Mothers are the most-honored family members around the world for their selflessness and the love they give to their children.
As Mother’s Day rolls around, it’s easy to fall into the mushy, simple definitions of motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the women in your life who have nurtured those around them, but let’s not forget about those warrior women who have fought to change the course of history for future generations. Take the Civil Rights Movement, for example.
Men were the public face of the campaign for equal rights, but it’s more than fair to argue that women were the real drivers. It’s just that they operated and oversaw and organized without recognition. And to this day, many of those women haven’t received the credit they deserve for mothering the movement to success.
“In some ways it reflects the realities of the 1950s: There were relatively few women in public leadership roles,” Julian Bond told the Associated Press a few years ago. “So that small subset that becomes prominent in civil rights would tend to be men. But that doesn’t excuse the way some women have just been written out of history.”
We all know about the role Rosa Parks played, but less known is the work she did to end sex attacks against Black women, such as Recy Taylor (pictured left) in the Deep South. Women like Taylor were victimized by White men and then raped again by the law, when their attackers were neither arrested nor prosecuted.
And Parks’ role in refusing to give up her seat is just now beginning to be acknowledged as the sophisticated act of a dedicated and savvy activist.
Long before Martin Luther King Jr. called for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, women like Jo Ann Robinson (pictured left), head of the Women’s Political Council, called for a boycott after being treated disrespectfully by a White bus driver. Women also conducted bake sales and organized alternative means of transportation, such as car pools.
Fannie Lou Hamer (pictured right) , though famed for her speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, traveled the Deep South and was brutally beaten and jailed while forcing the issue of voting rights.
Another of the unheralded Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement is Diane Nash.
As a 23-year-old and founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Nash made the decision to continue the Freedom Riders trip over the objections of then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy after a bout of violence.
“I told them that it was clear to me that if the Rides ended, the message would be sent that all you had to do to end a nonviolent campaign was inflict massive violence,” Nash, now 73, told the Chicago Tribune last year on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
“Then nothing else would get done. You couldn’t talk about desegregating public accommodations or anything. It felt like it would impact every part of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Kennedy was not happy.
“Who the hell is Diane Nash?” Kennedy said while speaking to one of his deputies, after finding out the rides would continue.
In fact, Nash’s involvement with and coordination of the Freedom Riders helped clear the way for women to have larger roles in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
Anna Holmes wrote for the Washington Post:
The most iconic images and beloved texts from the 20th-century American civil rights struggle tend to be of and by men. King. John Lewis. Ralph Abernathy. Malcolm X. But the story of institutional racism, segregation, and overt or perceived threats of violence — and the efforts to combat them — is, in many ways, the story of women. And their efforts, directly and indirectly, paved the way for the modern feminist movement.
That’s amazing. There’s nothing soft and mushy about that.
So as you give your mom, auntie, and other special women in your life hugs this coming Mother’s Day, be sure to thank them for whooping your butt into shape, but don’t forget about the often overlooked Mothers of the freedoms you now enjoy.
“I was never one to pick a fight,” said Nash. “But I also wasn’t the type to back down.”