Most of us are dead.
But five of us are not. We are among the 20 African American women chosen by a group of educators and black history experts to be featured in a traveling exhibition called “Freedom’s Sisters.”
And on a Friday night in mid-March at the Cincinnati Museum Center, the five of us whose lives intersected with historic moments in the struggle for freedom and dignity for African Americans got together to celebrate a long over-due tribute. It was a tribute not merely to us as individuals, but to us as symbols of the countless women who were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.
My flight from Johannesburg was a flight from hell. I had a lingering sinus infection, and I missed my connection in Paris, which then resulted in me missing the connection that would have put me in Cincinnati in time for the small, intimate dinner that kicked off the weekend. I arrived in Cincinnati seven and a half hours late, and I was still exhausted the next morning when I arrived for a preview of the exhibition.
My fatigue and frustration fell away, however, when I met up with the four other living “Freedom’s Sisters”: Dorothy Height (1912-) now 95 years-old and in a wheel chair, but with a mind as sharp as her broad-brimmed, velvet crimson hat was chic; Myrlie Evers(1933-), who built her own legacy of fighting for justice following the 1963 murder of her husband Medgar in their driveway in Mississippi; Kathleen Cleaver (1945-), the radical revolutionary turned prominent legal scholar and educator; and Sonia Sanchez (1934-) , the renowned poet and scholar, who, realizing as soon as we spoke that morning that I was suffering from a sore throat, promptly handed me a ginger candy from her bag and made me a cup of green tea.
That gesture said it all about the “Freedom Sisters,” the women who had inspired me during my own brush with history, when I walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia, under court order and through hostile white mobs, to enroll as the first black woman student in the school’s 175 year-old history. Freedom’s Sisters earned their stripes, not by not doing what they had to do, but doing anything necessary to do to be of service. Or as Dorothy Height said that morning: “This exhibit reminds us that African American women have seldom done just want they want to do.”
I reiterated that sentiment later, during the tear-jerking ceremonies before a rainbow-colored crowd of Cincinnatians, saying: “…She faced the raw acts of hatred, even as her head was lashed with blows from a policeman’s stick, took a back seat to the brothers, but… pushed from her position of interior strength, … went to jail without bail for freedom … did it all in the face of what may have seemed like impossible odds.”
Later, Dorothy gave us some insights into one woman’s way of getting her due. She told us that she actually was the one female included, along with the male leaders, in many of the important civil rights meetings with presidents and others. But she said it took awhile to realize that when picture-taking time came, she was always on the end, making it easy for her image to be always cropped out of the publicity photos in newspapers and magazines. Finally, she said, she decided to take matters into her own hands: “I just started moving to the middle.” And to be sure, Dorothy Height was almost always the lone woman in the middle of the action. But however alone she was, did she ever REPRESENT.
As I walked ever so slowly through the 20 interactive kiosks that make up the exhibition, I was struck anew by the courage of my sisters — those on whose shoulders I stood, and those with whom I shared our moment.
There was one display for Rosa Parks (1918-2005). The space featured several seats against a wall looking like the inside of a bus. I was prompted by the guide to push a button and look forward. As I did, the first image I saw was of myself in a mirror. The second was Rosa Parks looking back at me from what looked like a seat on the bus in front of me on the other side. It took me to Birmingham and that now historic day in 1955 when Parks refused to give up her seat after being ordered to get up to make room for a white man. On that day she was arrested, and she became the Mother of the modern Civil Rights Movement, opening a door that I and other college students would walk through six years later, when we spilled from our classrooms into the streets shouting “Freedom Now.”
As I made my way to all white classrooms where no one would talk to me, or along walkways where fraternity boys would yell “Nigger go home!” the Southern black students, joined soon by black and white students from the North and other parts of the country, were confronting more deadly and immediate danger and, as Kathleen Cleaver recalled, going to “jail without bail” until the walls of segregation came tumbling down.
I walked on after Rosa Parks and found Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005), the lawyer who was cited for winning nearly every landmark civil rights case of the 50’s and 60’s, including the one against the State of Georgia where I sat in the courtroom as one of two plaintiffs (Hamilton Holmes was the other).
I saw Harriet Tubman(circa 1820 -1913)…who was acknowledged for owning and conducting the Underground Railroad; Francis Watkins Harper (1825-1911), who, her biography said, “used stirring poetry and prose to inspire social activism and integrity.”
-Mary Church Terrell,(1863-1954), a “gifted orator for women’s rights who forced Washington, D.C. restaurants to open their doors to black people.”
-Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862 to 1931), a fearless investigative journalist [who] risked her life to expose the evils of lynching.
-Mary McCleod Bethune (1875 to 1955), college president and founder of the National Council of Negro Women.
-Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987), a passionate educator who taught thousands of African Americans, including Rosa Parks, how to achieve personal and political empowerment at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.
-Ella Jo Baker, (1903 -1986), who “built a network of civil rights organizations and was a co-founder of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC).
-Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), who helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was known for her fighting words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
-Shirley Chisholm, (1924-2005), the first black woman elected to Congress and first the African American to run for president, who declared herself “unbought and unbossed.
-C. Delores Tucker (1927-2005), co-founder of the National Black Congress of Black women and crusader against offensive hip hop lyrics.
-Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), wife of Martin Luther King who earned the title “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement.”
-Betty Shabazz (1936-1997), educator and widow of Malcolm X.
-Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), the first African-American congresswoman from the South.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Charlayne Hunter-Gault (1942-), and I was almost too overcome to approach it. I could not believe that I was positioned in such company, but finally, I made it over and was immediately touched by the obvious time and care that went in to creating my space.
It features pieces I have done on PBS, CNN and elsewhere: They felt alive to the touch and, among other things, made me aware of what my friends have teased me about over the years—my constantly changing hair styles. But I also recalled the words I wrote about myself and the other students in the Movement in my autobiography, In My Place: “We were not heroes to be praised or celebrated or fretted over. We were simply doing what we were born and raised to do.”
Most of us who spoke that night talked about the importance of looking back, and I quoted another freedom fighter not included the exhibition, but important in the history of our Movement, Johnnie Carr. She was a good friend of Rosa Parks, and at 97 wasstill being true to the Movement exhortation to “keep on keeping on.” She passed in February, but on the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ courageous act on the bus, Sister Carr gave some advice to thousands of school children who had come to the Alabama Capitol: “Look back, march forward,” she said.
As I was being driven back to the airport the next day, my driver Frank, a Vietnam war vet, told me he and the other drivers had stood at the back of the hall watching and listening to the proceedings. He said he was flabbergasted when Kathleen Cleaver’s image appeared on the big monitor and, as her biography was read, and one of the younger drivers asked him who she was.
“Why that’s Kathleen Cleaver, ” he told me he responded. “She was a Black Panther leader and was married to Eldridge Cleaver.”
“What’s a Black Panther?” the young man asked. “And who was Eldridge Cleaver?”
“What did you learn in history class?” Frank told me he asked the young man.
“Not any of that,” he said the young man replied, as the others nodded in agreement.
Which is why I travelled from Johannesburg, via Paris and Chicago, to get to Cincinnati. I came carrying the hope that this exhibition would be the start of something; something to capture the imaginations of young people who see it. Something to teach them what they didn’t learn in school: that we existed, that we fought and won our battles, and that while we have made our mark, we also need them to “look back and move forward,” for the battles that we fought and won did not end the inequality and sexism in our world.
The political awareness and involvement that I see among young people in the United States right now is the most exciting thing that’s happened since the days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Once this election is over, no matter who wins, we need to figure out how to keep this newly energized generation involved, whether they remain engaged in politics or just in being good citizens.
And they need to know what it took for us to “keep on keepin’ on,” so that when they reach the inevitable mountain of challenges yet to be met, they can sing the song we used to sing to keep us going “back in the day,” –the same one I sang that recent night in mid-March, to those gathered to honor “Freedom’s Sisters:”
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘roun.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.
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