Sexism in the Civil Rights Movement: A Discussion Guide

A closer examination of heroes in our culture.

Teaching about the Civil Rights Movement used to be easy. These days, however, when educators assign research projects about the struggle to end U.S. apartheid, students are likely to stumble upon resources that contain disturbing and seemingly adverse information.

One such resource is Michael Eric Dyson's recently released I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. Conceptualized and written for today's "hip hop" youth, this new biography delves deeply into allegations about King's chauvinism and promiscuity as well as into sexism in the Civil Rights Movement generally. In this way, the text complicates the commonly held, one-dimensional perceptions of King and the struggle to end segregation.

Teachers can handle resources like I May Not Get There with You in several ways. We can revert to lecturing about the Civil Rights Movement, telling students only what we may want them to know. We can assign research projects and then wait for students to ask questions about the allegations, hoping that they never do. Or we can assign research projects, anticipate students' discovery of controversial materials and then provide a framework for classroom discussions about the allegations.

After reading or hearing about books like Dyson's I May Not Get There with You, many students may question the very heroes whom they have admired from a very young age. Others may be tempted to discount the Movement's heroes or even the Movement itself. But by talking with students about the allegations, educators not only can help students reclaim the importance of the Movement and the contributions of its leaders, they also can help students recognize their own capacity to do good works.

The following points are designed to help teachers of the upper grades navigate classroom discussions about King's alleged promiscuity and chauvinism, as well as sexism in the Movement generally; they are not intended to simplify a complicated issue.

Point #1: Sexism in the Civil Rights Movement did not exist in a vacuum.
Dyson quotes civil rights activist Bernard Lee as saying: "Martin … was absolutely a male chauvinist. He believed that the wife should stay home and take care of the babies while he'd be out there in the streets." This sentiment -- that a woman's primary role is as a homemaker or caretaker -- certainly is not limited to King, to other black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement or to the black community.

In 1963, for example, Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, published The Feminine Mystique, which exposed the strict and confining gender roles instilled in U.S. society in the 1950s and 1960s -- and, arguably, today. A frank and troubling exploration of the white housewife's daily existence, The Feminine Mystique revealed how white girls were socialized to marry and then live vicariously through their husbands and children, without establishing their own identities or interests. Further, the volume identified the ways in which society justified and perpetuated this system of male domination -- mainly through reinforcement of unquestioned societal assumptions about gender via media outlets, schools, houses of worship and other venues.

The sexism that was present in the Civil Rights Movement was a continuation of oppressive mentality that existed in the larger U.S. culture, which was and is a white, male-dominated culture.

Point #2: The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement never intended to end all forms of oppression in the U.S
Movement leaders set out to tackle one specific type of oppression -- racism -- focusing primarily on racial segregation. The Civil Rights Movement accomplished what it set out to do; it secured equal legal rights for people of color in the U.S. The value of the Movement's success cannot be overstated.

Oppression, however, is a complex system of isms and phobias that work both independently and in coordination with one another. The term "African Americans" denotes a racial group in the U.S., but that racial group also includes members of other marginalized identities, such as women, gay men and lesbians, people with disabilities, poor people and others. Thus, while African Americans are united in their experience of racial oppression, they also struggle against sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism and other forms of oppression. Likewise, many members of these other groups benefited directly from the Civil Rights Movement's successful effort to dismantle racial segregation.

King himself recognized the intersection of race and class in the black experience and spent the last years of his life working for economic justice. Had an assassin's bullet not cut him down, King may well have advocated for other forms of equity. His wife, Coretta, has served as a spokesperson for both women's and gay rights in the years since her husband's death.

The Civil Rights Movement sought to secure equal protections for people of color in the U.S. The struggle was about racism and racial segregation; we should not presume that it was about anything else.

Point #3: The Civil Rights Movement has served as a model for other social justice movements.
Although the Civil Rights Movement did not deal explicitly with issues like sexism, it has provided a paradigm for other groups interested in challenging oppression. In Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, editor Lee Ann Bell argues:

The Civil Rights Movement fired the imagination of millions of Americans who applied its lessons to an understanding of their own situations and adapted its analyses and tactics to their own struggles for equality. For example, Native American, Chicano and Puerto Rican youth styled themselves after the African American youth in SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] and the Black Panther Party. The predominantly White student antiwar movement drew directly from the experiences of the Black freedom struggles to shape their goals and strategies. Early women's liberation groups were spawned within SNCC itself as black and white women applied the analyses of racial inequality to their own positions as women, as did Latinas within the Puerto Rican Youth. The gay liberation and disability rights movements also credit the Civil Rights Movement as a model for their organizing and activism. Poor people's movements and welfare rights likewise drew upon this heritage.

By providing a replicable platform, the Civil Rights Movement has impacted and vicariously lent its support to almost every subsequent effort for social change in the U.S.

Point #4: Women contributed significantly to the Civil Rights Movement.
Although sexism limited the roles that women could play in the Civil Rights Movement, we should not devalue or minimize the impact of female activists in the struggle to end U.S. apartheid. Books like Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 clearly establish the ways in which women contributed to the Movement's success. Indeed, it relied heavily on women and their labor to secure its goal.

The most well-known female activist of the civil rights era is Rosa Parks, fondly known as "the mother of the Civil Rights Movement." It was Mrs. Parks, of course, who refused to vacate her bus seat to make room for a white man. Her single act of defiance on a cold winter day in 1955 drew national attention to the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow South and resulted in a 381-day bus boycott that succeeded in forcing the desegregation of the Montgomery, Ala., public transportation system.

Following her display of courage, Mrs. Parks did not exactly rise through the Movement's ranks as one might expect. In fact, by the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, many people were unaware of her contribution to the Movement. She recalls her experience in that march: "[The young people] didn't know who I was and couldn't care less about me because they didn't know me." For many, Mrs. Parks had faded into the background, spending the years subsequent to the bus boycott working in a sewing factory in Detroit. In 1965, she joined the staff of newly elected Michigan Congressman John Conyers and served as his aide until her retirement in 1988 at age 75.

According to her biographer, historian Douglas Brinkley, Mrs. Parks has only recently begun her assent back into the national spotlight, receiving the credit that she is due. On June 6, 1999, 44 years after that fateful day on a Montgomery bus, President Clinton presented Mrs. Parks with a Congressional Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

In the years since the Movement, Mrs. Parks has spoken publicly about the dangers of sexism. When she met Pope John Paul II in St. Louis, Mo., in 1999, she shared these words with the pontiff: "My lifetime mission has been simple -- that all men and women are created equal under the eyes of our Lord." In the spirit of her activist mantra "quiet strength," this simple sentence was Mrs. Parks' way of challenging women's secondary status in the Catholic Church.

Mrs. Parks' story illustrates that, although sexism limited the roles that women could play in the Movement, their contributions were crucial. Further, her long-standing work for justice reminds us that many of the Civil Rights Movement's female activists have continued the struggle against racial oppression and have gone on to combat multiple forms of oppression, sexism included.

Point #5: Martin Luther King Jr. and other male Movement leaders remain heroes.
Although King and other male Movement leaders participated in seemingly contradictory behavior (advancing racial equality, yet subjugating women), they are heroes. What is a hero? One of the best definitions comes from the Giraffe Project, a nonprofit organization that finds, commends and publicizes the efforts of people who "stick their necks out for others." Heroes, according to the Giraffe Project, are people who take risks for the common good: "By risk, we mean the possibility of losing a job, health, safety, significant amounts of money, or acceptance by the community or by peers. By common good, we mean that [the actions] benefit many people."

History will never tell us what would have happened had women served in prominent leadership positions during the Civil Rights Movement, but it does reveal clearly that Martin Luther King Jr. and other men took risks for the common good. Indeed, many of these activists met death and imprisonment while advancing this nation's promise that "all men are created equal."

Point #6: By acknowledging the imperfections of the Civil Rights Movement's male leaders, we recognize not just their humanity, but ours as well.
In his impressive volume, Soul of a Citizen, Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, author and scholar Paul Loeb explores the ways in which everyday citizens excuse themselves from activist efforts. He writes:

Chief among the obstacles … is a mistaken belief that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision or knowledge than a normal person could ever possess. This belief pervades our society, in part because the media tends not to represent heroism as the work of ordinary human beings, which it almost always is. ...
Loeb continues:
As a result of such images, many of us have developed what I call the perfect standard. Before we will allow ourselves to take action on an issue, we must be convinced … that we have perfect understanding of it, perfect moral consistency in our character, and that we be able to express our views with perfect eloquence.

King and other Movement heroes were just like the rest of us -- flawed. In U.S. culture, role models are often expected to be superhuman or to possess character beyond reproach. But heroes are not perfect; they are people. We must find a way to embrace human weakness and human accomplishment at the same time. If we do not, what do we say about our own capacity to serve the common good?

No amount of context can offset the disturbing revelation that King and other male leaders not only ignored sexism but were complicit in it. I May Not Get There With You may leave readers embarrassed by the sexism that seemingly permeated the Civil Rights Movement. One is tempted to ask, "Why must Dyson soil the reputations of these leaders? Why must our memories of the Movement be polluted? Couldn't he just leave well enough alone?"

It is Dyson himself who responds most eloquently to these questions. He writes:

King's failures were significant, but they pale in comparison to the majestic good he did. As King knew, character should never be judged in Manichaean terms. Human striving to do right must balance human wrongdoing, since, at its best, life is a tattered quilt of the good and the bad. King lived a life obsessed with helping others. He loved when he was hated. Her forgave when he was despised. ...

If he could forgive his enemies and friends for their faults, we can forgive him his. We need not idolize King to appreciate his worth; neither do we need to honor him by refusing to confront his weaknesses and his limitations. In assessing King's life, it would be immoral to value the abstract good of human perfection over concrete goods like justice, freedom, and equality -- goods that King valued and helped make more accessible in our national life.

Indeed, by looking into all aspects of King's character (some would say disparaging his character), Dyson builds a new vision of the Movement and casts its leaders in a new light. The result is powerful: As we begin to see King and other male activists more clearly, we also begin to see ourselves as their peers. We are imperfect, yet capable of enacting enormous good. Dyson's portrayal of the Movement not only is more honest than other historical accounts, it is perhaps more inspiring.

(Sept. 2007)

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