Martin Luther King, Jr. gets his day, but these ladies deserve to be celebrated, too.
Ella Josephine Baker
Civil Rights Activist (1903-1986)
Ella Baker was a civil rights and human rights activist whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside famous leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She mentored young activists such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses. She has been called “One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.”
Ella was born in Norfolk Virginia in December of 1903 and was raised in rural North Carolina. She was close to her grandmother, who told Ella many stories about her life as a slave. Ella went to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1927.
Ella moved to New York after graduating, and worked a number of jobs to try to make ends meet. She started the Young Negros’ Cooperative League, in which members pooled their funds in order to get better deals on goods and services.
Around 1940, Ella became a field secretary for the NAACP. She traveled extensively, raising funds and recruiting new members for the organization. In 1946, Ella became the NAACP’s Director of Branches, but had to resign from her post when she took over care for her niece a few years later (she felt the position required too much travel). She stayed in New York, however, and worked for a number of organizations, including the New York chapter of the NAACP as well as the New York Urban League.
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr asked her to serve as the Executive Director of the Sothern Christian Leadership Conference, and she accepted. During her time with the SCLC, Ella set up the event that would lead to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was very active in supporting and counseling this group of student activists. Ella left the SCLC in 1960, but remained active with the SNCC, helping them form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. The MFDP was vital in raising awareness for the cause of civil rights in Mississippi, and nation wide.
Throughout her life, Ella fought for civil rights through protests and by helping others find their voice. Her nickname was “Fundi,” which comes from a Swahili word that refers to a person who passes down a craft for the next generation.
Ella died in New York on her 83rd birthday.
Publisher, Journalist, Civil Rights activist (1914-1999)
Daisy Bates was a publisher and author, and served as the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. She played a crucial role in supporting the “Little Rock Nine” and desegregating schools in Arkansas. Her book, The Long Shadow of Little Rock documents her involvement with the Little Rock Nine and her fight against segregation.
Daisy was born in November in Huttig, Arkansas. When Daisy was young, her mother was sexually assaulted and murdered by three white men. Her father then abandoned her and she was raised by friends of the family. She married L.C. Bates in the early 1940s and the couple moved to Little Rock, where they ran a newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. The paper championed civil rights. In 1942, they ran a story about a black soldier who was shot by a local policeman while on leave from Camp Robinson. After running the story, the couple nearly lost the paper die to an advertising boycott, but a statewide circulation campaign restored its financial viability. Daisy became the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP in 1952.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. Even still, African American students were turned away when they tried to enroll in white schools in Arkansas. The Bates’ chronicled the students’ battle in their newspaper.
In September of 1957, the “Little Rock Nine” first attempted to attend the all-white Central High School. The governor, Orval Faubus, called on the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. The students persevered, and Bates’ home became the headquarters for the battle to integrate Central High School. President Eisenhower stepped in and ordered federal troops to escort the students. On September 25, the Little Rock Nine left from Daisy’s home and, with protection from the soldiers, attended their first day of school at Central High. Bates remained close with the students, offering support as they braved harassment and intimidation from those opposed to desegregation. In October, Daisy was arrested for not turning over NAACP records. She was fined, but her conviction was eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court.
She and her husband continued publishing their paper, even amid numerous threats they received, until 1959. In 1962, Daisy published her book chronicling the battle she fought for school integration (former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the introduction). For a few years, she worked for the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C. She also worked on antipoverty projects for the Lyndon B Johnson administration.
Upon return to Little Rock in the mid-1960s, Daisy spent much of her time on community programs. She even resuscitated her newspaper after her husband’s death in 1980. Daisy received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1984, and carried the Olympic torch in 1996. She died on November 4, 1999 in Little Rock.
Dorothy F. Cotton
Civil rights leader, academic, author, speaker (1930-)
Dorothy Cotton worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr as the director of the SCLC’s Citizenship program at the peak of the civil rights movement. She is recognized as the highest ranking woman in the SCLC during most of the 60s.
Dorothy was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1930. Her mother died in 1934, and she and her three sisters were raised by their father, a tobacco factory worker with only a third grade education. After graduating high school, Dorothy attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She paid for her tuition by working as a housekeeper for the university president Robert Prentiss Daniel. When Daniel accepted a position as president of Virginia State College in Petersburg, Dorothy transferred there to complete her degree in English and library science. She married George Cotton shortly after graduating from Virginia State, and went on to pursue her master’s degree in speech therapy at Boston University.
In the 1950s, Dorothy began attending Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, where she met pastor Wyatt Tee Walker. She became involved in protests against segregation and became secretary of the Petersburg Improvement Association. She first met Martin Luther King Jr at a dinner in Petersburg.
In 1960, King invited Dotothy’s pastor to serve as SCLC’s executive director in Atlanta, and Dorothy went along to serve as his administrative assistant. A year later, she became the SCLC’s Educational Consultant, then Education Director of the CEP (Citizenship Education Program) by 1963. She taught literacy, leadership, and nonviolent protest tactics, while motivating others to become politically active registered voters. While with the CEP, she traveled throughout the south conducting educational programs with Andrew Young and Septima Clark.
Cotton worked closely with Dr. King, traveling with him as part of a group of close family and friends, when he went to Norway to receive the Nobel Prize in 1964. She was in the hotel room next door to him when he was shot on April 4, 1968.
Dorothy retired from the SCLC in 1972. She has held various positions relating to public service and social action, and began giving seminars and teaching workshops on leadership and social change in the 1990s.
In 2010, Dorothy was awarded the National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.
These three women, and many more, contributed to the civil rights movement we are so familiar with today. Though the image we see is usually of men in suits giving important speeches, lets not forget about the strong, passionate, brave women who were also on the front lines in the fight for civil liberties.