Since the earliest days in the history of the United States and up through the present, Black women have been at the forefront of shaping and reshaping our nation into a more equitable, more just, and more inclusive democracy. Nowhere is that more true than in the South. Even while living in some of the most oppressive conditions this country has had to offer—from slavery and Jim Crow to reproductive injustice and rampant modern-day voter suppression—Black women in the South are always leading. Through grassroots work, advocacy, and more, Southern Black women have pushed Americans to greater political and civic engagement.
There’s example after example. After the Civil War in the late 19th century, Mississippi-born Ida B. Wells exposed the gruesome truth about widespread lynching of Black people in the South, using investigative journalism to drive social change. In the 20th century, Black women continued to push the country forward on issues of racial justice, gender justice, and economic justice, to name a few. While the history books give most of the credit to Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that helped change the trajectory of civil rights was actually organized by a Black woman: Jo Ann Robinson, then-president of the Women’s Political Council. Determined to desegregate the city’s public transportation system, she mobilized Montgomery’s Black residents to boycott the buses after the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955. Soon afterward in the early 1960s, prominent civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer registered people to vote in rural Mississippi and, as a result of her efforts, was so brutally beaten that she lost vision in one eye and her kidneys were permanently damaged.
Black women also led the way in Selma, Alabama: Women like Amelia Boynton Robinson, the first Black woman to run for Congress in Alabama; Marie Foster, an educator who registered Black folks to vote and taught them how to pass the literacy tests designed to keep them from the ballot box; and Dorothy Cotton, one of the highest-ranked female strategists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who created the Citizenship Education Program to help register local Black people to vote. Outside of Alabama, there was New York City-based Ella Baker, who not only fought for civil rights from the 1930s onward but was also outspoken about sexism within the civil rights movement.
After the civil rights victories of the 1960s, Black women’s leadership continued to change our country. In the 1970s, Black women were at the forefront of the domestic workers movement, successfully fighting for the rights of household employees like nannies, cleaners, and more—mostly women of color—to receive minimum wage and be paid overtime for their valuable and unseen work. And throughout the last few decades, Black women have fought to change the public’s perception of welfare recipients and helped to lead the fight for racial equality in public education.
Just as many Black women leaders have been all but left out of our history books, today too many bold Black women advocates go unseen by the political mainstream. At the same time that we’re hypervisible and vulnerable to the conservative laws and racism that have led to our having the highest mortality rate in the country, the highest infant mortality rate, inconsistent access to health care, and ranking among the lowest paid workers in the nation, we go unseen when it’s time to recognize leaders who are on the front lines of social change.
But Black women leaders in the South don’t have to be hidden figures. We can and should shine a light on those who are continuing the historical legacy of our foremothers by fighting for progressive change in this country. Below are two rising stars you should know.
Rukia Lumumba is an attorney, organizer, and the founder of The People’s Advocacy Institute, an organization that fights for electoral justice based in Jackson, Mississippi. She is on the Black Voters Matter board of directors and has been instrumental as a co-leader of the Electoral Justice Project, which aims to continue the legacy of fighting for the advancement of people of color. She is also active with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a separate organization that promotes leadership, self-defense, and socialism.
Lumumba is a modern-day Fannie Lou Hamer, another Mississippi-based grassroots organizer who fundamentally believes that the way to transform democracy is by allowing impacted people to be the decision-makers on the critical policies that will affect their lives. In the same room where Hamer led meetings and held the “Freedom Ballot Campaign” mock election, Lumumba holds meetings for her own organization today. She has also been at the forefront of empowering Black and working class people to practice community governance during people’s assemblies, where residents come together to talk about problems, refine priorities, and discuss solutions. Her work has created a go-to model for other communities, in particular around participatory budgeting, a transformative process where instead of responding to a budget prepared by the city council and mayor, the community co-designs what the city budget should be and where the resources should be allocated. This model allows citizens to frame and prioritize the budget of the city and then present it to the leadership. Lumumba is taking that model beyond Jackson to other communities around the nation. Lumumba has named Hamer as one of her heroes, and her organizing efforts today honor the grassroots spirit of Hamer’s work.
Like many Black female revolutionaries, Tennessee’s Gicola Lane never gets the credit she deserves. Lane is a grassroots organizer in Nashville who lost a recent bid for the Nashville Metro Council. Still, she did an excellent job for a first-time candidate, losing against the incumbent by just a few hundred votes.
Lane is a modern-day Ella Baker, a woman who’s willing to challenge the establishment even within movement spaces and push progressives in even more radical directions. During her era, Baker was critical of established civil rights organizations, shining a light on their need to engage young people and challenge the old, patriarchal gender hierarchy within the movement. Like Baker, Lane works alongside traditional organizations but uses her work to push the envelope, minimizing hierarchical leadership and encouraging participatory democracy.
In 2000, Lane’s uncle, Timothy Lamont, was murdered by the police after he tried to flee from them. His murder had a devastating effect on her, instilling a lifetime commitment to the accountability of law enforcement. She transformed her pain to help other community members, rallying the people of Nashville around the death of a young Black man named Jocques Clemmons.
In the wake of police violence, in 2018 Lane led the fight to establish a community oversight board (COB) through a referendum vote. While Tennessee has long been ranked among the last in the nation for voter turnout, that year the state was ranked No. 1 in early voting thanks in large part to Lane’s work. While the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) invested millions to prevent the establishment of the COB, Lane was often out in the rain by herself, knocking on doors in her community to get folks out to vote. She had limited resources, but through her skills and creativity she created a movement. No one thought the influential and well-funded FOB could be defeated, but the referendum passed despite the huge disparity in funding. Through that victory, Lane opened up space for others like her to lead. Later, when she ran for the Nashville Metro Council and almost won, the local paper endorsed her. Hers is a quintessential David versus Goliath story: She came up against the man and won. Mark my words, she will be a United States senator one day. Lane is someone to watch and support right now. She is a mentor to young people and has given support to dozens of families whose family members have been murdered by the police, always placing the needs of the larger community ahead of her individual plans.
For Women’s History Month, Prism is shining a light on the leadership of women of color, including Black women like these two rising stars. They recently spoke with Prism reporters to share their stories and insights into what leadership looks like for them. Check out the Q&A interviews with Lumumba and Lane, and keep an eye on these phenomenal young women—as they honor our history, they represent the future of the movement.