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When sit-ins swept the South, mainly led by college students, she signed on with the new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she served as a mentor to the rising generation of student activists.
An impassioned believer in participatory democracy, Baker’s motto was “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”The roll call of courageous Southern black women in the movement is long.
This kind of local knowledge from “everyday kind of people” is how social movements work at a grassroots level.
Recruiting friends and relatives through existing networks, meeting in safe spaces such as beauty parlors, and building support through door-to-door political canvassing, women quickly found themselves on the front lines of boycotts, voter registration drives, demonstrations, and even acts of civil disobedience that landed them in jail.
The ensuing yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system was organized and carried out primarily by black women, who turned to carpools instead of city buses to take them to white neighborhoods where they worked as domestics. A strong and principled woman who had worked as a field organizer for the NAACP in the 1940s, she often bumped up against the men leading the organizations she worked in, especially male ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr.
King ran the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Baker joined in 1957, eventually becoming its executive director.
For years she had been active in her local NAACP, and she had recently attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School.
Even though many of its key events occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s, such as the 1954 Brown v.
Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in schools, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” oration, historians take an even longer time frame, situating the origins of the struggle well before the 1950s and extending the timeline of activism into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.
This perspective is often called “the long civil rights movement.”Another way that historians, especially feminist historians, have reshaped the story of civil rights is by focusing not just on national leaders but on grassroots activists in local communities across the South.
Septima Poinsette Clark served as the director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School and later spread her concept of citizenship education through the South.
The younger generation was well represented by activists such as Ruby Doris Smith, who was severely beaten while participating in the Freedom Rides challenging segregation on public transportation in 1961, and Diane Nash, who led the Nashville sit-ins while a student at Fisk; both went on to be active in SNCC.