Narratives of the racial justice movement in the United States are normally saturated with stories of heterosexual male heroism. Not because women have not been present and visible in the fight. But rather because stagnant gender progressivism and racial-sexual politics have created an environment where it’s common not to acknowledge them and tell their stories.
But when true and accurate stories of racial justice are told, the roles of women in the movement are at the center. From the very early days of this country until now, women working in faith communities, farm fields, factories, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and schools have fought for racial equity and the expansion of democracy for all people. This fact is undeniable.
Most significantly, throughout the course of American history, Black women have carried the banner and been the backbone of the racial justice movement. Oftentimes doing so without fanfare or public recognition. Nonetheless, they have persisted to organize, strategize, and mobilize for justice with creativity, grace, dignity, and effectiveness.
At its core, racial justice isn’t about merely better Black and white co-existence. It’s about a more equitable human existence for us all.
A good number of these freedom fighting Black women have been self-described persons of faith who saw their commitment to racial justice as an expression of their religious convictions. This tradition includes women such as Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ella Josephine Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Way DeLee, Clara Muhammad, Diane Nash, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, and Pauli Murray. All of whom are women, now a part of the ancestral cloud of witnesses, who used their religious formation and womanist consciousness to impel their social activism.
Today, there remains a significant number of Black women still among the land of the living, who are carrying on the tradition of faith inspired racial justice organizing. These are individuals like April Aviva Baskins, Traci Blackmon, Leah Daughtry, Nicole Pressley, and Layla Saad, just to name a few. All Black women representing Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and Islamic faith perspectives who are currently working tirelessly, sometimes thanklessly, to achieve equal representation and civil rights for women, children, and the racially oppressed. We no doubt live in a better America because of their sacrifice and service.
But Black women have not been the only women in the fight for racial justice in America. Though white women have routinely been complicit in helping perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy, there has also been a long stream of faith inspired white women who have bucked convention and been true allies in the fight for racial justice.
For example, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler was a white Quaker who authored anti‐slavery pieces and supported only buying produce from the free Northern states and none from the slave South. There was Lucretia Mott, also a Quaker, who advocated for the abolishment of slavery and persuaded her husband to get out of the cotton trade business and join her anti-slavery crusade. Also, there was the genteel Methodist lady, Dorothy Tilly, who was a leader among the faith-based racial integration and anti-lynching movement. All of these women deserve a great deal of respect for choosing to forsake their own privilege to advocate for a more equitable and just world. I hope there will be many others like them in contemporary time who will find the courage to do likewise.
I’d also be remiss not to recognize Sikh women like Valerie Kaur, Native American women like Kaitlin Curtis, Palestinian-American Muslim women like Linda Sarsour, and Jewish women like Sharon Brous and Lydia Medwin etc., who all represent the ethnically diverse rainbow coalition that is presently working to help our country reckon with and undo its long legacy of compounded systemic racism. This is important to highlight because at its core racial justice isn’t about merely better Black and white co-existence. It’s about a more equitable human existence for us all.
When true and accurate stories of racial justice are told, the roles of women in the movement are at the center.
Without question, the racial justice gains that have been achieved in our country are due in large part to the work of a diverse group of faith-rooted women past and present. They, more than any other group, have been consistent, Spirit-led heralds of the message and stewards of the integrity of the work. And our country owes them much appreciation for their faithful service, and those of us who do the work of faith-based racial justice are grateful to walk in their shadow.