Who were some key women in the modern civil rights movement?

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Answered by: marilyn, An Expert in the Civil Rights Struggles and Successes Category
When civil rights leaders are asked about the “foremothers” of the modern civil rights movement, three names usually come to mind: Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy I. Height.

     Mrs. Parks’ actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lifted a young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. to prominence. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress tired from a long day at work, famously refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, as required under law. Her arrested sparked an outraged in the black community and resulted in the 381-day boycott of public transportation. The peaceful protest helped change public transportation laws and launched the modern day civil rights era.



     Mrs. Parks’ move wasn’t by happenstance. She and others had received training in non-violent protests. She wasn’t the first person arrested for violating such Jim Crow laws. What made her arrest special was the esteem with which she was held in the community. She was happily married, a church member and long-time community resident who had worked tirelessly for civil rights. The community saw her arrest as an outrage and decided to walk or hail rides from friends for more than a year rather than to help perpetuate the segregated transportation system.

     Ms. Height was a backroom strategist and one of the few women to share the stage during the 1963 March on Washington. As a leader with the National Council of Negro Women, she had long petitioned the government for sweeping civil rights laws. A stately, gentle woman, who was known for her colorful hats, she was long a fixture in meetings between U.S. presidents and civil rights leaders.



     During the last years of her life, she was hailed as an architect of the civil rights movement. But that wasn’t always the case. She was often marginalized by male leaders because she was a woman. Similarly, she was often rejected by women’s groups because she was black. However, she was known for ignoring such moves and using her quiet dignity and intelligence to get the old guard in both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement to listen to her.

     While she was near King on the podium for the 1963 march, she was not asked to speak, though she was an organizer of the march. She was an award-winning orator and the representative of thousands of members of the National Council of Negro Women. Such a snub did not deter her. She knew she had King’s ear when it came time to making decisions.

     Also, on that stage was Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer, who was influential behind the scenes of the modern civil rights movement. It is said that she helped shape King’s famous speech by telling him to veer from his prepared remarks and simply speak from the heart about his dream. King often called Jackson his favorite singer and she was tapped to sing at his funeral. Many of her songs were sung during major protests. She was one of the first black singers to appear on national entertainment programs, such as The Ed Sullivan Show.

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