Book Chat: When Everything Changed (Week 3)

[Rosa] Parks, an old schoolmate remembered, was “self-sufficient, competent and dignified” even as a child, a student who always wore a clean uniform, planned ahead, and never sneaked over to the boys’ side of the school like some of the other girls did. Even in defiance she was a perfect lady. When the Montgomery bus driver told her to give up her seat to a white man or be arrested, the petite, middle-aged seamstress calmly replied, “You may do that.” Later, when her husband begged her not to allow herself to be turned into a test case, she cooly went ahead… When she arrived for her court date, she wore a long-sleeved black dress with white cuffs and a small velvet hat with pearls across the top. “They’ve messed with the wrong one now,” cried out a black teenager, who turned out to be absolutely correct…
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The [Montgomery bus] boycott was not spontaneous. It operated on two levels: a public leadership of male ministers, headed by the charismatic young pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and an organization of women volunteers, who did the behind-the-scenes work. The women, although unsung, were not simply following directions from above. They had long ago thought up the idea for the boycott, and they had been preparing for it for almost nine years.

Ella Baker was well into middle age when the students started raising hell… It broke her mother’s heart, but after college, Baker left home and embarked on a career as a community organizer — a job that involved travelling by herself in an era when women were still expected to have a male protector when they were away from home. Baker joined a long and distinguished line of peripatetic American heroines…
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In 1941 Baker was hired as an organizer for the NAACP, and two things quickly became clear. The first was that she was brilliant at the job… Unlike the many male organizers who behaved like visiting superstars, Baker had what the Richmond leaders called a “wonderful and outstanding quality of mixing with any group of people.”
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Her second defining characteristic was a dislike of top-down leadership. “She had an interest in the power of people,” said Lenora Tait-Magubane. “She never gave answers. Miss Ella would ask questions: What about this? Have you thought about so & so? And then let you fight it out… She felt leaders were not appointed but they rose up. Someone will rise. Someone will emerge…
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Baker became one of the founders and acting director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was meant to keep alive the spirit of the Montgomery bus boycott. But the SCLC was defined by Dr. King’s charismatic leadership, and since Baker did not believe in charismatic leaders, she and King never hit it off. She was not offered the permanent directorship…
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Baker’s response was to form a charismatic leader-free organization that would reflect her ideas of what the civil rights movement should be all about. She threw her lot in with the students, helped them organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee… Unsurprisingly, SNCC was more open to women’s leadership than any of the groups that had gone before. Its heyday lasted only a few years, but while it did, SNCC was not fighting only fighting for civil rights but also struggling to create, within itself, a “Beloved Community” in which blacks and whites, men and women, poor and middle class, lived and worked together as equals…
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But Baker’s vision was far more demanding than a simple sharing of power. She was suspicious of quick fixes such as the lunch-counter sit-ins, or any strategy that involved appealing to the federal government to save black Americans from white racists. “People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves,” she said.

These women and their fellows — Septima Clark, Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, all the rest — were not adorable plaster saints, they were heroic warriors.






37 replies
  1. 1
    Trurl says:

    I was just thinking of Dr. King, actually.

    If Dr. King were alive today, what would he say about the administration of Barack Obama?

    It’s a fair question.

  2. 2
    Corner Stone says:

    Lovin’ it!

  3. 3

    Hi, everybody.

    I learned a lot from this week’s reading. I had not heard of the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these names were new to me. I was impressed with the patient struggle, push, pull, keep-at-it that these women demonstrated.

    A very nice chapter.

  4. 4

    Hi, Corner.

    Would you like me to send you some of our rain?

  5. 5
    WereBear says:

    As so often, women are pushed into the background; just because they work so much behind the scenes.

    In fact, a bit of cooperation can be an extraordinary alternative to head-butting.

  6. 6
    cckids says:

    I loved Unita Blackwell, the Mississippi women who gave up housekeeping & crafting & “women’s work” to join up with SNCC. When warned she might die, she said “I’m dying anyway”. The generations of women stuck at home, hating it & feeling that there was something wrong with them for hating it, resonate with me. We have the choice today (if you can make it work economically), to be home if that is what we want, to work if that’s the dream, to do both. I was born in 1963, and remember so many women-teachers, relatives, who, looking back, obviously hated what they were doing–but felt they had no choice. It was so sad; such a waste of talent & people.

  7. 7

    In fact, a bit of cooperation can be an extraordinary alternative to head-butting.

    We humans tend to forget that regularly. Maybe we need to relearn it often. But cooperation can more mountains, literally and figuratively.

  8. 8
    Anne Laurie says:

    Linda F:

    I was impressed with the patient struggle, push, pull, keep-at-it that these women demonstrated.

    Community organizers, FTW!

    Patience is not one of my strengths. I’d never have had the particular brand of courage these women demonstrated in abundance.

  9. 9
    SBJules says:

    I may have to actually read the book :) Fannie Lou Hamer & Ella Baker were really amazing. So were the working women of Montgomery, the ones that cleaned houses and truly made the bus boycott work. They walked to work for awhile. Then the women they worked for drove thm back & forth despite their husbands’ disapproval.

  10. 10
    MAJeff says:

    Ah, yes, the Women’s Political Council. They had been agitating for a boycott for a while.

    However, Montgomery wasn’t even the first bus boycott. In 1953, there was a one-week boycott of the buses in Baton Rouge. The organizers in Montgomery were in touch with the organizers in Baton Rouge and learned from them with regard to such things as establishing a carpool system.

  11. 11
    WereBear says:

    There were always women writers so I had role models. But many woman had to forge ahead and make their own conception of Leadership without a lot of precedent. One must trust in their own internal cues. Takes guts; and also fear of the alternative.

  12. 12
    cckids says:

    Anne Laurie:

    I’d never have had the particular brand of courage these women demonstrated in abundance.

    Yes. As well as the forbearance & tolerance to put up with so much crap, from both sides! And to do so much of it while always keeping up that impeccably dressed appearance we keep hearing about.

    Would wear me out, just the wearing of gloves, heels & hats all the time would make me too cranky to keep the peace. :)

  13. 13
    MAJeff says:

    They walked to work for awhile. Then the women they worked for drove thm back & forth despite their husbands’ disapproval.

    More than the white women driving them, blacks in the city established a carpool system that followed the bus routes. They ran into problems with the city when it came to collecting “fares” but managed to work around that system. It wasn’t white women that allowed the maintenance of the boycott (a la The Long Walk Home) but black people in the city that created an organizational mechanism to allow people to maintain the boycott.

  14. 14
    Damned at Random says:

    The women were on the front lines and were treated no better than the men WRT beatings, hosings and arrests. So much for the pedestal. Yet their name are not familiar. Would their stories have been told if there were more women in the newsrooms? Or is the grunt work of organizing and printing pamphlets just not that interesting?

  15. 15
    stuckinred says:

    Do ya’ll know about Beach Lady? MaVynne Betsch was a pioneer in her own right. My friend made this documentary about her.

    ps She was Jennetta Cole’s sister.

  16. 16
    Anne Laurie says:

    cckids:

    Would wear me out, just the wearing of gloves, heels & hats all the time would make me too cranky to keep the peace. :)

    Yeah, but the gloves would’ve been useful if (once) we hadda choke some dumb obstructionist…

    (Like I said: Patience, not my strong suit.)

  17. 17

    Anne #15

    Yeah, but the gloves would’ve been useful if (once) we hadda choke some dumb obstructionist..

    Right! No fingerprints! Less DNA strewn about!

  18. 18

    Hypothetical question:

    Would the Civil Rights Movement have gone better if there had been more involvement from white folks or less? [Yes, the conflicts are a part of this question.]

  19. 19
    cckids says:

    Yeah, but the gloves would’ve been useful if (once) we hadda choke some dumb obstructionist…

    But then you might get blood on them, and you know thats a bitch to get out. Stomp him w/the high heels, just wipes right off the leather.

  20. 20
    MAJeff says:

    Hypothetical question:
    Would the Civil Rights Movement have gone better if there had been more involvement from white folks or less? [Yes, the conflicts are a part of this question.]

    Which phase and in what capacity?

  21. 21
    WereBear says:

    I was about 3 or 4 when I was watching my mother get dressed for a party. Long line bra, girdle, slip, garter belt; at that point I declared I wasn’t going todress like that when I grew up!

    My mother said, “Oh, but you HAVE to.”

    But all of us are reaping the benefits of that early refusal….

  22. 22
    WereBear says:

    When white people got involved, I think it was inspiration from what black people were doing, but most had no clue; some people can see what is in front of them, much less down the street.

  23. 23

    MAJeff #20

    Which phase and in what capacity?

    Don’t know.

    When something is actively going down, you can’t tell what phase it’s in.

    On the other hand, I don’t know what capacity, either.

  24. 24
    stuckinred says:

    Here’s a piece about the Freedom Riders. It would not have been the same if they were not integrated.

  25. 25
    MAJeff says:

    One of the reasons I asked about phase and capacity has to do with things like leadership. I would strongly suggest Aldon Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Belinda Robnett’s How Long, How Long? and Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency (as starting places). One of the key things, is that leadership, organization, and resources were indigenous. They came from the people who were oppressed and trying to create change. Whites trying to capture positions of leadership, to tell the black folks what they needed, would probably not have been very useful or helpful and would have likely inhibited the movement. White Montgomeryites providing gas money and the like for the bus boycott, though, would have facilitated mobilization and increased the capacity for it to keep going. So, the phase of the movement, and the various mobilizations within it, are going to influence the various roles that are available, and the roles people play are going to influence what takes place.

    One problem with the main narrative of the Civil Rights Movement is its focus on the charismatic leadership of MLK. Yes, he was important and Montgomery is where he first came to public attention, but there was a mobilized, organized community, with the Women’s Political Council, the NAACP, and the churches, that was able to produce the mobilization. Without an organized community, Kind would have been FAAAAAAR less significant.

    (And, please, can we surrender the narrative of Mrs. Parks being a tired woman who got fed up–she was a long-time activist in the city. I’m not accusing anyone here of making that claim, but she had been working toward change in the city and resisting Jim Crow for a long time.)

  26. 26
    Elie says:

    I would quibble a little with Ella Baker’s comment about needing to go it alone, to be self sufficient in helping oneself. I would point out that the “good” that is achieved with racial and all values around equality in general, are not just enjoyed as a “private”, personal, good. Freedom, justice, fairness and equality are very very much PUBLIC goods that cannot fully be even appreciated or fully experienced by the individual. These values are what must be fought, won and ENJOYED as a community to be fully experienced and empowered to their highest level..

    It is good to be strong and able to be self sufficient. But it is essential to remember and celebrate the strength and power of the community, aware in its values and committment. I would add, that there is nothing sweeter, than a shared value, dearly fought and won not just for the one, but for the many. We know that in our deepest selves, which is why we so celebrate the lives and contributions of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.

    Rosa didnt do what she did for Rosa to sit at the front of the bus. She did it standing up for us and bringing us together to be strong and value each other for deeper meaning and goals that had power in their sharing, not in the individual…..

  27. 27
    WereBear says:

    I KNOW that at the time the true scope of what these women were doing would not have been believed. It did not fit the cast in cement Narrative.

  28. 28
    Damned at Random says:

    The leadership had to be black of course – otherwise “we” would have “given” them their rights. But a few more white faces in the crowd might have given the fencesitters cover to join the movement. Not sure it would have made the struggle any easier- or faster. My generation will be buried before full racial civil rights are a reality

  29. 29
    Damned at Random says:

    I read Rosa Park’s autobiography a few years ago- IIRC she and her husband were both board members of the local NAACP and she was selected to make the bus protest because she was beyond reproach – a young girl had volunteered, but had an out-of-wedlock child. Also, her telling didn’t say her husband was anything but supportive

  30. 30

    stuckinred.

    Freedom Riders.

    Absolutely. Integration was the point.

  31. 31

    If you are faced with current civil rights struggles, should you join the struggle and when and where and how?

    For instance, if you think that migrant farm workers should be treated with dignity and paid what they are worth, when and where do you join that struggle?

  32. 32
    MAJeff says:

    IIRC she and her husband were both board members of the local NAACP and she was selected to make the bus protest because she was beyond reproach – a young girl had volunteered, but had an out-of-wedlock child

    She was the secretary for the local NAACP. She did things like organizing local youth to check out books from the segregated library. She had also had a run-in with the same bus driver that had her arrested a dozen years earlier for refusing to give up her seat (but she hadn’t been arrested that first time).

    The single pregnant teen was named Claudette Colvin.

  33. 33
    Anne Laurie says:

    DaR:

    Also, her telling didn’t say her husband was anything but supportive

    I’m sure he was supportive and still terrified. But good spouses know when not to share their terrors with the loved one who’s walking into the fire. Parks’ achievement has been reduced in retrospect to ‘just a tired little lady sitting down on the bus’ but at the time there was every reason to believe she was risking her life, literally.

  34. 34
    cckids says:

    Anne Laurie –

    Parks’ achievement has been reduced in retrospect to ‘just a tired little lady sitting down on the bus’ but at the time there was every reason to believe she was risking her life, literally.

    This. It’s more of the condescending “little woman” attitude they had to put up with. The fact that she was an intelligent, determined, courageous woman has been buried lo these many years. So many things in this book are a revelation to me. Thanks, AL!

  35. 35
    Anne Laurie says:

    Thanks everybody… same time, same place, next week?

    I’m thinking we stick with just one more chapter, “The Decline of the Double Standard“, so’s we have more time to think about how much of our individual social histories we care to share, if y’all know what I mean and I think you do. :}

  36. 36
    Elie says:

    Anne Laurie #33 –

    Yes, absolutely this…..

    I know how hard it is to stand up for something when you have something small at risk. Imagine thinking that you or your loved ones could be harmed… whoa — that is an amazing and powerful decision to go forward…

    There must be a special place for her spirit (and that of her husband) to acknowledge the risk that they knew but STILL moved forward…

    We see her as an idealized hero. What did Rosa feel in her day to day self? Did she lay awake at night? Did she wonder if she had the right to put her loved ones and husband in danger? Did she question her assessment that her actions would be “worth it”? Did she decide to “stop thinking” about the rightness of it?

    Can you remember the last thing you stood up for against others where you might have actually lost something? Lost something valuable? Until you do, you and we don’t appreciate the measure of her heroism..

    Amazing… nothing but good and complete respect for her lives in my heart…

  37. 37
    Nutella says:

    Coming in late on this. I just finished the chapter. It was stunning to me to read all those details of how it was. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was going on then but I realize know that what I thought I knew was the media version of history.

    I am appalled that I had never even heard of Ella Baker and Diane Nash but have heard of Fannie Lou Hamer because she was on TV at the convention. I’ll be going through the notes from this chapter for future reading.

    I had always thought of Gail Collins as a light, humorous writer but I see in the notes that she interviewed 10 women for this chapter as well as reading the literature. I hope she writes more books like this and am looking forward to reading the rest of this one.

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