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How and in what ways have perspectives towards the importance of women the civil rights movement changed?

Perspectives are angles we take on that give us a lens to view a situation or a person or a memory. And so often these perspectives blur our vision, allowing us to only see one. We forget that there are so many more that are never considered because we isolate ourselves from them. The Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was viewed by the media as a male dominated movement. The role of women was overlooked and almost forgotten about. How did women contribute? Greater access to media and new sources has allowed us to uncover a new side of the movement we may not have realised before.

Section I: Identification & Evaluation of Sources


This investigation will answer the question, how and why have perspectives towards the importance of women in the black civil rights movement during 1960s changed? The two sources I have chosen to evaluate are relevant to the investigation because they demonstrate contrasting perspectives. The first is from the female point of view and the second is a documentary that is less personal but provides more detail about the actual events.  


‘Hands on the Freedom Plow’ is an important source used in this investigation, edited by six women involved in the movement[1]. It is a collection of personal accounts by women in ‘The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’ (SNCC). Each chapter is always attached with a name such as, “Two variations on nonviolence – Mildred Forman Page”, demonstrating how content is valuable because stories are told by women who lived through this movement providing personal perspectives[2]. These first hand accounts were collected after the movement took place, and was then published in 2010. The origin of this source is also valuable because it reveals neglected stories. Now, there is more evidence about female involvement, which can help with this study by giving a voice to the women who were not able to explain their own side.


However, it is also important to consider the possible limitations of the source. The purpose of these personal accounts is to uncover forgotten stories told by women and to “look at women activists and [their] backgrounds”[3]. Women did not have the chance to express opinions during the time, which could alter the purpose of this source by exaggerating participation. The origin is also limiting because it was published in 2010 and “after four decades [their] recall may not be perfect and [their] interpretations may differ”[4]. This may lead to slightly inaccurate evidence because memories will have faded.


A second significant source used in this investigation, ‘Freedom Riders American Experience’, is a documentary first aired in 2011 aiming to provide a greater understanding of the 1961 Freedom Rides[5]. This makes the purpose valuable because it demonstrates different perspectives of activists, providing a broader understanding of what happened. The content of this documentary is also valuable because it is more visual than a text based source. It provides a sense of political atmosphere during the time and highlights the civil rights struggle through footage from the time, interviews from activists and articles.


However, this can also make content a limitation. The documentary is sympathetic towards the struggle for civil rights and the activists, lacking evidence of other opinions during the time. This creates a false perception of what the entire population believed.  It was also aired in 2011, and the movement took place in the 1960s. Political activity has changed because now racism is less socially acceptable meaning views on racial discrimination also changed, affecting reliability of the source.


"Brown v. Board of Education." The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Accessed May 11, 2016.

EpiCenterOfChange. "Freedom Riders (PBS)." YouTube. November 03, 2012. Accessed April 26, 2016.

FranklinCenterAtDuke. "Left of Black with Judy Richardson and Charles Cobb Jr." YouTube. February 02, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2016.

"Freedom Rides (1961)." Freedom Rides - The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Accessed May 13, 2016.

Grimes, William. "Fearful Rides To Freedom How Freedom Riders Broke The Back Of Segregated Transportation In The South.: [Broward Metro Edition]." Proquest.

"History - Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment." United States Courts. Accessed May 11, 2016. Staff. "Brown v. Board of Education." January 01, 2009. Accessed June 08, 2016. Staff. "Civil Rights Act." January 01, 2010. Accessed May 14, 2016. Staff. "Montgomery Bus Boycott." January 01, 2010. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Holsaert, Faith S. "Part 2." In Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, 33-91. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

"Judy Richardson." History and Current Issues for the Classroom. Accessed April 26, 2016.

Ludvan67. "Face to Face - Dr Martin Luther King Jr Pt. 1." YouTube. November 15, 2011. Accessed May 11, 2016.

Section II: Investigation


The black civil rights movement was a long struggle for freedom that saw “a distinctive, even exceptional, moment” in the 1960s[1]. The traditional view of the civil rights movement was very male orientated and hidden contributions were often neglected or overlooked. These hidden factors include the role of women in the movement, which this investigation aims to uncover.


Why did these traditional views of a male dominated movement exist? During the time women played an important role but were not as recognised. A great amount of significance was placed on predominant male leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X because media attention was directed at them. The media historians analyse from the 1960s manipulates the story of the movement by not being able to show every account, often excluding how “activists were [also] women… not just elite men”[2]. These famous leaders were important and helped drive the movement, however it did mean that women were not as acknowledged.


The small amount of women with prominent leadership positions as well as lacking media attention hides their significance. One of the most well known female activists, Rosa Parks helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 led by Martin Luther King. Parks was provided with media attention for helping start the movement, however the focus then switched to King and his leadership. Despite Parks’ media coverage, the movement did not really acknowledge that she was also secretary of the “National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People” (NAACP) and had predominant focus on King[3]. The importance of women can be overlooked because of different media focus and because there were not many women with superior leadership positions like King. They did not have the ability to explain their role in the media due to lack of females in congress and equal rights for women. This did not hinder female importance; it only meant that their recognition was not always considered.


Their role was also overlooked as mentioned by Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman. She says in her famous speech to congress in 1969, “The unspoken assumption is that women… do not have the executive ability, orderly minds, leadership skills and are too emotional”[4]. The importance of women is not always recognised because society did not view women in the same way as men. This changed in the 1960s when women started becoming more active in the movement.


New perspectives of the importance of women have also changed because of the comparison between the radical turn in the 1960s and the more passive movement prior. There is now more evidence to demonstrate this, which can alter perspectives. The Brown vs. Board of Education Act of 1955 eventually made political change, however only three years later in 1957 The Little Rock Nine incident occurred because “the Supreme Court did not immediately [implement] its ruling”[5]. The movement slowed down in the 1950s, however evidence can demonstrate how after this women helped radicalise the movement, therefore changing perspectives.


In the early 1960s, evidence highlight how the movement started to take a radical turn aided by an increase in female participation, demonstrating how new perspectives can be formed. SNCC was created in 1960 after a student meeting organised by Ella Baker[6]. Angeline Butler was also one of the founding members of SNCC and was actively involved in the movement. Butler said that “during three years of demonstrations… I don’t believe we ever felt a difference between [men and women]”[7]. After three years of participating and organising sit-ins all over Southern USA, Butler believed that women were equal to men. Women were given political voices when SNCC was created, and “instead of an occasional bus boycott… riskier activism” occurred[8]. This chance for women to feel equal to men inspired confidence and women contributed more especially through SNCC. Helen O’Neal-McCray went on to work for the “Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee”[9], whilst Joan Trumpauer Mulholland participated “in the Jackson Movement’s direct action campaigns”[10]. Diane Nash was a major strategist “for the SCLC’s 1965 voting rights campaign”[11]. Nash was also “valued by the staffs of both SNCC and SCLC” demonstrating how women also made inspirational differences just like King and Malcolm X but were not always recognised[12].


The beginning of SNCC and increasing female participation helped introduce the Freedom Rides of 1961, also highlighting a different perspective of the movement. In 1946, Irene Morgan refused to leave her seat on a segregated bus in Virginia and it can be believed that “there wouldn’t be any Freedom Rides without [her]”[13]. The Morgan vs. Virginia case banned Jim Crow laws and segregation in interstate travel buses. Southern USA however never obeyed these laws, which inspired the Freedom Rides. Thirteen men and women, both black and white students from SNCC and CORE boarded the Greyhound Freedom Riders bus, travelling from Washington DC to New Orleans. The students knew they risked being arrested or killed, which women had never really faced before. King warned the Freedom Riders that there would be a mob of violent attacks in Alabama. A mob of over 200 people violently attacked and firebombed the bus, brutally injuring and traumatising the passengers. Despite this, Nash urged them to continue the protest because giving up would create the idea that “all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence”[14]. This went on to inspire more Freedom Rides until eventually there were 430 freedom riders and real social change. The movement achieved its goal of major media traction because “the whole world is watching”[15]. Worldwide attention was drawn to the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy, the President called legislation into banning Jim Crow laws indefinitely. The Freedom Rides helped highlight the leadership of Diane Nash, open doors for female participation and radicalise the movement, a view that may not have been considered previouly.


The radical effect of the Freedom Rides helped push the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The act was “considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement”, ending segregation in public areas and banning employment discrimination[16]. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, making these laws successful in bringing women into the movement even more. In 1964, Shirley Chisholm won a seat in the New York State Assembly and in 1969 became the first black Congresswoman. Chisholm served on different committees and addressed the House of Representatives proposing “the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights for all, regardless of colour or gender”[17]. She was extremely active in the movement and encouraged the activism of women by serving on the Advisory Council of the National Organisation of Women and the National Political Congress of Black Women, helping women find their voice.


It was only after the 1960s that the significance of women in the civil rights movement began to be recognised by historians. This investigation shows that without the involvement and leadership of women, the achievements in the 1960s would not have been so great. This does not diminish the role of men but it does ensure that a one-sided portrayal is not dominating the debates around the movement.

Section III: Reflection

This investigation has allowed me to understand the process historians undergo when exploring history. It has provided me with an understanding of the importance of different sources but also the challenges faced when investigating. These challenges include the analysis of how perspectives can change due to greater access to new evidence.


When I began, I researched around a wider time frame, meaning I could later narrow down my period of study. I read personal accounts by female civil rights activists because it links to my question, ‘How and why have perspectives towards the importance of women in the black civil rights movement during 1960s changed?’ Finding these perspectives is significant and is a method used by historians so they can then go on and analyse them. I found that these personal accounts were valuable because they demonstrate hidden significances of women and how perspectives are altered as a result of more evidence. However, these accounts also had limitations because they only provided one perspective, which had to also be acknowledged. Through this, I learnt the importance of using a range of sources and the importance of perspectives, which is another method used by historians. I additionally looked into sources that were not centered on female participation to analyse perspectives for an evaluated and reasoned answer. Historians also use different types of sources, which is why I found it important to not only use text-based sources, but also videos to further understanding. I learnt the significance of methods such as these during this investigation. 


One of the main challenges historians face include analysing the values and limitations of a source to assess reliability. Often sources contain one-sided opinions, which make it hard to see perspective because views may be subjective due to circumstances at the time.  One of the major sources I looked at was, ‘Hands on the Freedom Plow’, a personal account of women in the movement, which although gave me great personal insight to uncover neglected views also meant I had to be wary for potential exaggerations. I also used other sources with different points of view such as ‘Freedom Riders American Experience’ so that I could compare differences and evaluate my research to demonstrate a reasoned argument. Often it was difficult to evaluate different sources, but it was important to make sure that with specific regards to my question, a male dominated opinion was not the only one accounted for. This evaluation of source reliability as well as finding its values and limitations is a significant part of the investigation, because it helps develop a critical analysis of the implications of the question and a well-reasoned conclusion.


In this investigation, I wanted to highlight the actions of hidden contributions such as women because the traditional view of a male oriented movement is still present today. Through this investigation I have been able to use the methods of a historian and understand the difficulties faced. It has allowed me to see how reliable sources can or cannot be and how sometimes they may neglect important aspects such as women participation.  

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, ed. Speeches That Changed the World: The Stories and Transcripts of the Moments That Made History. London: Quercus, 2008. 141-63.

Olson, Lynne. "Chapter 16." In Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970, 264-78. New York: Scribner, 2001.

"Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott." Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott. Accessed May 11, 2016.

Stephen, Tuck. "Prologue." In We Ain't What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, 1-10. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

"Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)." Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Accessed May 11, 2016.

"Women in the Civil Rights Movement - Civil Rights History Project." The Library of Congress. Accessed April 26, 2016.


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