Unsung Heroes: Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Published: Feb. 26, 2023 at 11:21 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - You have probably seen a lot of African American men on TV and in books who were amazing leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. But did you know there are also countless black women who were considered change agents during the time?

They served as organizers, fundraisers, attorneys, educators, mothers, doctors, religious leaders, nuns, nurses, and even business owners.

On this last Sunday of Black History Month, we shine a special spotlight on the women who put their lives on the line to fight against racism, sexism, and injustice.

They were strong and intelligent women who didn’t care about the spotlight. They just wanted to make the world a better place.

“When you think about African American women and African women being enslaved, and after the enslavement and the emancipation, these women always wanted to be somebody, and they come from this resilience,” said Pamela Junior.

That resilience was the start of a legacy of women who set out to change the atmosphere of discrimination, segregation, and systemic inequality plaguing parts of the country.

“We hear a lot about the amazing men who were part of the movement, but we don’t hear about those women,” Pamela Junior said. “Those women like Aylene Quin from Mccomb, Mississippi, who owned a restaurant and was a single mother of four children. She protested, and she was going back and forth and helped register people to vote. This amazing woman brought a protest to Jackson, Mississippi. Her house was bombed, and all these things were done, but it was her resilience that kept her going on.”

Pamela Junior is the director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum here in Jackson. Inside, there are countless women from small towns to big cities who made it their mission to advocate for change — many who never were spotlight seekers.

“Endesha Ida Mae Holland from Greenwood, Mississippi, stopped school at 11 years old. So many things happened to her, [and she] ended up being a prostitute. She followed a SNCC member into the SNCC office, and she saw black women typing. She saw black women doing professional work, and she wanted to be a part of that. There are photographs of her following Medgar Evers and working, walking, and protesting. She went on to get her GED, she went on to get her master’s degree and her PhD and became a novelist.”

Also, in the museum, you will find living legend Dr. Flonzie Brown Wright.

“Women were really the glue that held the movement together,” Dr. Wright said.

Dr. Wright will tell you she never wanted to be in the public eye. Instead, it was a calling that she answered. She was elected in 1968 as the first African American female to hold a public office with the exception of Mount Bayou.

The position of Election Commissioner in Canton, Mississippi, allowed her to correct many voting rights injustices throughout the state. She also worked with some great men of the movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others locally and nationally, but it was not easy.

“During the 1966 march when Dr. King and others came through Canton and stayed a few days, we were tear-gassed,” said Dr. Wright. “I still wear the scares because I was trampled along with a lot of other people. My life was threatened. Every morning at 2 o’clock, I would get a call, and they would say, ‘We are going to kill you.’ I would have to sleep with my telephone off the hook in between my mattress to get a good night’s sleep.”

She says although she went through these challenges just like many other women in the movement, she never complained.

Instead, she used her voice to fight, a story she shares to this day when talking about her life.

“I would say to them we knew you were coming,” Dr. Wright said. “Patrice, I knew you were coming. I knew you were coming, cameraman, and we knew you were coming because we were fighting for you.”

That spirit to fight for civil rights in the face of adversity was shared by a classmate and a best friend of Flonzie Brown Wright, the late sister Thea Bowman.

This granddaughter of slaves grew up to become a supporter of civil rights and religious values. She also wasn’t afraid to confront racial and cultural barriers.

“With being the First African American Nun to be part of the Franciscan Sisters Perpetual of Adoration, at a point, she was obligated to adhere to their principles and their ideas and practices,” said Dr. Lashunda Calvert, a Hinds Community College professor. “With her background of being African American, she brought in the traditions of gospel music, hymns, spirituals, and so forth.”

Dr. Calvert says Bowman didn’t seek the spotlight. Instead, the devoted Christian followed her heart to effect change.

In fact, she says Bowman helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference to provide support for African American women in Catholic religious life. Bowman died of bone cancer in Canton in 1990. In 2018, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson submitted Bowman to the Vatican for sainthood, and she was designated a Servant of God.

“They made their efforts known, and it wasn’t about them,” Junior said. “They were in the background doing the grunge work because they knew one day their names would be out there, but it was about the grunge work and getting the work done.”

A message to young women watching is this.

“If you want to be proud of yourself, you have got to do things you can be proud of,” said Junior.

“Be brave, be bold, and take your place, so when history is rewritten, it should contain your name,” Wright said.

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