From Holly Springs to #BlackLivesMatter: Women in the Civil Rights Movement

From Holly Springs to #BlackLivesMatter: Women in the Civil Rights Movement

This blog article was first published in German on the “Feministische Studien”-Blog on 7 April 2016, titled “Von Holly Springs zu #BlackLivesMatter: Frauen in der Schwarzen Bürger_innenrechtsbewegung.” Image: Black Lives Matter protestor, by Fibonacci Blue, CC by 2.0.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born a slave. It took another year until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed slaves’ emancipation when the journalist, civil rights activist and women’s rights activist came into the world in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. It was the end of the Civil War another three years later that led to the actual abolition of slavery. Abolition did not equate the end to racism, of course: from the mid-nineteenth century onward, white supremacists employed social Darwinist “theories” to oppress Black citizens, establishing Jim Crow system in the United States South, which enforced de jure, binary distinctions between Black and white people and segregated them accordingly, and legitimizing the de facto segregation in other parts of the country.

Legal freedom does not equate actual freedom (or social equality) – it is this insight, this experience that permeates the history of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Of course, Ida B. Wells-Barnett who had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1870s, had first hand experience of persisting social inequality. She experienced it again when she was violently dragged out of a train in 1884, accompanied by the applause of white passengers,  despite the fact that she was in possession of a valid ticket; she had refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. As an editor of the Free Speech and Headlight, Wells-Barnett started to publicly denounce Jim Crow, and she was a journalist who fearlessly uncovered racialized violence against Black people and who analyzed lynchings as the systematic, targeted campaigns of oppression and intimidation that they were. Southern Horrors, her thoroughly researched pamphlet on the matter, was published in 1882.

121 years after Southern Horrors‘ publication, #BlackLivesMatter was created, and it is more than a hashtag: There is a movement behind the statement and the demand. Twenty-eight regional associations are part of the #BlackLivesMatter network, and they are fighting against racism on the streets, exercised by authorities, at universities and other institutions by organizing debates, rallies, and staging sit-ins. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi initiated #BlackLivesMatter when George Zimmerman walked free in July 2012 after killing Trayvon Martin. All three of the founders have been active for social justice for years. Alicia Garza stated that #BlackLivesMatter was “a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements” and thus led to the systematic devaluation of and attack on Black people’s lives. The initiative’s founders have been chosen as among the world’s most important leaders by Fortune Magazine this year.

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