Black Joy

7 dope Black women and queer folks who contributed to MLK’s legacy of civil rights

Today we commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – a legacy that, if we’re speaking honestly, has been whitewashed.

Every year around this time well-intentioned people share overused lines from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on social media, but don’t know anything about “The Other America” speech or the creation of the Poor People’s Campaign.

There’s also another aspect of King that isn’t as explored. He is considered one of the greatest social justice leaders of all time, but what about the Black women and queer people who contributed greatly to King’s legacy and even amplified the impact of the Civil Rights Movement?

Movements don’t move by the words and actions of one person and no movement is without flaws. Misogynoir and queerphobia both silenced and sidelined other contributors to an era that made America more aligned with its ideals of freedom, true justice and equality.

Today, alongside honoring King’s legacy through service and through remembrance, we at Reckon also want to uplift the Black women who strategized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which catapulted King into history, and the LGBTQ folks who also carried the baton of justice. Because their legacies matter, too.

Coretta Scott King

We wouldn’t have an MLK Day without Coretta Scott King, an Alabama native who carried the torch of social justice after her husband’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Days after King’s murder, she marched alongside sanitation workers in Memphis who were fighting for a safer work environment and overtime pay. She didn’t stop marching either.

She created a civil rights legacy of her own by fighting for racial, economic and gender justice across the world. The FBI placed her on surveillance for speaking out against the Vietnam War. She was an outspoken ally of the LGBTQ community stating that, “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the civil rights movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”

Second slide: Coretta Scott King preserved her husband’s works, writings, sermons and speeches by founding the King Center, which also hosted annual nonviolent conferences for youth and adults. She also led the massive campaign to make a federal holiday near her husband’s birthday, which is Jan. 15.

Jo Ann Robinson

Georgia native and later a graduate of now Clark Atlanta University, Jo Ann Robinson was the leader and mastermind of the Montgomery bus boycotts that propelled MLK and Parks into global notoriety. Robinson was the president of the Women’s Political Council which organized the carpools and phone banks while documenting white bus drivers’ harassment of Black maids and domestic workers decades before the official 381-day long boycott began. She led this work all while still a professor at Alabama State University.

Robinson frequently denotes the work of Erna Dunge, Irene West and Muade Ballou (MLK’s secretary) as critical leaders in the Montgomery Improvement Association that was formed as the formal organization of the bus boycott.

Georgia Gilmore

Georgia Gilmore organized the Club from Nowhere, a small group of other black women cooks who made plates and dishes for protestors and working-class people that was a critical source of income that kept organizers and leaders able to focus on the boycott as a long-term mobilization. The club that would bring in hundreds of dollars to the Holt Street Baptist church meetings weekly to each gathering were able to inspire other club formations. “She literally fed the movement. She sustained it.” says Julia Turshen, author of Feed The Resistance, a book about the culinary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks

Though she is known for her resistance against segregation in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks was in fact a well-known and developed community organizer and investigator long before her famous arrest on December 1st, 1955. While Parks was the secretary of her local NAACP chapter she investigated and founded the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor”. She was one of the many black women organizers who spearheaded the decades long struggle against harassment that launched the boycott and followed Parks’ long history of advocating for black women survivors of violence.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was a Black, gay activist who mentored King during the Civil Rights Movement. The Pennsylvania native was a master organizer well before King became an icon. In 1956, Rustin met King in Montgomery, educated him on non-violent resistance and helped to plan the boycott. He was also the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his infamous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Rustin spent 60 days in jail for charges related to his sexuality, which he refused to deny. “It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice,” Rustin said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray spent their lifetime challenging the boundaries of both gender and justice to make life more equitable despite someone’s race, class and sex. The civil rights activist, lawyer, poet, educator and Episcopal priest made multiple historical moves. Murray was arrested in Virginia for refusing to sit at the back of the bus 15 years before Rosa Parks. A year after, Murray was accepted into Howard University School of Law, where they coined the phrase “Jane Crow” after becoming aware of the oppression they faced as a perceived Black woman. They started documenting segregation laws of each state. This research led to the 1951 publication called “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which has been lauded as the “bible of civil rights law.” The book became a crucial part of the NAACP’s legal strategy in key court cases.

Murray cofounded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) with Bayard and worked alongside King. They often spoke up about the misogyny within social justice movements.

Ernestine Eckstein

Born Ernestine Delois Eppenger in 1941, Eckstein applied what she learned during her time with civil rights organizations to become one of the few pioneers of color during the early gay liberation movement, which predates Stonewall. While in college, she joined Indiana University’s NAACP before moving to New York, where she joined CORE. She was the lone Black lesbian who participated in a gay rights picket line outside of the White House in October 1965 with a sign that read, “Denial of Equality of Opportunity is Immoral.” She became vice president of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. During her four years in that position, Eckstein challenged the movement to engage in more direct action and to include the transgender community into the group’s activism work.

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan | jdunigan@reckonmedia.com

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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