Hidden Figures: Black Women Have Always Been On The Frontline Of American Activism

Artwork By Rantt Media Production Designer Madison Anderson

Hidden Figures: Black Women Have Always Been On The Frontline Of American Activism

From the Civil Rights Movement to the resistance, black women have shown us civil disobedience can be a powerful tool.

When Maxine Waters stepped forward last month to encourage holding this administration accountable for the unconscionable policy of separating refugee children from their parents, she ignited a firestorm. The right quickly weaponized Maxine’s words as a call for violence and civil war. Even Democrats were edged away from the discussion with misplaced admonishments for civility that echoed throughout social media.

Juxtaposing these calls for civility next to the actual footage of Maxine’s speech is puzzling because her words contain no reference to anything other than nonviolent means of protest. And it certainly pales in comparison to some of the violent rhetoric Donald Trump has used in campaign rallies to motivate his base.

When Auntie Maxine, as her followers have dubbed her, stepped forward to advocate for accountability in the face of atrocity and human rights abuses, she was standing on the shoulders of a proud tradition of black women who have been at the forefront of civil disobedience. Many in the black community have pushed back on the idea of civility, insisting it’s just another way to tone police people of color and reinforce the status quo.

As many allies and fledging activists are learning, “good trouble” has its place in America’s history of turning the tide against racism and sexism. And at the forefront of these acts of civil disobedience, both past and present, we find black women. They’re running for office, they’re registering voters, they’re organizing protests. And they’re following a tradition in the black community of putting their bodies on the line to oppose this administration.

A History of “Good Trouble”

While black women lead the charge for civil rights in many respects, they’ve often been conveniently written out of the history of the movement, lost in the long shadow of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Many know Rosa Parks as an elderly woman who kicked off the Montgomery bus boycott with her act of civil disobedience, but Rosa had been an activist long before that fateful day when she refused to give up her seat. She followed in the footsteps of other black women like Claudette Colvin, a black teenager, who was one of the first to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nearly nine months before Rosa Parks.

Black women like Daisy Bates, who was pivotal in the fight to end segregation in Arkansas schools, and Ella Baker, who was a leader in the civil rights movement and a driving force of the NAACP, are not household names. But their work to encourage nonviolent protest and to advocate for their community was instrumental in ending segregation and passing the Civil Rights Act. Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton, Dr. Pauli Murray and Dorothy Height deserve more than a footnote in the history books.

From sit-ins to boycotts, from marches to arrests, the entire point of the work of black activists, many of them women, was to disturb the peace of the system of white supremacy that continues to humiliate, persecute, and oppress people of color today. As Martin Luther King noted in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” our communities cannot be patient and wait for “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

As many refuse to heed misplaced calls for civility in the face of the systematically racist policies of the Trump administration, it is black women who have been lighting the way, with acts of civil disobedience that have inspired a nation.

“Black women are on the frontline of revolution”— Bree Newsome

Most of America remembers Bree Newsome “shimmying up that flagpole” in front of the South Carolina state house in 2015, removing the Confederate flag that hung there, and igniting a fierce debate about the future of the symbol of white supremacy. Bree was arrested, but her actions were a watershed moment and, within a week of her act of civil disobedience, the Confederate flag was taken down permanently.

Bree’s activism points towards a vital fact about civil disobedience. These nonviolent means of protest, when done properly, have the potential to galvanize support and propel a movement forward. Activists make these risky statements, despite condemnation for “breaking the law,” for precisely that reason. The power of a fierce act in the face of authority, a photo of a single person stepping out as a beacon of bravery, can inspire more action than a thousand tweets.

“People of color, particularly black folks…we don’t get our due justice”—Anita Cameron

As a queer black woman who has been protesting on behalf of the disabled and disadvantaged for decades, Anita Cameron knows a thing or two about civil disobedience. She’s been arrested 131 times in the past 30 years, including at the now infamous die-in at Mitch McConnell’s office in 2017 to protest cuts to healthcare. Her activism began long before this administration, and it’ll carry on long after it.

Anita talks often about the powerful impact not just of acts of nonviolent protest, but also the empowerment of putting her disabled body on the line.

“People look at the disability and they think we are helpless or fragile…and that’s so far from the truth.”

“When they go low, we go high. And I went as high as I could.” —Therese Patricia Okoumou

When 44-year-old Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the platform of the Statue of Liberty on Independence Day, she wanted her act of civil disobedience to bring attention to the immigration crisis. She certainly accomplished that mission.

Therese, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is hardly a stranger to activism. She’s been fighting racial discrimination in Staten Island for the last decade and is an outspoken member of Rise and Resist, the group that engaged in the Abolish Ice protest on the 4th of July.

“We are the next generation of voters, and of leaders. We have more power than we give ourselves credit for.” —Kenidra Woods

If black women like Therese and Bree represent the present of the movement, activists like Kenidra Woods are the future. She’s been fighting to make a difference in the lives of young people since the age of 13, and more recently, has entered the ranks as a pivotal figure in the #NeverAgain movement.

In addition to launching the Hope for Humanity Project in her hometown of St.Louis, 17-year-old Kenidra has vowed to continue school walkouts and student-led activism until sensible gun control is a priority.

“We are keeping on with this fight until there is common sense gun legislation in every state.”

“If I’m silent, hate wins.” —Saida Dahir

Black teenage activists like Kenidra have sprung up across the United States and some of them have become icons of political movements. Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler won the hearts of America with her impassioned speech at the March for Our Lives rally in DC while young activists like Mari Copeny have been leading the charge for clean water in Flint for years.

17-year-old Saida Dahir, a Somalian refugee who spent the first three years of her life in a Kenyan refugee camp, also knows what it means to raise her voice. A poet who often advocates for refugees, Saida’s poem about school shootings, read out loud during a March for Our Lives rally in Utah, gained a lot of attention both locally and nationally.

Since then, Saida has dived headfirst into activism, organizing and participating in protests against immigration and vigils for Black Lives Matter. From her perspective, nonviolent protest is a matter of survival.

“I’m black, I’m Muslim, I am all these stereotypes. I’m a woman. My whole identity has been under attack.”

As black women lead the way in opposing this administration with acts of civil disobedience, others are beginning to follow. Last month, nearly 600 protesters were arrested on Capitol Hill, including Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Also in attendance were Senator Duckworth and her newborn baby, wrapped in the foil thermal blankets that have become a hallmark of children in government detention centers, and chanting “We care, do you?”

It’s important to recognize that, while white allies are beginning to wake up to the idea that calls for civility are misplaced, it’s still people of color and often, specifically black women, who are on the front lines. Placing their bodies and their future in harm’s way to fight for justice. And it’s a reminder that those sitting at home, comfortable in their privilege and tweeting about civility, have a long way to go before they understand the necessity of “good trouble” and what it means to be on the right side of history.

Opinion // Activism / America / Black Women / Democracy