5 civil rights heroines you should know

Fannie Lou Hamer

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” said Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964. She was referring to her testimony before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention, in which she gave a moving account of the harassment suffered while trying to gain the right to vote. She also described the near-fatal beating she received in a Mississippi jailhouse after her arrest during efforts to register black voters.

Hamer, the child of Mississippi sharecroppers, worked on plantations for most of her life until she was fired for her activism. Hamer returned to Mississippi to organize voter-registration drives, including “Freedom Summer” in 1964.

Amelia Boynton

People standing in dark, some holding candles (© Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
Boynton at a 2008 vigil at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. (©Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

From an early age, Amelia Boynton knew votes equaled power. She was 9 when she helped her mother work for women’s suffrage in 1920. Touting a platform supporting voting rights for African Americans, Boynton became the first black woman to run for Congress from Alabama.

She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the march to Montgomery in 1965, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” after police attacked marchers. Boynton refused to flee and was beaten and left unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law that year, Boynton was a guest of honor. She died in 2015 at the age of 104.

Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson

Two elderly women in dining room in home (© Karen Kasmauski/Corbis via Getty Images)
Septima Clark, seated, and Bernice Robinson in 1987 (© Karen Kasmauski/Corbis via Getty Images)

Septima Clark trained as a teacher, only to realize that she, as an African American in 1919, was barred from teaching in her native Charleston, South Carolina. Clark went door to door collecting signatures until the ban was overturned. Though she fought for 20 years, she succeeded in winning equal pay for black teachers in Charleston.

Clark started a school on Johns Island, South Carolina, that would teach reading and civil rights to help blacks overcome discriminatory voting-registration laws. She asked her cousin Bernice Robinson to be the teacher. Robinson instructed her students, among other things, in how to read a newspaper and fill out paperwork. The final exam was registering to vote, and 80 percent of her class passed. The Citizenship School model spread throughout the South, with Robinson training teachers. It became an effective means of empowering African Americans in their fight for social justice.

Martin Luther King later referred to Clark as “The Mother of the Movement” and invited her to accompany him to Sweden to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Diane Nash

Group of people talking (© AP Images)
Diane Nash speaks with Walter Bradford, Bernard Lee and Charles H. Percy, chairman of the platform committee of the Republican Party in 1960. (© AP Images)

When Diane Nash transferred to Fisk University in Tennessee in 1959, she was shocked by the treatment of African Americans under segregation. It was like nothing she’d known in her middle-class Chicago upbringing. She was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important organizations of the era.

Nash was instrumental in organizing the Freedom Rides that took civil rights activists into the Deep South to protest segregation in interstate bus service.

In 1962, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to schoolchildren in Mississippi, although the sentence was later overturned on appeal. Nash continued to work throughout the next three decades for equal rights to vote and to get a good education.