While their stories may not be widely known, countless dedicated, courageous women were key organizers and activists in the fight for civil rights. Without these women, the struggle for equality would have never been waged. “Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,” activist Coretta Scott King asserted in the magazine New Lady in 1966. Here are a few of their stories.
1. Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
The Draftswoman of Civil Rights Victories
The writings of The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray were a cornerstone of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended school segregation, but the lawyer, Episcopal priest, pioneering civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Organization for Women wouldn’t be made aware of that extraordinary accomplishment until a decade after the fact.
In 1944, Murray was the only woman enrolled at Howard Law School—and at the top of her class. While discussing Jim Crow laws, Murray had an idea. Why not challenge the “separate” in “separate but equal” legal doctrine, (Plessy v. Ferguson) and argue that segregation was unconstitutional? This theory became the basis of her 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall called the “bible” of Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1965, Murray and Mary O. Eastwood co-authored the essay “Jane Crow and the Law,” which argued that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment should be applied to sex discrimination as well. In 1971, a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully argued this point in Reed v. Reed in front of the Supreme Court. Murray was named as a co-author on the brief.
Murray died in 1985, and in the decades since, public awareness of her many contributions has only continued to grow. Murray was sainted by the Episcopal Church in 2012, a residential college at Yale was named in her honor in 2017, and she has become an LGBTQ icon, thanks, in part, to the progressive approach to gender fluidity that she personally expressed throughout her life. Despite all this, as she wrote in the essay “The Liberation of Black Women” in 1970: “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”
2. Mamie Till Mobley (1921–2003)
Inspirational Mother of a Martyr
Mamie Till Mobley’s story is one of triumph in the face of tragedy. Though she never sought to be an activist, her resolve inspired the civil rights movement and “broke the emotional chains of Jim Crow,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson would remark upon her death.
On August 28, 1955, Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, by two white men who claimed that Till had “wolf-whistled” at one of their wives. When Till’s mutilated corpse was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi officials tried to dispose of the body quickly, but Mobley obtained a court order to have her only child’s remains returned to Chicago. Though his casket arrived padlocked and sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, Mobley insisted that her son’s brutalized body be displayed during his funeral. “I want the world to see what they did to my boy,” the grieving mother explained.
“Mrs. Mobley did a profound strategic thing,” Jackson later told the New York Times. “More than 100,000 people saw his body lying in that casket…at that time the largest single civil rights demonstration in American history.” Until her death in 2003, at the age of 81, Mobley advocated for underprivileged children and against racial injustice. Although she never got justice for her son (his murderers were acquitted by an all-white male jury), Mobley didn’t let it dampen her spirit. As she told a reporter: “I have not spent one minute hating.”
3. Claudette Colvin (born 1939)
The Teenager Who Refused to Give Up Her Bus Seat Before Rosa Parks
When Claudette Colvin‘s high school in Montgomery, Alabama, observed Negro History Week in 1955, the 15-year-old had no way of knowing how the stories of Black freedom fighters would soon impact her life. “I knew I had to do something,” she later told USA Today. “I just didn’t know where or when.”
Colvin got her chance on March 2, 1955, when she boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery. She and three other Black students were told to give up their seats for a white woman. Colvin, emboldened by her history lessons, refused. “My head was just too full of Black history,” she stated in an interview with NPR. “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Colvin was arrested and eventually put on indefinite probation. Though Colvin’s courageous act occurred nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar protest, the NAACP chose to use the 42-year-old civil rights activist as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott, as they believed an unwed mother—Colvin became pregnant when she was 16—would not be the best face for the movement. Colvin felt slighted, but later joined three other women—Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ultimately overturned bus segregation in Alabama.
Colvin rarely talked about her heroic actions until the 1990s. “I’d like my grandchildren,” she said, “to be able to see that their grandmother stood up for something, a long time ago.”
4. Maude Ballou (1925-2019)
The 'Daredevil' Who Served as MLK’s Right-Hand Woman
In 1955, Maude Ballou—a young mother who had studied business and literature in college and was program director of the first Black radio station in Montgomery, Alabama—was approached by her husband’s friend, a young minister and activist named Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the personal secretary.
After agreeing, Ballou became the Rev. Dr. King’s right-hand woman from 1955 until 1960, years of great unrest and transforming events that included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the publication of King’s first book, Stride Towards Freedom, and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in Washington, D.C.
Her work placed Ballou in enormous danger. In 1957, she was listed as number 21 on the Montgomery Improvement Associations list of “persons and churches most vulnerable to violent attacks.” (King was at the top of the list.) Her children’s lives were threatened, and KKK members watched her at work through the windows of the church. But Ballou just kept on working. “I was a daredevil, I guess,” she told The Washington Post in 2015.
“I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen,” said Ballou, who went on to serve as a teacher and college administrator. “We were very busy doing things, knowing that anything could happen, and we just kept going.”
Ballou passed away on August 26, 2019. She was 93 years old.
5. Diane Nash (born 1938)
Freedom Rider and Nonviolent Student Activist for Desegregation
A native of Chicago, Diane Nash hadn’t experienced the shock of desegregation within the Jim Crow South until she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The “Whites Only” signs scattered throughout Nashville inspired Nash to become the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1960, where she organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Nashville. Nash kept the group’s commitment to nonviolence front and center at the sit-ins, which proved very effective in ending the discriminatory practices within the restaurants.
The following year, Nash took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides, a protest against segregated bus terminals that took place on Greyhound buses from Washington D.C. to Virginia. The Freedom Rides, which were initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), encountered a mob of angry segregationists as they entered Anniston, Alabama, and were brutally beaten and unable to finish the route. SNCC—under the direction of Nash— continued the protest from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.
Before setting off with a group of 10 students from Nashville, Nash received a call from John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy Jr., who tried to persuade her to end the Freedom Rides, insisting the bloodshed would only continue if they persisted. Nash, unshaken by the stance of the White House, told Seigenthaler that they knew the risks involved and had already prepared their wills before continuing the Freedom Rides.
Nash later moved back to Chicago and went on to serve as an advocate for fair housing practices. Her contributions to the success of Civil Rights movement have been increasingly recognized in the years since. In 1995, historian David Halberstam described Nash as “bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis.”
6. Coretta Scott King (1927–2006)
Human Rights Activist, Pacifist, Musician
In 1968, just days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife, Coretta Scott King, took his place at a sanitation workers’ protest in Memphis. A few weeks later, she kicked off his planned Poor People Campaign. She had long been politically active, but her husband’s death galvanized her activism.
King earned a bachelor’s degree in Music and Education from Antioch College, and had met her future husband while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the early years of the civil rights movement, she hosted a series of popular “Freedom Concerts,” raising thousands of dollars for the movement.
After her husband’s assassination, King campaigned tirelessly to make his birthday a national holiday, and raised millions to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. An avowed feminist, she was active in the National Organization for Women, and was an early advocate for LBGTQ rights. During the 1980s, she was a vigorous opponent of apartheid.
King understood that she would be remembered as a widow and human rights activist, but, as she once said, she hoped to be thought of a different way: “as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way…much like everyone else.”