Little-Known Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Since the death of Rosa Parks, many famous women paid tribute to the headway made by the late civil rights leader. However, many unacknowledged women also played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement.

ED GORDON, host:

Today, thousands of people are expected to pay tribute to the mother of the civil rights movement. A public viewing of Mrs. Rosa Parks will be held in Detroit's Museum of African American History. Mrs. Parks died last week at the age of 92. She was arrested in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. In an NPR interview several years ago, she said, quite simply, that she was tired of being mistreated. It's a sentiment shared by hundreds of lesser-known African-American women throughout history. Commentary Betty Baye says one such woman who wouldn't take it anymore paid with her life.


On March 5th, 1945, the last words of the only woman ever executed by the state of Georgia were, `What I done, I did in self-defense or I would have killed myself. Where I was, I could not overcome it.'

The `it' that Lena Baker, a 44-year-old black woman, couldn't overcome, she told the all-male, all-white jury, was to be held in a state of slavery with a white man for a boss who she maintained until the day she died threatened to shoot and kill her if she ever tried to leave. One day that man raised a metal bar to strike his maid and Lena Baker took his gun and shot him dead.

It's the part about the violence and the metal bar that reminded me of Harriet Tubman. Nearly a hundred years earlier, one of Tubman's slave master's overseers hit her in the head with a lead weight. It happened when she was a teen-ager and left a vicious scar. Tubman suffered blackouts for the rest of her life. And the rest is history. Tubman eventually freed herself and then courageously returned 19 times behind enemy lines to free more than 300 other slaves.

Sadly, it's all too often to this day that black women can't seem to get their proper respect. A black woman on average is paid 7 percent less than white women for similar work. And black women often carry the weight of the poverty and pathologies of the ghetto, as if it's the black woman's fault that jobs have disappeared, that manufacturing jobs that once were plentiful for blacks have been moving to China and to India.

Recently, Essence published a photo gallery of missing black women and the headline said, `When black women disappear, the media silence can be deafening.' Yeah, what's that about? The disparities in the media coverage of missing white women vs. missing black women are simply too obvious to be denied. But if you want to go there, I suggest you consider the worst-case scenarios and whether a missing woman who has been murdered, regardless of her race or class, isn't equally dead and equally entitled to be grieved over for having died without mercy.

And speaking of mercy, Georgia recently granted the executed Lena Baker a full and unconditional pardon. And her great-nephew said, `This was not a black or white issue. It was an issue of right or wrong.' Respectfully, I beg to differ. Lena Baker's murder by the state of Georgia in 1945 was very much about black and white, as well as a grievous wrong that at last has been acknowledged.

GORDON: Betty Baye is a columnist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

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