What We Owe to Black Women

In honor of Black History Month, I’m letting you in on something I’ve learned. America owes a debt to Black women for moving us toward democracy. You might already know this. I didn’t.

I learned about these heroes reading the excellent book, “She Took Justice,” by Gloria J. Browne-Marshall.

She Took Justice

Browne-Marshall is a civil rights attorney and playwright. In this absorbing book, Browne-Marshall straight-forwardly recounts The Black Woman’s non-stop fight to take justice for herself. The author never shies away from the lengths to which white America opposed The Black Woman. For example, rather than let Lucile Bluford enter the University of Missouri’s graduate school of journalism, they shut the school down. Without the women whose stories Browne-Marshall recounts, America would never have come as close to it has of being a functioning democracy.

Black Women Take Justice: 1940s and 50s

Irene Morgan, a Black woman, brought the case in 1946 that outlawed segregation on interstate buses.

A Black woman from Memphis, Mary Church Terrell, in 1953 forced restaurants in the nation’s capitol to serve African Americans.

The “Brown” in the 1954 case Brown V Board of Education that outlawed segregation in schools was Linda Brown.

in 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks was the leading face for the boycott, but she was one of many in the effort. Others took the suit to the Supreme Court. Two Black women—Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald Mary—plus two teenagers—Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin.

Black Women in the 1960s

Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old Black girl, in 1960 integrated Louisiana schools. This is the same Black child whose story racist whites want to ban from schools. Apparently, Ruby sitting alone in a classroom for one year is just too hard for their white children to hear.

A Black woman, Dollree Mapp, in 1961 brought the case that keeps police from unconstitutionally ransacking your home then using the evidence in court.

Evelyn Butts, a Black woman, in 1963 challenged the poll tax whites used to block African American voting.

In 1963, a Black woman went to the Supreme Court to force a racist-ass prosecutor to address her with her last name: Miss Mary Hamilton.

Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964 led a lawsuit that threw out election results when Black Mississippians were kept from voting.

A Black woman, Gardenia White represented by Attorney Pauli Murray, won in 1966 a woman’s right to serve on juries.

Mrs. Sylvester Smith, a Black woman, won in 1968 a right to receive benefits regardless of whether a man was in the house.

What You Won’t Believe

Early in our years of nationhood, there was no pretense that Black women challenging white supremacy risked their lives. Yet, Elizabeth Key went to court to prove she was a free servant (1658). Winny successfully challenged her status as free after a slave-holder took her into free territory (1824). Sojourner Truth sued successfully to regain her son (1827). Elizabeth Jennings successfully sued for being forcibly removed from a horse carriage (1855). These Black woman and so many more were taking justice when it meant possibly giving up everything.

And Today

The detailed account of She Took Justice ends in 1970. Browne-Marshall proves her premise. The Black Woman “turned the law, a device clearly meant for her oppression, into a weapon to combat discrimination, a prestigious occupation, and a platform from which she could lift others as she rose.”

The author cites the obvious: the struggle continues. But I believe her prediction. “If history is a guide, The Black Woman will fight until she takes justice despite any and all opponents.”

Black women created American democracy
Black Women used the law to move America closer to a democracy

Black History Month, Black Women and the law, Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Making America a Democracy, She Took Justice, The Black Woman in America

Comments (6)

  • Marvelous book. Belongs in every library and on every bedside table. Thank you for calling attention to it and reminding us that the struggle continues and that African American women have always been in the vanguard of the struggle.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      It really affected me, Joe. Probably more so thx to my legal background. And how ignorant I was even given that background.

  • Thank you for this succinct review and for introducing me to this book, Ellen. In my opinion, it should be required reading in every US high school classroom. And a series of age-appropriate little books featuring each woman’s story should be made available in every elementary school library. I’m glad some of them are already in book form. The gratitude I feel for the courage and commitment to democracy of these women is huge.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I didn’t know, Sharon, that the Brown in Brown v. Board of Education was a woman! So much ignorance on my part. And how very early in our history how active Black women were in using the courts to seek justice. Just truly eye-opening. And I love the idea of books on each of the women. <3

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Oh, I’m so glad–so much of it was new to me. She’s a lawyer so the book is dense. 🙂 Sometimes one fact after another, but I love facts, so I really liked it.

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