Black History Month Speaker Shares Stories of Lesser-known Women Activists

Dr. Crystal R. Sanders

“We are all bound up together in one big bundle of humanity,” Dr. Crystal R. Sanders said during the Black History Month lecture in Neville Hall at Presbyterian College on Thursday, Feb. 28. “Society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

Sanders, associate professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, was quoting Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and writer who lived from 1825 to 1911.

According to Sanders, Harper was telling a mostly white audience in 1866 that denying the freedom of African Americans indirectly weakened the freedom of white Americans.

“She was urging white women in particular to not just be progressive when it came to women’s suffrage,” Sanders said. “Harper wanted that resolve and commitment to extend to black civil rights.”

Women Who Stood Up for Civil Rights

During her talk, which she noted came on the heels of Women’s History Month, Sanders told the stories of several other lesser-known women, mostly African Americans, who stood up for civil rights for African Americans.

“Oftentimes in civil rights history, black women are relegated to secondary roles,” Sanders said. “However, when we tell accurate, inclusive accounts of American history, women should be a key part of the narrative.”

Sanders told the story of Ona Judge, who was enslaved to George and Martha Washington before she escaped the president’s mansion. Sanders shared the story of Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist from Michigan who traveled to Alabama to help Dr. Martin Luther King register African-American voters before she was killed for her advocacy.

Sanders also spoke about Claudette Colvin, a pioneer of the civil rights movement who was arrested when she was 15 years old for not giving up her seat on a bus, as well as the Bennett College Belles, who coordinated sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina. And Sanders noted Diane Nash, an American civil rights activist known for organizing sit-ins and continuing the Freedom Rides.

“Black women have been political strategists and leaders in their own rights,” Sanders said. “They have been central to our country’s social movements.”

“We are all bound up together”

Sanders relayed that Americans must rely on one another today the same way Harper argued we must in 1866.

“This idea of interdependency is still true today,” Sanders said.    

For America to be America, Sanders argued, all citizens’ rights should be protected and everyone should abide by the law. Furthermore, all citizens should be concerned about residential segregation, the re-segregation of public schools and the lack of living wages for all workers.

“It might not be our problem, but it is our problem,” Sanders said. “It is our problem because we are all bound up together. A forgotten figure in history told us so more than a century earlier.”

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