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Men tend to get all of the credit for everything, especially the Civil Rights Movement. While Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and Malcolm X are known as the faces of the movement, black history is brimming with women whose contributions are equally noteworthy. Here’s our list of black women who helped to advance the race under the most challenging of circumstances.

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1) Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel is best-known for winning the 1940 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as “Mammy” in “Gone with the Wind.” While her role is widely considered demeaning to blacks, viewing McDaniel’s performance through such a narrow lens overlooks the dignity with which she handled her limited-acting opportunities.  McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech showed a grace and class that should have put the racist directors, executives, producers and actors of Hollywood to shame.

Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar Acceptance Speech

2) Fannie Lou Hamer (pictured)

Fannie Lou Hamer was easily one of the hardest-working women during the Civil Rights Movement. She was a plain-spoken and devout woman known for her fiery speeches at the various civil rights conferences she attended. Hamer was critical in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a 1964 effort to register as many black voters as possible. At the time, voter registration was a dangerous task that could easily get one killed by white segregationists determined to keep blacks powerless. Later, she reflected on her fearless work:

I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.

Now that is what we call “hard core”!

3) Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a journalist and civil rights activist back in the late 1800s, when blacks could still remember being slaves. Wells, who was born just before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, is credited for documenting lynchings in the South and researching how white segregationists used violent methods to keep African Americans “in their place.”

Wells was also known for being outspoken and unafraid to challenge whites, an attitude that could have easily gotten her lynched. During an 1884 train ride, Wells was asked to give up her seat to a white passenger and refused, which occurred more than 70 years before Rosa Parks. After the conductors dragged her out of the train car, she sued the train company — and won!

Though the ruling was overturned, Wells proved that she could unabashedly stare racism dead in the eye.

4) Sojourner Truth

An abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery in her late 20s with her infant son. At the time, Truth was forced to leave her other children behind, and one of them was sold to another slave master in Alabama. Never backing down, Truth took the master to court, won the case and got her son back. She is one of the first black women to take a white man to court and win. Known for her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” Truth spent the rest of her free life speaking at anti-slavery and women’s suffrage conferences and was one of black America’s first-leading women who spoke against slavery long before the system ended.

5) Vivian Malone

One of the first two African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama, Vivian Malone faced down a menacing George Wallace who vowed to never allow blacks to enroll in the all-white institution. Not only enrolling and graduating, Malone went on to retire as director of civil rights and urban affairs and director of environmental justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2000, the University of Alabama awarded her a doctorate of humane letters.

Any woman who could stand up to a segregationist governor should be on anyone’s list. See a short clip of Gov. Wallace’s infamous speech on segregation below.

6) Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman led about 70 slaves to northern freedom through the Underground Railroad. At age 29, Tubman escaped slavery but eventually returned for the rest of her family after several trips. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted, Tubman lead slaves to Canada, where slavery was prohibited. Years later, when discussing her dangerous missions, Tubman said:

I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.

7) Elizabeth Eckford

A member of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford was one of nine high school students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. On the tumultuous day, racist white crowds accosted Eckford and the rest of the teens, making their first day of school one of the worst educational experiences any child could ever have.

But what puts Eckford on this list is her steely resolve in this iconic photo. She was as solid as a rock.

8) Mary McLeod Bethune

How many women, of any race, will be able to say that they founded a nationally recognized university that flourished well after their death? Mary McLeod Bethune is one of them. Like many universities founded not too long after slavery, Bethune Cookman-University began as a school that taught basic math and reading and eventually grew into a college over the years.

Now the university has a sizable sports program, a graduate school and thousands of alumni who have Mrs. Bethune to thank for their upwardly mobile careers and lifestyles.

9) Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey will always be remembered for having the strongest grip on white female television viewers ever. A dark-skinned black woman who struggled with fluctuating weight issues defied the stereotypical notions of what it takes to dominate prime-time television. There are very few people, of any color, who can make an up-and-coming author or business person an instant millionaire just by saying of their product, “I like it.”  Now that’s power.

10) Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Social activist Julian Bond says of women during the Civil Rights Movement:

There’s a Chinese saying, ‘Women hold up half the world.’ In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s probably three-quarters of the world.

And he’s right. In an article, civil rights leaders from that era admit that women were marginalized within the movement. For example, when major speeches took place, you seldom heard a female voice. The names of women who should be memorialized will likely never be known.

So to those women who went unrecognized for their laborious efforts to perfect America, we say thank you.

Did we miss anyone? Feel free to recommend some women who made the race proud and America better.


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