Disrespected, Unprotected, and Neglected: Black Women and American Liberation Movements
Written by: Kennedy Kelis
Edited by: Grace Bennett
In a 1962 speech, minister and black radical Malcolm X declared the black woman to be the most “disrespected,” “unprotected,” and “neglected” person in America (Emba). And while this statement was made, of course, amidst a burgeoning and violent political climate that severely abused Americans of color, in the 21st country, his words continue to ring uncomfortably true.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, black women fought resiliently for the voting rights of all Americans. These women organized events and meetings, and they used churches, newspapers, secondary schools, and colleges to promote their ideas (Bailey). However, although their goals were similar to those of black men and white women, these groups often blatantly refused to listen to black women, even going so far as to completely exclude them from their organizations and activities. According to the National Park Service’s Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education, neither black men nor white women acknowledged the “unique challenges” faced by black women in America, for they were arguably far too concerned with the possible liberation of their respective groups and their respective groups only.
Nannie Helen Burroughs, an educator, feminist, and civil rights leader standing with eight other black women as she holds a sign that reads “Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention.”
Nonetheless, even while remaining largely ignored and having the prospect of their liberation placed in abeyance, black women continued to push for the universal suffrage of all Americans. When the black man was fighting for his individual right to vote, the black woman stood beside him, even when his right was granted and hers denied. When the white woman was fighting for her individual right to vote, the black woman stood beside her, even when the intricate details of her personal oppression were horribly reduced and completely cast aside.
Moreover, black women played an essential role in the American Black Power Movement of the 1960s, as well. For example, black radical Mae Mallory, born in 1927 in Macon, Georgia, spent the entirety of her life fighting for black Americans and the working class as a whole, advocating for school desegregation and armed self-defense for African Americans who were not only targeted by individual people, but also by systemic oppression (Rimer). Her decision––as well as the decisions of other black mothers––to keep her children unenrolled from segregated and underfunded public schools due to what they called “educational abuse” even led a New York City judge to acknowledge the “inferior educational opportunities by reason of racial discrimination” faced by black children in the city. According to a piece published by Boston University, Mallory’s work with other black women “laid the groundwork for future desegregation battles in New York and other Northern cities.”
Activist Gloria Richardson, pictured below as she pushes aside the bayonet of a National Guardsman in a 1964 Maryland protest, also led similar initiatives during the 1960s. She helped to form and lead the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, an organization that actively worked against segregation and racial inequality in the city of Cambridge. She worked with United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy to negotiate the Treaty of Cambridge, therefore committing the local government to the desegregation of schools and other public facilities and also creating a human rights commission and a provision for public housing (Treaty of Cambridge). Richardson also attempted to speak at the significant March on Washington as one of the six “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” but she––as well as the five other women attempting to speak––was swiftly denied a chance at the microphone by black male organizers (Gloria Richardson Dandridge, Civil Rights Leader).
Gloria Richardson at a 1963 rally in Cambridge, Maryland.
Both Richardson and Mallory highlighted the unique abuses experienced by black women in America, simultaneously acknowledging the inability of black male leaders to truly address these abuses. However, the names of both of these women have largely been forgotten in American history due to their shared status as black women.
Finally, black women have historically been among the many leaders of American queer liberation movements as well. Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson was an incredibly important figure in the Stonewall uprising, a series of revolutionary demonstrations done by queer Americans following a police raid in June of 1969, and even before the riot, she spent her entire life advocating for queer people (Rindner). Black lesbian Stormé DeLarverie was a major leader in the Stonewall uprising as well. She was an important drag performer at The Jewel Box Revue, the only racially integrated drag ensemble at the time, and her detainment by local police and subsequent victimhood to physical abuse was actually the catalyst of the demonstration. The uprising ignited by these two black, queer women led to the eventual creation of pride month, as well as many gay rights organizations, such as the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, both, of course, founded in large part by black women.
Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Storme DeLarverie, all women of color and all remarkable leaders in American queer liberation movements. It is important to note that while Johnson did dedicate her life to queer liberation, she did, in fact, still face discrimination from white queer people due to her race.
Today, black women in America continue in their fight for the liberation of all people. The modern Black Lives Matter movement was started by a group of black women following the brutal murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman turned vigilante. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi have continued in their fight to protect black Americans from unjust brutality, expanding their once-remote movement to a nationwide organization with over 40 chapters across the country. The Black Lives Matter movement specifically has led to the approval of the duty to intervene police reform measures, the banning of no-knock warrants in Louisville, Kentucky, and the repealing of a former New York state law that previously concealed police disciplinary records from the public view (Menjivar).
Black women also continue in their participation in several women’s and queer liberation movements, although many modern and ostensibly “progressive” organizations today completely disregard the unique experiences of women of color in their advocacy.
Nevertheless, despite our significant contributions to American liberation movements, black women today are still falling victim to senseless violence, degradation, and mistreatment, and the groups for which they have fought are simply allowing it to happen.
In 2015, according to the CDC, black women and Native American women experienced the highest rate of homicide in the country, and “nearly half” of these homicides were related to violence from a male intimate partner (Hargrove). Black women aged 25 to 29 are also eleven times more likely than white women to be murdered while pregnant or within a year after giving birth. Nonetheless, many white “feminist” organizations completely fail to address this issue in their activism.
Janese Talton-Jackson, shot dead after rejecting a man’s advances at a bar.
Moreover, when compared to all other racial groups in the country, black women also fall victim to the “highest rates of intra-racial violence”, meaning that we are overwhelmingly killed by black people––or more specifically––black men (Jones). This can plausibly be attributed to the attitude within communities of black men that to be masculine is to gain the status of “head of the household” by monetarily providing for a family. However, social worker and writer at Time Magazine by the name of “Feminista Jones” argues that when black men are robbed of this ability to economically contribute to their communities due to systemic oppression, many may then turn to assert their masculinity by way of physical or emotional dominance over women. The black man who participates in this behavior knows that the black woman is the breadwinner of the majority of black households, yet he still somehow expects her to bend to his will (Anderson).
This dangerous and unnecessary display of “masculinity” does not only manifest in physical violence. It also manifests in areas of black conversation, such as on the 1.3 million subscriber-strong Youtube platform of late, black “relationship advisor,” Kevin Samuels. Kevin Samuels notoriously brought women––mostly black women––onto his channel, making a show of their crucifixion for an audience of men, then proceeding to ask these women questions regarding their height, weight, number of children, and more. He referred to women by their “sexual marketplace value,” even comparing a black woman to a former NFL linebacker and insisting that she should be “grateful” that a “high-value man” would pick her over a 5’4, 120-pound woman (Hopkins). Kevin Samuels berated women for their independence and “masculinity,” and he shamed single, black mothers for their parental status, completely paying no attention to the black men who left these women this way.
Nonetheless, what is worse than Samuel’s behavior on its own is the fact that the black women whom he has degraded have historically fought for his liberation––and have continued to––since the Africans’ arrival in America. He simply refused to fight for us.
Lastly, not only are black women as a whole falling disproportionately victim to violent crimes and extensive degradation, but black trans women specifically are currently facing a severe epidemic of violence. According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2021, America saw the highest number of transgender and gender non-conforming people murdered in a single year, and the vast majority of these people were black trans women (Brown). And despite the fact that queer Americans as a whole owe their pride to trans women of color––such as the aforementioned Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie, as well as Latina-American activist Sylvia Rivera––many white queer people still simply refuse to acknowledge this crisis.
This piece is not meant to be antagonistic, nor is it meant to be an attack on any individual people. Instead, this piece is a critique of the groups of people who continue to degrade, murder, and assault black women despite the fact that we have been fighting for them for centuries. The black woman has arguably been a significant leader and contributor to many American liberation movements, and it is time that she immediately be treated as such.
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Rindner, Grant. “No One Knows Who Started the Stonewall Rebellion, but These Leaders Were Key.” OprahDaily, Oprah Daily, 2 Nov. 2021, https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a36319161/stonewall-riot-leaders/. Accessed 13 Feb 2022.
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