Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

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By Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Bravery Unbound

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By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine; Restored by Adam Cuerden – the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain.

Fannie Lou Hamer grew up a sharecropper’s daughter in Montgomery, Mississippi, where she was exposed to the worst face of racial injustice. Forced to quit school in the sixth grade to work in the cotton fields to help support her family, she got involved in the effort to register blacks to vote in 1962. At the time, a literacy test was required in order to secure the right to vote, and Fannie helped teach people so they could pass the test. One day, Fannie was on a bus with a group of fellow African American youths who were challenging the “whites only” policy at the bus terminal diner. When they were attacked by state troopers called in to deal with the “insurrection,” Fannie was hurt badly and jailed with everyone else from the bus. Her sufferings had only begun, though. Hamer was incarcerated in a cell with two black men who were ordered to beat her with a metal-spiked leather billy club. Fannie was permanently blinded in one eye by this beating and suffered kidney damage, but she emerged with even more inner resolve to put an end to racial injustice. Fannie worked without cessation for many related causes: Head Start for black schools, jobs for poor blacks, and against the Vietnam War because she felt black soldiers were being sent to protect rights they themselves didn’t have at home. Fannie Hamer risked her life over and over to improve the lot of her people until her death in 1977, never receiving the attention that was her due. A true unsung shero, her essential belief was, “We serve God by serving our fellow (human beings).”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Rosa Parks: The First Lady of Civil Rights

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By Unknown – USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306, Public Domain.

Rosa Parks gave a human face to the civil rights movement. She showed how the issues addressed in all of the speeches affected a woman’s life in the course of an ordinary day. The woman was Rosa Louise McCauley Parks; the day became an extraordinary day that rocked the nation and changed history.

Born in 1913, Rosa grew up in Pine Level, Alabama, with her schoolteacher mother, Leona. She helped her mother take care of her sickly grandparents and run the household, because Rosa’s father had gone to work up north and effectively disappeared from their lives. Later, she moved in with her aunt Fanny and enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school, where she was exposed to the liberal ideals of teachers raised in the north. Rosa took her teachers’ lessons to heart, as well as the stories her elderly grandparents told about the evils of slavery, sparking a sense of justice that would only grow.

Rosa vacillated between following in the footsteps of her mother and becoming a teacher and pursuing her own dream of training to be a nurse. Then in 1932, she met and married Raymond Parks, who had struggled up from an impoverished background where he wasn’t allowed to attend school because of his color. To augment her husband’s income from barbering, Rosa dabbled in many lines of work, including maid, seamstress, and secretary.

Her involvement in civil rights grew. She was the first woman to start attending the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and also worked in the effort to register blacks to vote. Rosa often walked home from work to avoid the “back of the bus” issue until December 1, 1955, when she was returning home from a long day of sewing at a Montgomery department store. The buses from downtown were always fairly crowded and had a section designated for blacks behind the ten rows of seats in the front for white folks. Rosa was sitting in the first row of the “blacks only” section when the white section filled up, leaving a white man without a seat. The tacit understanding was that, in such a scenario, the black person was supposed to stand and let the white person have the seat. The white bus driver called for the four black people in the front row of the black section to get up and let the white man have the row. Rosa refused and the driver called the police.

Her solitary action started a firestorm of controversy, including a bus boycott and protest march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. A fascinating footnote to the incident is that Rosa had been evicted by the very same bus driver twelve years before. Though there had been several incidents on Montgomery buses, Rosa stuck to her guns and became the pivotal legal case for the burgeoning civil rights movement’s attack on segregated seating. Upon going to trial and being found guilty, she refused to pay her fine and appealed the decision. Her actions cost Rosa and her husband dearly; they both lost their jobs and were the recipients of threats to their lives. Undaunted, Rosa worked with the carpooling efforts that enabled blacks to continue their 381-day boycott of the bus system.

The sacrifices of the black community were not in vain, because the U.S. District Court ruled segregated seating to be unconstitutional. However, due to the controversy, Rosa, the shero who started the battle by keeping her seat, couldn’t get a job anywhere in Montgomery. Rosa, Raymond, and Rosa’s mother moved to Detroit and started a new life there, Rosa working as a seamstress and for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She ultimately found a career in U.S. Representative John Coyner’s office. Rosa Parks’ courage in that split second moment when she made her decision is at the very crux of the victorious struggle for African Americans. Rosa worked diligently for the good of her community, traveling and speaking on behalf of the NAACP. She loved to talk to young people about the movement, for the work has truly only begun. Rosa Parks has become a symbol of fearlessness and fortitude. In 1980, Rosa was honored by Ebony magazine as “the living black woman who had done the most to advance the cause of civil rights.”

“You didn’t have to wait for a lynching. You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination.”

—Rosa Parks

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

 

Eslanda Goode Robeson: “Africans Are People”

Oberstes Gericht, Globke-Prozess, Publikum
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0708-0014-004 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Public Domain.

Eslanda Goode Robeson was the wife of the famous singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. However, she was an important shero in her own right, distinguishing herself both in political activism and as an anthropologist.

The daughter of a freed slave, Essie, born in 1896, was passionately interested in Africa and the conditions that made the mother continent vulnerable. Her mother, Eslanda Cardoza Goode, was of mixed race, born among South Carolina’s free blacks to an octoroon mother and a wealthy Spanish Jew, Isaac Nunez Cardoza. Essie’s uncle Francis Louis Cardoza was named as “the most highly educated Negro in America” by Henry Ward Beecher. When Essie was six, her father died of alcohol abuse and the family moved to New York City just in time for the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. Essie was well educated herself, attending Teachers College at Columbia University and one year of medical school, ultimately receiving her degree in chemistry from Columbia. Her other interests included a strong proclivity for politics and the desire to fight for racial equality. Essie was on her way to becoming a model for the new equality when she became the first black person to work in the pathology and surgery departments of Columbia Presbyterian, where she ran the lab. In the twenties, she met and married Paul Robeson; after hearing him sing at a party, Essie became convinced he had a future in show business. She talked him into performing and soon his career was launched. By the mid-twenties, Paul was the toast of Europe and America; Essie quit her job to travel with Paul and manage his career. However, over and over the duo suffered the sickening hypocrisy of a white society that lauded Paul as the toast of stage and screen while not allowing Essie and him to eat in the same restaurants as the white music patrons. To avoid the pain, Essie began to stay home and focus upon their shared dream of a modern black family—emancipated, educated, and enlightened.

In the thirties, the ever intellectually restless Essie developed an intense interest in anthropology and in Africa. Studying at London University and the London School of Economics, she became even more radicalized: “I soon became fed up with white students and teachers ‘interpreting’ the Negro mind and character to me,” she wrote later. “Especially when I felt, as I did very often, that their interpretation was wrong.”

She decided to make her own conclusions. She traveled to Africa several times, exploring widely, up the Congo and into the heartland by any means available. Her exploration led her to emphasize the importance of racial pride in overcoming racism, and she banded with other black people to found the Council of African Affairs. She was always extremely outspoken about the plight of her people as a result of slavery and colonialism and never backed down from a debate. She drew fire when she suggested the Soviet Union had created a better foundation for equality than the United States. In the forties, during World War II, she was especially vocal, perceiving that the war against Fascism was an opportunity for a more racially united and equal opportunity America. Her book, African Journey, was published in 1945; that same year, as a representative of the Council on African Affairs, Essie participated in the conference that founded the United Nations.

In the fifties, the activity and views of the Robesons were brought to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy who called her before the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was no match for the brilliance and verbal dexterity of Essie, who turned the tables on him, drilling him with questions about the black civil rights issue. But McCarthy got his revenge, revoking both their passports, reducing Paul’s income from international concert tours to almost nil.

This only spurred Essie on to greater activism—ultimately her passport was reinstated and she traveled to Germany to receive the Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal,
a governmental award for women who have fought for world peace. She continued to write articles and give speeches on behalf of equality and justice until she died in 1965. No matter what the personal cost, Essie fought to free her people from the invisible bonds that still held them back. Her work was invaluable in the civil rights movement; her call for absolute racial equality rang clear and true: “No man can be free until all men are free.”

“I believe there will never be peace in the world until people have achieved what they fought and died for.”
—Eslanda Goode Robeson
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Faye Wattleton: Footsteps to Follow

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By Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell – Detail from Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Faye Wattleton was working as a student nurse at Harlem Hospital when one particular case drew her attention to the importance of safe and legal abortion. It was “a really beautiful seventeen-year-old girl” she recalls. “She and her mother had decided to induce an abortion by inserting a Lysol douche into her uterus. It killed her.” That’s when Faye became a reproductive rights activist, holding various positions in public health administration and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), before being elected in 1978 to the PPFA presidency. Ironically, Faye was giving birth when she won!

She carries the triple honors of being the first woman, the first African American, and the youngest person ever to head up PPFA. Over the years, she has worked valiantly
to fight the barriers constantly being put in the way—President Reagan’s “squeal rule” to notify parents of distribution of birth control or information, the “gag rule” preventing abortion counseling, and the Supreme Court’s challenge to Roe v. Wade. She resigned the presidency in 1992. Pointing to her contributions, Arthur J. Kopp of People for the American Way noted, “her remarkable ability to communicate difficult issues have made her a giant in the ongoing battle to preserve Americans’ fundamental liberties.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Karen Silkwood: Chain Reaction

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By The Romero Institute – Photo of a painted poster, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The story of Karen Silkwood is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. On November 13, 1974, she died in a car crash under suspicious circumstances after she very vocally criticized the safety of the plutonium fuels production plant she worked for in Crescent, Oklahoma. She had been on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter to give him evidence that Kerr-McGee was knowingly passing off defective fuel rods as good.

Prior to her death, she was inexplicably exposed to extremely high levels of plutonium. Karen had learned to routinely test herself for exposure, but nothing prepared her for the discoveries made by the Healthy Physics Office upon her request. Although no plutonium was found on any surfaces in the lab she was working in, her apartment was found to have been contaminated. Starting with a measure of 1 disintegrations per minute or dpms as the lowest possible positive result, these measurements were found in her house, according to PBS’ online information site: 400,000 dpm on a package of bologna and cheese in the fridge, 25,000 on the stove sides, 6,000 on a package of chicken, and 100,000 on the toilet seat. After her death, an autopsy determined that Karen Silkwood’s exposure to plutonium had been very recent and the plant could never
come up with an explanation for her exposure. A year after her death, the plant closed.

The speculation surrounding her death has never stopped, but proof of company malfeasance has remained inconclusive. It is known, however, that it was Kerr-McGee who sold rods to the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, where defective fuel rods broke down and released radioactivity into the atmosphere.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Florence Matomelo

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By Dewet – Derived from Aprt.jpg on en.wiki, corrected perspective and lighting somewhat. Permission from photographer here., Public Domain.

Florence Matomelo was a soldier in the anti-apartheid resistance movement. In 1965, she was arrested for her role in the African National Congress (Pro Azanian or black South African rebel government) and confined to solitary where she was starved, beaten, interrogated, and deprived of the insulin she needed for her diabetes. She died after five years of this abuse, leaving behind several children. She had led a life of constant courage, defying and protesting the unfair practices of apartheid laws, and she died for her cause, having made invaluable contributions to the changes that finally freed black South Africans from the racist rule set up by colonial whites.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.