For FOTO Guest Editor Joy Reid, sharing stories and photographs of women of the Civil Rights Movement is a bit like unlocking a room filled with long-neglected treasures. "History has rendered so many of these women invisible," Reid told FOTO. "But the day-to-day work of the struggle would not have gone on without them." Here, the MSNBC host, proud daughter of immigrants, and (in the words of the New York Times) "heroine of the Resistance" pays tribute to nine of those extraordinary women. Marveling at their courage and, in so many cases, the depth of their sacrifice, Reid shares some of her favorite photos from the Civil Rights era. Along the way, she casts a warm light on the personal heroes who forged the path she herself walks every day: women who resisted, endured, and shaped the world in ways they themselves could not have foreseen.The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images RUBY DEE (1922 – 2014)
A poet, playwright, and celebrated actress, Ruby Dee was, along with her husband Ossie Davis, a central figure in the Movement.
REID: "I love this picture of Ruby Dee. Today she's probably known to most Americans as Mrs. Ossie Davis, or as the stoop lady, Mother Sister, in 'Do the Right Thing.' But she was a powerful, creative force, and one of countless unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the unfortunate realities of that era was that women ― who provided so much of the inspiration and behind-the-scenes labor for the movement ― often went unseen, or were pushed aside. But seeing Ruby Dee here, inspiring the crowd at the March on Washington, is a sharp reminder that women were, and are, absolutely essential to the cause."
Daisy Bates was a journalist, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, and advisor to the Little Rock Nine, whose struggle to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957 is one of the key stories of the Civil Rights era.
REID: "What can one say about Daisy Bates? It's shameful that's she's so little known. There's no Little Rock Nine without her. Think about this: these were schoolchildren. She had to get mothers to be okay with their children integrating a hostile environment, where other adults would be screaming at them. It's unthinkable. My favorite photo of her is the one where she's on the phone with all the moms ― the small t, small p 'tea party,' where mothers were forming a phone tree to protect the lives of these nine kids. Really, the bravest kids ever. Daisy Bates was in charge of this integration effort, and she should be remembered for it."
Myrlie Evers comforts her son, Darryl Kenyatta, during the funeral of her murdered husband, activist Medgar Evers, in June 1963. Six decades later, she delivered the invocation at Barack Obama's second inauguration.
REID: "I've long been fascinated with the story of Medgar Evers. But like so many stories of the Movement, the story of Evers is a story about his family. Because while the men were taking the physical risk of death, their wives had to both explain that reality to young children, and also be mothers and maintain the family as single mothers, in a sense. At the time, there was no place more dangerous in the world for black people than Mississippi ― it was literally the heart of darkness ― and Myrlie Evers had to bear the constant fear of her husband leaving in the morning and not coming back, and then raise their children by herself before and after his death. She is, and always was, a civil rights leader in her own right."
Rosa Parks in a photo taken at the time of her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955.
REID: "Rosa Parks's act of civil disobedience was an early triumph of civil rights marketing, and I mean that in the best way. She was seen as this harmless, older woman who was just too tired to give up her seat on the bus. People forgot that she was a trained civil rights organizer and far more formidable than she was made out to be. Hers was a very bold, organized protest. Mrs. Parks was the perfect 'woman next door.' She had the perfect image, the perfect look, and she knew what she was doing. So even if it was marketing, it was also a courageous, conscious act. History will give her more credit than just being someone who sort of inadvertently sparked a revolution."
A blues and folk music legend, Odetta was one of the most influential artists of the era.
REID: "There is something wonderful and kind of ethereal about this photo. It strikes me as a prayerful picture, and it reminds me that the movement took place and unfolded in the context of an inspirational, blues- and gospel-based soundtrack. Odetta, specifically, is pioneering in so many ways. There was her music, of course. But she was also confidently, unquestionably herself ― and by that I mean she maintained her own genuine black image. She never tried, even remotely, to approximate the prevailing standard of white female beauty. And just look at how beautiful and how powerful she looks here."
A civil rights leader in Cambridge, Maryland, Gloria Richardson was among the activists honored from the stage during the March on Washington in 1963.
REID: "Gloria Richardson is another of those amazing women who have kind of disappeared down the well of history. And these are the very people we need to remember. Now, we don't really think of Maryland as a hotbed of civil rights activity. It's kind of a forgotten outpost ― even if it was along the shore of Maryland where Harriet Tubman operated. And maybe that's why I love this 'Wallace Go Home' photo. Wallace of course was the racist, segregation-era governor of Alabama seeking to export his version of segregation north, even slightly north, to Maryland. And Gloria Richardson was one of those women leading people in the day-to-day work of the struggle ― not just spectacular marches, but behind the scenes, resisting somebody like Wallace even setting foot in a place like Cambridge, Maryland."
Emmett Till's mother, shown here speaking of the lynching of her 14-year-old son, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman.
REID: "Mamie Till is one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Here is a woman from Chicago who sends her boy to visit family in Mississippi ― probably the most intractably racist state in the union ― where he is lynched, and she has to fight for the right just to see his body. Then she shows her boy's brutalized body to the world. She exposed the reality of lynching as torture, an eye gouged out, a boy beaten until his face caved in, a gunshot to the head, but only after his genitals were cut off. In a sense, she kicks off the first 'Black Lives Matter' movement. She is incredibly brave ― another black woman baring her unimaginable pain in public, with dignity."
The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is famous for her inspired shout, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" as MLK delivered his (partly improvised) "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
REID: "I absolutely love Mahalia Jackson, and my favorite picture of her, ever, is this Billie Holiday-esque photograph of her singing at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957. My mother listened to her when I was young, but you tune out what your mother listens to, don't you? She is one of the people who provided the conscience for the movement, and her resonant, beautiful voice is a reminder that the movement was born in churches. Gospel is the emotional current that runs through every black church, and Mahalia Jackson is the queen of gospel ― the OG of the most stirring, most heartfelt music of the movement. She is just indispensable, and if you don't feel those songs when she sings them, you have no soul."
Coretta Scott King speaks at an anti-war rally in April 1968, weeks after her husband was assassinated. She fought for justice all her life, and was by Dr. King's side during the movement's signature moments — and in quieter ones, too.
REID: "People forget that this is a woman who wanted to be a singer. You know, she had very ordinary dreams of being a famous entertainer, and instead she became the mother of the movement. She had to navigate being a mom, explaining to four little kids why the threat of death constantly surrounded them. She had to be MLK's voice when he was gone, and she did it regally, and with depth. She carried so much weight for so many people, for so long. And it's fascinating to me that this photo resembles the Odetta picture, and the Mahalia photo. Women looking toward heaven. You don't know what's going on in their heads―but you can maybe guess. It's a searching, 'Why, God?' sort of look. There's defiance, there. But there's love, too."