Black Women Leaders Talk About the Power of Education

First Lady Michelle Obama hosts intergenerational panel of women civil rights leaders.

Women leaders and activists in the civil rights movement have historically never been given their proper due. Even today, the names Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis are familiar to most people of any age, while the late Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, or publisher and activist Daisy Bates, who were instrumental in the struggle for equality, more likely than not don't ring any bells.

In honor of these and other women's achievements, First Lady Michelle Obama on Feb. 20 hosted a Black History Month event that featured an intergenerational panel of women who've been involved in the movement.

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The panel included Carlotta Walls LaNier, member of the Little Rock Nine; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, activist and journalist; Sherrillyn Ifill, president and director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Chanelle Hardy, National Urban League senior vice president for Policy and executive director of the National Urban League Washington Bureau; and Janaye Ingram, national executive director of the National Action Network. The discussion was moderated by Vanessa K. De Luca, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine.

"These women represent many different facets and eras of the movement,” the first lady said. “But there is something that connects each of their stories, a common thread that animates their lives, and that is their hunger for and belief in the power of education.”

Perhaps just as important was the fact that despite their economic circumstances, and in some cases in spite of them, their parents allowed them to dream and believe that there was nothing they couldn't achieve if they were determined to do so.

Citing the phrase "it takes a villiage," Hunter-Gault recalled, "While we grew up in separate and unequal circumstances, our segregated communities protected us and taught us that when they couldn't by law give us first class citizenship, they gave us a first class sense of ourselves." 

At age 8 or 9, Hunter-Gault "fell in love with the blue-eyed, red-haired [comic book character] Brenda Starr," a glamorous and adventurous reporter. When she shared her desire to be just like Starr when she grew up, her mother encouraged her because she knew "instinctively that dreams propel ambition."

Those dreams gave her the courage to face the angry mobs that threatened her when she became one of the first two Black students to integrate the University of Georgia. She also grew up to become an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist. Education, her father told her, as his father had told him, was the key to her liberation.

In her office at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Ifill has a photograph from 1969 in which she's the only Black student in her class soon after New York City implemented busing. She is the youngest of 10 children, raised by parents who didn't have much but taught their children to value education and demanded academic excellence from them.

Her organization recently did a report on African-American girls and the many barriers they face in education. Interestingly, they found that 55 percent of African-American girls think they will become leaders and 58 percent already consider themselves to be leaders. These findings resonated with Ifill because, although her father was "difficult" and didn't let her go to dances, he always told her she was destined for greatness.

"It didn't seem that big a deal. Only when I got older and went to college did I realize that people had dads who didn't think they could excel in school or be a lawyer. I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time I was a little kid. It was never a conversation or a controversy; it was an expectation," she said.

Her family didn't have money for extravagances like vacations or even bicycles for the kids. There were many more racial barriers than exist today, but there was a public infrastructure, from public schools to public colleges, that enabled Ifill and her siblings to not only go to college but also to earn advanced degrees. There also were summer jobs programs that helped develop the skills they needed to go out and get a job.

"And that's how a family with 10 kids was able to do what my parents did with their determination and grit could do," she said. "Yes, a lot of it comes from within us and our parents, but we also have to create an environment, a society, to receive people who want to achieve, who are ambitious, who have a sense of themselves as leaders. We have to give them the tools they need to live out their dreams."

The period between when young girls believe they, too, are destined for greatness and what they ultimately become, Ifill said, is critical and society has a responsibility to help see them through. Young people today, she added, are living in a world in which that contract has been broken.

The panelists also discussed the differences between the civil rights movement of the past and now. Janaye Ingram of the National Action Network, noted that today the lines are not as black and white.

"When they're confronted with situations of injustice or racism, and not even just for them but for all of us, it can be very hard to figure out was that a racist experience or was that something else. Was it gender bias, was it that this person just didn't like me? it becomes very hard to see the line in the sand," Ingram said.

She encourages young people at National Action Network to follow King's model of nonviolent actions that also include modern-day tactics like die-ins.

The National Urban League, on the other hand, noted Hardy, takes an approach closer to that of Booker T. Washington's.

"Supposedly everything's open to us, but if you can't afford to live in a safe neighborhood or send your child to a good school or give them the things they need to be successful or keep your house from going under water because you live among other black people and property values are not as high, that's a real problem. Working on that requires us to work in political and policy process and it requires voting," she said, adding that some of the obstacles are much the same, "which is why this work is hard [and] challenging."

So what advice would they give young women who would like to do civil rights work and be effective leaders in the 21st century?

Patience is important, counseled Hardy, as well as learning as much as possible about Black history.

"Arming yourself with that knowledge is powerful. And being in touch with your faith and your center so that you have something to sustain you beyond results because results might take a while," she said.

The Catholic high school Ingram attended celebrated Multicultural History Month, which was an affront to the Black students. They believed that their history should be part of the year-round curriculum but the school could at least honor Black History Month. Ingram suggested a walkout during homeroom to call attention to the issue and the other students agreed.

"The day came for us to walk out and we all had a conversation about it. When the moment comes I stand up and I'm the only one standing. But you know what I did?" she said. "I walked right out of that classroom, I walked to the dean's office and I sat there and gave him my complaint. Sometimes you have to be the only one standing if you really want to see something happen."

Her advice to young people is to not wait for other people to make change.

"You have to be passionate enough about it to do it yourself," Ingram advised. "If nobody else is willing to do it, you have to be willing to make that change."

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

BET Politics - Your source for the latest news, photos and videos illuminating key issues and personalities in African-American political life, plus commentary from some of our liveliest voices. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter. 

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

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