newspaper, Daisy Bates played a crucial role in school desegregation. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision decreed school segregation unconstitutional, yet the ruling was unenforced. Under Bates, the NAACP sued the Little Rock school board, and in 1957 Bates and her husband recruited nine students to integrate the all-white Central High School. The Little Rock Nine successfully integrated the school under the protection of the federal troops, with the Bates’ home serving as their headquarters.

Naacp Convention by N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

Ruby Hurley was on the front lines of the modern Civil Rights Movement as an NAACP executive. Hurley became the NAACP’s National Youth Secretary in 1943. Over the next decade she organized youth councils and college chapters, building a base of 25,000 youth members. NAACP Youth Council members launched the 1960s sit-in movement, proving the value of the foundation Hurley laid down. Hurley was promoted to regional director in 1952 and engaged in each major event of the Civil Rights Movement. She was the rare woman to hold a senior leadership position in a national civil rights organization.

Dr. Dorothy HeightNational Women’s History Museum

Dorothy Height focused on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women. Her civil rights career began in the 1930s protesting discrimination in Harlem. In the 1950s she pressured President Eisenhower to more aggressively pursue school desegregation. As president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957-1997, she became the most influential woman within the civil rights movement’s leadership. Though rarely in the public eye, she was known as the “glue” holding the top echelons of civil rights leaders together.

By Leonard MccombeLIFE Photo Collection

Gloria Richardson demanded immediate racial equality during the 1962-63 Cambridge Movement (Maryland). She diverged from King’s nonviolence stance to argue that self-defense could deter future violence. Violent clashes led the US Department of Justice to broker the “Treaty of Cambridge”, breaking the Kennedy administration’s non-intervention policy in local civil rights affairs. Richardson influenced a rising generation of Black Power leaders--including H. Rap Brown, Stokeley Carmichael, and Cleveland Sellers--who participated in the Cambridge Movement and were impressed with Richardson’s tactics.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

Amelia Boynton Robinson brought Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Selma, Alabama to campaign for voting rights. The team set up headquarters in Robinson’s home to plan a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, 600 marchers were violently attacked by policemen with tear gas and billy clubs while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Robinson was beaten unconscious. Her bloody image published in newspaper photos drew national outrage and attention to the cause.

Freedom March (1963-08-28) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection


Although the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to secure African American rights after the Civil War, they had never been fully realized. It was only after years of highly publicized demonstrations, marches, and violence that American political leaders acted to enforce and secure those rights. Two significant laws, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were among the Civil Rights Movement’s most important achievements. African American women lobbied strongly for their passage.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

More than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 for a political rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organized by a group of civil rights and religious organizations, it was designed to illuminate the political and social challenges confronting African Americans. The March, which became a key moment in the growing struggle for civil rights, culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for racial justice and equality.

March on Washington (Program) (1963)National Women’s History Museum

The male civil rights leadership declined to give women speaking roles on the program. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, of the National Council of Churches and the only woman on the March’s organizing committee, argued to include a female speaker. The organizers compromised by adding a short “Tribute to Negro Women” to the program, which was delivered by Daisy Bates. Afterwards, black women leaders like Dorothy Height and Hedgeman vowed that women would not be excluded in the future.

John F. Kennedy (1961-02) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

The March was effective, and on June 11, 1963 President John F. Kennedy unveiled plans to pursue a comprehensive civil rights bill in Congress, stating, “This nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, before legislation could pass.

Inside The White House (1963-12-03) by Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President, and he pushed for two pieces of civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written to end segregation in public places and ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 whose intention was to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment.

Lbj Signing Civil Rights Voting Bill by Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

On July 2, 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill into law. The law’s eleven sections prohibited discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, public facilities, and agencies receiving federal funds, and strengthened prohibitions on school segregation and discrimination in voter registration.

Lbj Signing Civil Rights Voting Bill by Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

President Johnson signed the Voting Rights bill into law on August 6, 1965. Amelia Boynton, heroine of the Selma march, was invited to witness the signing.

Senate's Civil Rights Debate (1960-03) by Hank WalkerLIFE Photo Collection

When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, it legally enfranchised all women. However, within a decade, state laws and vigilante practices effectively disenfranchised most black women in the South. It would take another major movement for voting rights--the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement-–before black women in the South would be effectively enfranchised.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

From the nation’s beginning, African American women added an intellectually diverse landscape of ideas to the solution for racism and oppression. They have had to overcome the double bind of racism and sexism, which marginalized them within both women’s and civil rights movements. Yet, they persevered to provide rich, vibrant voices to the chorus of American freedom, justice, and independence.

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National Women's History Museum

Selected images from the LIFE Photo Collection
Additional materials from the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration collections

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