Welcome to Women's History Month, where communities across America celebrate the accomplishments of women. Women of color have always been active in the fight against racial discrimination and injustice in the American environment of unequal and discriminative behaviors. Women have been a powerful force that keeps on working for fair housing, good education, quality health care, good employment practices, and so much more. This article will highlight women who dared to stand against racism and the injustices that continue to be prevalent in our society. In some cases, their lives were threatened, their husbands killed, and their children murdered. Today I applaud them for the great work they have done. Their courage determination gives us the strength to continue the excellent work that fits our constitution that encourages liberty and justice for all
Dec 21, 2016
June Jackson Christmas, MD, is a psychiatrist and pioneer of urban health who was one of the first to address the impact of economic and social factors on mental health. As founder of Harlem Hospital’s Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, New York City’s Commissioner of Mental Health and Retardation under Mayors Lindsay, Beame and Koch, a member of President Jimmy Carter’s transition team, vice-president of the American Psychiatric Association, the president of the Public Health Association of NYC and a three-time trustee of Vassar College (she was one of the first black graduates), Christmas maintained an unwavering commitment to equitable care for all. At 92, she is still active in her community.
During her freshman year at Swarthmore, Richardson joined the Swarthmore Political Action Committee (SPAC), a Students for a Democratic Society affiliate. In 1963, Richardson traveled by bus on weekends, with other SPAC volunteers, to assist the Cambridge, Maryland, community in desegregating public accommodations. The Cambridge Movement was led by civil rights activist Gloria Richardson, with assistance from SNCC field secretaries such as Baltimore native Reggie Robinson. Richardson eventually joined the SNCC staff at the national office in Atlanta, where she worked closely with, among others, James Forman, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, and Julian Bond. When the national office moved to Mississippi, during 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, Richardson relocated as well. Richardson also worked in SNCC’s projects in Lowndes County, Alabama (with Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture and others) and in Southwest Georgia. In 1965, Richardson became office manager for Julian Bond’s successful first campaign for the Georgia House of Representatives; she also organized a northern Freedom School to bring together young activists from SNCC’s Southern projects and Northern support offices.
In 1978, Richardson began working with Henry Hampton and Blackside Productions on an early version of what would become the Eyes On The Prize series; major production for this Academy Award-nominated, six-hour PBS series began in 1986, during which time she acted as researcher and content advisor. Richardson was the series associate producer for Eyes On The Prize II, the subsequent eight-hour series. Beginning in 1982, Richardson was director of information for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, participating in its protests against police brutality in New York City, and its bus caravans to the Alabama Black Belt to counter the Reagan Administration’s intimidation of elderly African American voters. Richardson later co-produced Blackside’s 1994 Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary, Malcolm X: Make It Plain (for PBS’s The American Experience).
Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago, away from the strong racial divisions that saw African Americans treated as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws in the South. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 that she came face-to-face with overt discrimination.
“There were signs that said white, white-only, colored. [The] library was segregated, the public library. Parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels,” she recalls. “I was at a period where I was interested in expanding: going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.”
Among the many facilities that weren’t available to Nash and her peers were restaurants that served Black customers only on a “takeout basis,” which meant they weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside. Instead, Black patrons were forced to eat along the curbs and alleys of Nashville during the lunch hour.
Nash couldn’t adhere to these rules. In her eyes, that would be agreeing with the unjust laws. But before she could take a stand against these restaurants—essentially protesting the government itself—she needed a plan of action. Enter Jim Lawson, an activist who had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in India, and taught workshops on progress and change through nonviolence at a Methodist church near the university.
The spring after she enrolled at Fisk, just shy of 22 years old, Nash became a leader in the Nashville Student Central Committee, which organized sit-ins at discriminatory restaurants throughout the city. Faced with a fuming community that did everything in their power to remove the students, Nash encountered the frightening scenarios that she had prepared for during Lawson’s workshops.
As the Freedom Rides went from one state to another, the participants found themselves in increasing danger from angry communities vehemently against the idea of integration. The aggression came to a head as the Freedom Rides reached Alabama. The buses were burned and the activists were beaten on May 14, 1961, forcing them to retreat to New Orleans. From there, it was up to Nash to carry the torch with a new group of Freedom Riders.
“We recognized that if the Freedom Ride was ended right then after all that violence, southern white racists would think that they could stop a project by inflicting enough violence on it,” she says. “And we wouldn’t have been able to have any kind of movement for voting rights, for buses, public accommodations or anything after that, without getting a lot of people killed first.”
So Nash and her peers continued the Freedom Rides, despite the objections of many powerful people, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had instructed his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to speak directly with Nash in an attempt to call off the Freedom Rides. With so much bloodshed in Alabama, he urged the chairwoman to back down from the violence that undoubtedly awaited them on the trail.
Gloria Richardson, Dr. Rosa L. Gragg and Diane Nash being interviewed after attending the White House to meet with President John F. Kennedy. He had asked 300 representatives of Women’s organizations to back his civil rights program.
In 1961, Nash was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” after encouraging young people to fight for desegregated buses in Mississippi. At the time, she was living with her husband, James Bevel, in Jackson. The couple, who met through activism, had been spreading a message of nonviolence within the community.
Nash’s attorney had wrongly advised her that she did not need to appear in court, which resulted in a warrant for her arrest. Six months pregnant at the time, Nash went to court to surrender to the authorities. She was facing a two-year prison sentence.
“When I surrendered, I sat in the front seat of the courtroom and the bailiff told me to move back and I thought ‘I [might be here] for two years, I’m not moving anywhere,’” she says. “So they charged me with contempt of court for refusing to move to the back.”
These courageous women should have gotten a purple medal of honor for the great work they have done in communities across the country. They rose from the pit to power. They accepted the challenge and reigned as "Queens of the Struggle" to override a national system that was laced with discrimination and racism.