Past Issues

From the Editor

When the newly elected female members of Congress posed for their pictures in 2018, most chose to stand in front of the portrait of Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm, who served from 1969 to 1983, was not only the first African American Congresswoman; she was also the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency. Today, twenty-six African American women sit in the House of Representatives, 275 are state legislators, seven are mayors of large cities, six are judges on US Courts of Appeals, and one is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. African American women leaders can be found in the arts as well, with more than thirty accomplished film directors, numerous Academy Award nominees, and many renowned writers and artists. Their leadership, their authority—whether in politics or the arts or science—is readily acknowledged today. In this issue of History Now, we shine a light on four African American women whose commitment to racial justice or to women’s rights may have been forgotten but deserves recognition. The struggles, successes, and disappointments of Adella Hunt Logan, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks help us better understand the critical role that black women’s leadership played in expanding our democracy.

In her essay, “Adella Hunt Logan: Suffragist and Educator,” Logan’s granddaughter, Adele Logan Alexander, provides an intimate look at a nineteenth-century campaigner for women’s rights. Logan was a schoolteacher and wife of a leading administrator at Tuskegee Institute who devoted much of her energy to achieving woman suffrage. She became an active member and officer of the National Association of Colored Women and was the first black woman accepted to membership by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her relationship with white suffrage activists was strained, however; over the course of her remaining life, she confronted both the thoughtless and the conscious racism of the movement’s leadership. Her relationship with Booker T. Washington was also strained. Her insistence on organizing debates about women’s rights and student demonstrations calling for woman suffrage led him to come out publicly against women’s right to vote. By 1915, Logan suffered a serious depression perhaps brought on in part by Washington’s alienation and by the unshakeable rejection of woman suffrage by Alabama political leaders. In December of that year, she died from a fall—perhaps a suicide—out of a fifth-floor window. Logan’s legacy can be found in the political activism of her children and their commitment to serve their community.

In Kristina DuRocher’s essay, “The Persistence of Ida B. Wells: Reform Leader and Civil Rights Activist,” the author traces Wells’s long struggle for racial justice and woman suffrage and the resistance she faced from black men and white women along the way. Despite her lack of formal education, Wells managed to carve out a position as a newspaper reporter, covering political, economic, and gender issues for southern black readers. Her anti-lynching position incensed local whites, who destroyed her Memphis newspaper office and threatened to murder her. Realizing the danger she faced in the South, Wells settled first in New York City and later in Chicago, where she found people sympathetic to her views. By 1892, she was lecturing in America and in England on the problem of lynching. But there were limits to her success. Few organizations were willing to choose an uneducated southern black woman as their leader, and critics accused her of being too blunt and not deferential enough to male leaders, black or white. When she joined with other civil rights reformers to create the NAACP, this prejudice led to an effort to keep her off the organization’s governing committee. And, when she proposed the NAACP publish a report on its battle against lynching, the leadership snubbed her by choosing a black man—W. E. B. DuBois—to be the editor. In Chicago, she continued her work on suffrage only to be told by the white organizers of the 1913 march in Washington that African American suffragists had to march at the back of the parade. Once the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, Wells turned her attention to creating organizations that could train black women to run for office. To set an example, she ran for an Illinois senate seat in 1929, but lost in the primary. Two years later she died of kidney failure.

Like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer devoted her life to the causes of racial justice and women’s rights. In his essay, “The Heart and Soul of Fannie Lou Hamer, An Extraordinary African American Leader,” Earnest N. Bracey pays his respects to a woman he describes as “robust and intelligent . . . a formidable presence who had more than a little charm.” Hamer’s Mississippi sharecropper parents instilled in her the belief that one should never quit, and this, Bracey notes, was the creed she lived by. Hamer, who was fired as a cotton picker when she attempted to register to vote, worked tirelessly to eradicate the second-class citizenship status suffered by Mississippi blacks. She spoke out for fair and affordable housing for black Mississippians and organized assistance for black farmers. In the 1960s, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helping to register voters, and soon afterward, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, designed to challenge the political control of the all-white Democratic Party in her state. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, she gave a remarkable speech calling for freedom, justice, and civil rights to the Credential Committee as a prelude to the demand by the delegates from the Freedom Party to be seated at the convention. In 1968, she and other members of her organization won their battle to be seated. Then in 1971, Hamer ran for the Mississippi state senate, but lost the election. She died of cancer in 1977 in her native Mississippi. Bracey ends by suggesting that, if Fannie Lou Hamer were alive today, she would enter the fray again.

In “Ten Ways to Teach Rosa Parks,” Jeanne Theoharis and Say Burgin correct many of the misunderstandings and myths surrounding the life of this well-known activist who started a civil rights revolution when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in December 1955 and was arrested for her act of defiance. Contrary to popular opinion, Parks was not the meek woman often portrayed. To her grandmother’s dismay, as a child Parks talked “biggity to white folks,” and as a young woman, she risked her safety in defense of the Scottsboro Boys and in labor organizing campaigns. She was not a passive woman. She had been involved in talks between the black community and Montgomery officials the summer before the incident on the bus and, when police asked her why she didn’t move from her seat on the bus, she asked them, “Why do you push us around?” As Theoharis and Burgin point out, Parks was not the first person arrested on a Montgomery bus. In 1944, another black woman was beaten and fined for refusing to give up her seat, and in 1950, a World War II veteran was shot and killed for refusing to board the bus from the back door. And in March of 1955, a teenage girl was arrested for remaining in her seat. Parks herself had been kicked off a bus several times for refusing to comply with the segregation rules of the city buses. Parks’s decision to resist that December was not simply about a seat on a bus. It was about decades and decades of Jim Crow discrimination. The authors also point out that Rosa and her husband were working-class people, and the bus incident cost them financially. It was not until 1965, when Congressman John Conyers hired Rosa to work in his Detroit office, that she and her husband enjoyed economic stability. Still, the Parks family could never afford to own a home. The move to Detroit helped their finances, but Rosa did not find the North to be a promised land. Thus she began to challenge the racial inequalities she found in the North. Rosa Parks was, in short, a lifelong rebel and activist—and this is how she should be remembered.

As always, this issue includes a special interactive feature. Be sure to watch the interview by the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s president, James Basker, with Jeanne Theoharis on the life of Rosa Parks.

With hopes that your summer vacation has been a perfect mixture of relaxation and new historical discovery,

Carol Berkin, Editor, and
Nicole Seary, Managing Editor