Running A Business

Women Civil Rights Leaders You Should KNow

Feb 15, 2021 • 10+ min read
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      During Black History Month, we often focus on the men responsible for advancing the cause of civil rights for Black people. However, many Black women on the front lines and behind the scenes also worked tirelessly. From smuggling slaves to freedom to championing the causes of Black women to ensuring Black voters are free to exercise their 15th Amendment rights, these women are heroes worth studying.    

      Harriet Tubman

      Harriet Tubman was a former slave who used the Underground Railroad to smuggle numerous slaves to freedom. She also served as a spy in the Civil War, providing intelligence about the Confederate Army to Union forces.   

      Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 on a Dorchester, MD, plantation. Her parents named her Araminta, but she later changed her name to Harriet to honor her mother. Tubman endured a brutal childhood. At the age of 5, she was charged with keeping her mistress’s baby from crying at night, and Tubman was whipped whenever the baby cried. 

      Around the age of 7, it was her job to gather muskrats from their traps, which required standing in waist-deep water and contributed to her poor health. At the age of 12, an overseer threw a 2-pound weight at an escaped slave at the exact moment Tubman stepped between them while attempting to block the overseer’s path and allow the slave time to run away. The weight broke her skull, and this head injury resulted in a lifetime of narcolepsy, seizures, headaches, and other issues.

      Tubman’s father was freed in 1840, and later, in his will, Tubman’s owner set her, her mother, and the rest of her family free. However, the new owner refused to acknowledge the will, and in 1849, after learning the new owner planned to sell 2 of her brothers to another plantation, Tubman and her 2 siblings escaped.

      After seeing a notice offering a reward for their return, her brothers changed their minds and decided to go back to their plantation. However, Tubman used the Underground Railroad to continue traveling 90 miles to Pennsylvania, where slaves were considered free. The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad but a network of churches, homes, and schoolhouses referred to as “stations.” Fugitive slaves were guided by “conductors.”    

      After achieving freedom, Tubman went back to free other relatives (including her parents) and friends from slavery using the Underground Railroad and eventually established her own version. During her 19 trips, she often led people as far as Canada to avoid the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required escaped slaves in the North to be returned to their masters.

      During the Civil War, Tubman used her skills as a nurse and cook to assist injured soldiers and fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe. She also oversaw an espionage network that informed the Union about the Confederate Army’s supply routes and troops, and she led the Combahee River Raid, which freed over 700 slaves in South Carolina, making her the first woman in the Civil War to lead an armed expedition. When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY.

      Stacey Abrams 

      Stacey Abrams is a lawyer, politician, and voting right activist who was instrumental in increasing voter turnout in Georgia’s 2020 election, effectively turning the state from red to blue.

      Abrams, 1 of 6 kids, grew up in Gulfport, MS. Her parents’ firm belief in education led them to move the family to Georgia, where she attended public school in DeKalb County. In 1995, Abrams graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College with a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. As a Truman Scholar, she attended the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and earned a Master’s of Public Affairs degree in 1988. Abrams also earned a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School in 1999.

      In 2002, she was appointed a deputy city attorney for the City of Atlanta. Abrams won election to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2006. In 2010, she became the first woman to lead the Georgia General Assembly and the first Black person to lead in the House of Representatives.

      Concerned about the high number of unregistered Black residents in Georgia, she founded the New Georgia Project, which was responsible for registering more than 200,000 people of color between 2014 and 2016.

      In 2018, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia. She won the Democratic nomination, making her the first Black woman to be a major party’s nominee for this position. She lost the general election by a little over 50,000 votes. However, her challenger, Brian Kemp, who was also the Secretary of State and oversaw voter registration and elections, threw out more than 1.4 million voter registrations between 2012 and 2018—including 670,000 registrations in 2017.

      A month before the 2018 election, Kemp put 53,000 registrations on hold, citing Georgia’s exact match verification. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, although Black people were 32% of the population at the time, they were 70% of the voter registrations Kemp put on hold. Other criticism surrounding the election included voting machines that didn’t have power cords and numerous poll sites that were closed in Black communities.

      Although Abrams lost that election, thanks to her diligent work, Georgia’s Democratic Party went from 2 employees and almost no money in 2010 to 150 employees and $25 million on hand—and in 2018, it flipped 16 seats in the state.

      On February 5, 2019, Abrams delivered the response to the State of the Union address, making her the first Black woman and the first person not currently holding office to do so. Although many people wanted her to run for the US Senate, she decided against it and instead continued her efforts to ensure people of color were registered and had equal access to voting. She founded Fair Fight 2020 in 2019. The organization builds voter protection teams to protect the rights of voters from both foreign interference and voter suppression.    

      Her work to register and mobilize unprecedented levels of Black and young voters is widely credited with helping Joe Biden win the state of Georgia and with helping propel Georgia’s 2 Senate Democratic nominees, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, to victory.

      Dorothy Height

      As president of the National Council of Negro Women, Dorothy Height played a crucial role in improving standards and creating opportunities for Black women.

      Born in 1912 in Richmond, VA, to a building contractor and a nurse, Height grew up in Rankin, PA, and attended racially-integrated schools. Her oratory skills led to a college scholarship. Height graduated from New York University, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Master’s Degree in Psychology, followed by postgraduate work at Columbia. While at Columbia, she joined Delta Sigma Theta, the largest Black sorority in the country. (She also served as the sorority’s national president from 1947 to 1956, leading the organization into a deeper level of activism on both a national and international level.)

      In 1933, Height led the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. In this capacity, she undertook a variety of causes, including desegregating the armed forces, preventing lynching, and calling for criminal justice reform. Working as a social worker, she became involved with the YWCA for Black women, eventually being elected to a national office. While at the YWCA, she led the integration of all of its facilities.

      In 1965, Height created the Center for Racial Justice and oversaw operations until 1977.

      In 1957, she became the 4th president of the National Council of Negro Women, a role she held until she retired in 1996. During her 40 years at the helm, Height was a major force in the civil rights movement, working on campaigns with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and several other civil rights figures. She organized the 1963 March on Washington and stood near Dr. King as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

      She also worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, and President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights and women’s rights issues. In addition, she was appointed by President Carter to the Presidential Commission on a National Agenda for the 1980s. In 1994, President Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2004, President Bush presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal. When she died in 2010, President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at her memorial service. 

      Rosa Parks

      Rosa Parks is well known for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, but there’s so much more to her story.

      Parks was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, AL, and at the age of 2, when her parents separated, her mother moved Parks and her brother to Pine Level, AL, to live with her grandparents. Segregation was always a part of her early life. She attended a 1-room Black school that didn’t have such basic supplies as desks, and all of the students had to walk to school. However, the white students in her city had a new, well-equipped school and bus transportation.

      Parks moved to Montgomery, and at the age of 19, she married Raymond Parks, a barber by profession and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She joined the organization as well, leading the local youth division and serving as the branch’s secretary.

      On December 1, 1955, while leaving the department store where she worked as a seamstress, Parks sat in the Black section of the bus, as required by Montgomery’s bus ordinance. However, as the bus filled with more white people, the white section ran out of seats. The driver pulled the bus over and told the Black passengers to give up their seats to the white passengers.

      Three of the Black passengers got out of their seats, but 42-year-old Parks refused. The bus driver called the police, and she was arrested and later released on bail. Parks is often quoted as saying she would not relinquish her seat because she was tired. However, in her autobiography, she explains that she didn’t mean she was exhausted after a long day at work. Rather, she said, she was tired of giving in.

      Her act of civil disobedience was the impetus for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The idea spread throughout the Black community by word of mouth, newspaper ads, and handbills to avoid riding the bus, starting on the day of her court appearance. Although she was found guilty and fined for violating the ordinance, it is estimated that on that day, 40,000 Black residents of the city either carpooled, took a Black-operated cab, or walked to their destinations.

      The boycott lasted for several months—Parks was even arrested again on February 21, 1956, for her role in organizing the boycott. In June 1956, racial segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional, although the boycott continued until December because Montgomery appealed the district court’s decision, but ultimately the US Supreme Court ruled against the city.

      Even though Parks became known as the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement, she left the South after both she and her husband were fired from their jobs. They moved to Detroit, MI, and she worked in the office of US Representative John Conyers. In 1987, she cofounded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to educate and inspire youth.

      In 1996, Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton, and Time Magazine voted her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Parks died in 2005, but on February 3, 2013 (which would have marked her 100th birthday), the US Postal Service released Rosa Parks Forever stamps. That year, she also became the first Black person to have a full-length statue in National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol.

      Shirley Chisholm

      Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the US Congress and the first Black candidate to run for president of the US.

      She was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, NY, the oldest of 4 sisters. Her mother was from Barbados, and Chisholm spent some of her childhood there but graduated from the Brooklyn public school system. Although she was accepted into both Vassar and Oberlin, she accepted a scholarship to Brooklyn College, where she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, followed by a Master of Arts from Columbia University in early childhood education.

      Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher, daycare center director, and educational consultant and was also a part of the NAACP, Democratic Party, League of Women’s Voters, and Urban League.

      In 1964, she became the second Black woman in Albany elected to the New York State Legislature.

      In 1968, Chisholm won election to the House of Representatives, beating 3 prominent Black men in the primary and a well-known civil rights figure in the general election to become the country’s first Black congresswoman.

      She often ruffled feathers. Her first speech on the House Floor condemned the Vietnam War, and when she was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, she appealed directly to the House Speaker and then on the House Floor and was reassigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Chisholm also worked on the Education Committee but gave up that assignment to serve on the Rules Committee, making her the first Black woman—and only the second woman—on that panel.

      Education and addressing poverty were her passions, and she sponsored bills for federal education assistance, extended daycare hours, and school lunch programs, and she often criticized her Democratic colleagues as much as she criticized those across the aisle.

      In 1972, Chisholm became a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, noting that none of the other candidates were meeting the needs of poor and minority voters. Her slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed,” and in announcing her candidacy, she said, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that.” Instead, she said she was the candidate for all of the country.

      However, in 1972, the challenge of being both a Black candidate and a woman candidate was insurmountable to many Democrats who were convinced that she could not win against the Republican nominee, and she failed to win the support of many prominent Black politicians and white feminists. Chisholm’s name was on 12 primary ballots, and she received 152 delegate votes (10% of the total votes).

      She continued to serve in Congress until 1983 (for a total of 7 terms). Chisholm then taught at Mount Holyoke College and was a cofounder of the National Political Congress of Black Women. Chisholm died in 2005, but her pioneering efforts paved the way for women and minority candidates to seek the highest office in the land.

      Claudette Colvin

      Although Rosa Park’s defiance was a turning point in the civil rights movement, Claudette Colvin was the first known Black person who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.

      Colvin was born in 1939 in segregated Montgomery, AL. In an interview with the BBC, she recalls the process for getting a pair of black patent leather shoes for Easter shoes. “You could only get them from the white stores, so my mother drew the outline of my feet on a brown paper bag in order to get the closest size because we weren’t allowed to go in the store to try them on.”

      Fifteen-year-old Colvin and 3 of her friends boarded a city bus on March 2, 1955. As was the case with Rosa Parks, there was a Black section in the back, but if there were not enough seats in the white section, Black passengers were expected to give up their seats and stand. As the bus became crowded and a white woman was left standing up, the bus driver told Colvin and her friends to get up. While her friends moved, Colvin remained seated.

      Colvin states that she would have given up her seat for an elderly person but refused because she was asked to move for a young white woman. (Note: even though only 1 white person needed a seat, Black and white people could not share the same row, so Black passengers in the entire row needed to move.)

      When the bus reached a junction where the police were waiting, Colvin was taken off the bus, handcuffed, and brought to an adult jail, where she waited several hours until her mother and minister came to get her. Although Colvin said she was not afraid when she refused to move from her seat—she said she felt mad because she’d paid her fare and had a right to sit there—she admits that she was terrified when she was in jail. Even when she was back at home, there were fears of retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan, as was the case when Black people engaged in civil disobedience. Her father stayed up at night with a shotgun (and the neighbors kept watch, as well).

      The story even made the local news.

      So why isn’t Colvin more widely known as the person who helped launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott? She was a teenager and became pregnant shortly after the arrest. According to Colvin, it was possible that her teenage pregnancy would be the focus instead of the boycott.

      Although the court ruled to place her on probation, Colvin’s life changed. Now a well-known figure in Montgomery, she was seen by some as a rabble-rouser, which led to her dropping out of college (although she had good grades) and prevented her from getting a job.

      She was also 1 of 4 women plaintiffs in the court case Browder v. Gayle that helped to end bus segregation in Montgomery, AL.

      Colvin moved to New York, NY, and worked as a nurse’s aide until she retired in 2004. She says that she has kept a low profile since leaving Montgomery.

      However, she will always serve as an inspiration for being a teenager who dared to stand up for her rights.


      Rosa Parks

      Shirley Chisholm

      Claudette Colvin

      Harriet Tubman

      Stacey Abrams 

      Dorothy Height


      Featured Image: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
      About the author
      Terri Williams

      Terri Williams is a writer based in Birmingham, AL, who specializes in business, technology, education, real estate, and personal finance – and dabbles in home improvement/décor. She has bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Bankrate, Investopedia, US News & World Report, American Bar Association Journal, Verizon,, Apartment Therapy, and several other clients you’ve probably heard of. Follow her adventures @Territoryone.

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