Girls in the Civil Rights Movement

As Black History Month begins, there are a plethora of lists circulating on the web of resources to use for learning more about Black History. Black history is American history. 

In this space, I wanted to briefly share the stories of some girls who were visible parts of the Civil Rights Movement. When I wrote my dissertation, my focus was girlhood narratives and discourses about citizenship in 20th Century American literature. With that topic in mind, naturally, I spent a lot of time studying the role of youth in the Civil Rights Movement. The young people involved are personal heroes of mine. So, here are some of the stories that were big parts of my research, in case you want to study up on some of these amazing people. 

Claudette Colvin

When Claudette Colvin was 15 years old, she refused to give up her seat on the city bus home from school, where she had been learning about Black leaders like Harriet Tubman. The incident happened nine months before Rosa Parks’s famous arrest, but Civil Rights leaders felt that Parks, who was an adult and more middle class in ethos, would be a better test case, so Colvin’s story was largely forgotten until recent years. 

Read/hear more about Colvin’s story at NPR: https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin 

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges inspired the famous Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” that was recently referenced in images celebrating the election of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman to serve as Vice President. More importantly, Bridges was a key figure in the desegregation of public schools. When she was in the first grade, she became the only Black child to go to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The images of hateful crowds screaming at her and U.S. Marshals escorting her to school became iconic.  During her first grade year, so many parents kept their students out of class at William Frantz that Bridges spent most of the year learning by herself with her teacher. Her family was sent a Black baby doll with a noose around its neck. The wrath that was directed toward Bridges is shocking to this day. The picture of Bridges that Rockwell painted would eventually be hung in the Obama White House. 

Elizabeth Eckford

The Little Rock Nine

Ruby Bridges integrated her school in 1960. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine ( Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNie, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals) made headlines as they desegregated their high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High did so as a test case for Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case from 1954 that found school segregation was not legal. After Brown, not much was done to integrate schools, so it became clear that the issue would have to be forced. The Little Rock Nine were a big part of that movement. On the first day of school, September 4, 1957, the governor of Arkansas sent troops to block the students’ entrance. President Eisenhower countered, sending federal troops in to escort the students to school. One image that became particularly emblematic of this movement is that of Elizabeth Eckford, looking awfully cool and collected in some killer shades, walking into school as an angry mob screams at her. Eckford was 16 at the time, so it is understandable that whereas people could look at her picture and see the strength and resolve, seeing the same sorts of images featuring Ruby Bridges at their center would be a degree more shocking. 

Sheyann Webb and Rachel West

Sheyann Webb and Rachel West

One of my favorite texts that I wrote about in my dissertation was Selma, Lord Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West. In the book, Webb and West recount their childhood experiences living in Selma, Alabama during the movement for voting rights and the infamous Bloody Sunday march. When watching Selma, I scoured crowd shots looking for some representation of these two brave little girls and did not see them. The truth was, they were part of that march. They were witnesses to that violence, escaping by being scooped up by fleeing adults, including Hosea Williams. Their account is sometimes very shocking. For example, they describe laying awake at night thinking about the fact that they could be killed. More often, however, they emphasize how proud they are to have been part of the community and for the fight for their rights, even though they were years away from being old enough to vote. Another element of their story that I find fascinating is the initiative they took in their involvement with the marches in Selma. Their parents were busy trying to pay the bills, so they did not get the girls involved. Instead, the girls skipped school to participate, doing so because they felt so strongly about the actions their community was taking, defying the adults most directly involved in their lives to do so. Because of their youth, the girls were given special attention by some members of the Civil Rights Movement. The recount meeting Dr. King, and have several wonderful stories about Rev. James Reeb who was ultimately killed in Selma. It looks like their book is out of print, but I very seriously suggest finding a copy at the library or a used book store and giving it a read. 

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair

The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

Four little girls were the victims of one of the biggest tragedies of the Civil Rights Era. The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing happened on September 15th, 1963 when four KKK members in Birmingham, Alabama planted a timed dynamite bomb beneath the steps at the church. Up to 22 people were injured and four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, were killed. It took decades for justice to be done in the case, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The tragedy was a turning point in public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Diane Nash

Diane Nash

I have put Diane Nash last because I do not think she could really be called a girl, but she was incredibly important to the involvement of youth in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with John Lewis (RIP), Nash was a founding leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and also involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1961-1965. Nash was arrested dozens of times. She was instrumental in recruitment for the Freedom Riders and faced up to two years in prison for her role. She was four months pregnant at the time of her arrest and ultimately ended up spending 10 days in jail in Jackson, Mississipi, not two years. Later, Nash split from the SCLC over issues she had with the leadership, including the near exclusion of women. 

Black girls continue to do amazing things in American life today. The first who comes to my mind is Mari Copeny who made headlines for her protests about the Flint Water Crisis. Conversely, Black girls also continue to be discriminated against. We have seen the images this past year of girls marching during the Black Lives Matter protests and grieving their fathers and family members. Just yesterday, news broke of a police department telling a nine-year-old Black girl that she was acting like a child before pepper-spraying her. I feel like nothing I could say would be sufficient, so let me say this: Black girls do not have to do extraordinary things like the ones above did in order to deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and love, and our culture so often fails them.

Mugshots of Freedom Riders

Further Reading

Library of Congress: Youth in the Civil Rights Movement

PBS News Hour: Children Who Marched for Civil Rights Inspire a New Generation

Books on School Integration

Books for Talking About Race with Kids

10 Things Everyone Should Know About Diane Nash

Diane Nash Refused to Give Up Her Power

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the Freedom Riders

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

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