SaraEllen Strongman is an assistant professor in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies, where she teaches classes in African American literature, popular culture, and Black feminism. As we mark the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and other watershed moments of the Civil Rights Movement, she talked with LSA about how her areas of expertise intersect with this history, and how everyday, often invisible, work by Black feminists contributed to the movement.
LSA: Could you share a little about your research within the fields of Black feminist thought and literature?
SaraEllen Strongman: My own research is focused on Black feminist thought and literature. I am currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled The Social Life of Black Feminism that explores how Black feminism in the United States emerged as an intellectual and activist movement during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, I analyze the intimate, social networks that undergirded the movement. I seek to tell a different story about Black feminism by attending to the everyday work of Black feminists, mostly outside of formal organizations and instead as constellations proximate to or produced by other projects (e.g. anthologies, events, journals, conferences, etc.) that illuminate the central role these relationships played in sustaining Black feminist intellectuals and their work.
LSA: What events or moments in 1963 were most influential for the role women played in the Civil Rights Movement and other movements after it?
SES: We obviously need to talk about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28. The march, which is now most well-known for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was an enormous event. Approximately 250,000, a quarter of a million people, attended the march. The vast majority of attendees traveled from out of town to attend the event. Getting people there was a huge undertaking. Many women, within both national and local organizations, helped organize and get people there, including booking buses and packing lunches.
Despite the major role that women played as leaders behind the scenes in organizing the March, their leadership was rendered invisible at the actual event. There was only one woman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches, on the march’s organizing committee. Initially, no women were scheduled to speak at the March on Washington. Only after Hedgeman and Dorothy Height, then president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and other women pointed out the oversight was a “Tribute to Negro Women” added to the program. Ultimately, Daisy Bates presented the tribute recognizing specific Black women and read a pledge to the movement on behalf of all Black women. Many women felt that they were treated as second-class citizens at the march. Though Height, Hedgeman, and other women leaders were seated on the dais with the male leadership and speakers, they were effectively silenced. In the end, the most visible woman at the march was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
The day after the March, women leaders gathered at a meeting organized by the NCNW titled “After the March, What?” where they discussed their frustrations with the lack of representation of women at the event. That November, the NCNW held a leadership conference where Pauli Murray gave a speech titled “The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality.” Her speech captured the frustrations that women leaders felt about the march and, more broadly, about how women and women’s issues were addressed (or not) within the broader movement. In the months and years following the march, Black women resisted the chauvinism of male leadership and advocated for greater inclusion of women and their concerns in the movement.
LSA: How do the events of the year 1963 connect to the development of Black feminism?
SES: In the years following the march, a growing awareness of the unique nature of Black women’s issues, what Pauli Murray called the “dual barriers” of race and sex, led some Black women to create organizations and publications that focused on their specific situation as Black women. Some of these emerged directly out of existing civil rights organizations.
For example, the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) originated in 1968 as the Black Women’s Liberation Committee within SNCC. In 1969, as SNCC began closing chapters, the group split off and renamed themselves the Black Women’s Alliance . The group changed its name to the TWWA in 1970. These organizations were precursors to explicitly Black feminist groups founded in the 1970s, including the National Black Feminist Organization and the Combahee River Collective (CRC). Many Black feminists, like CRC co-founder Barbara Smith, began their activist careers as student organizers within the Civil Rights Movement. Their experiences there indelibly shaped their future Black feminist activism.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.