Birmingham bomb victims
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church victims.
Illinois University.

Black women continued to aspire to higher levels of professionalism within law and politics. In 1962 Edith S. Sampson became the first black woman judge in the United States. Also in 1964 Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer, Anna Mae King, Unita Blackwell and others represented the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party in Atlantic City, NJ.  In 1965 Patricia Roberts Harris became the first black woman to head a U.S. embassy when she was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The great gains were marked with numerous tragedies. Violence erupted throughout major cities, including the South. The murders of men and women marked the headlines of newspaper and television news programs. The most heinous of these crimes occurred on September 15, 1963 when Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were murdered when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL was bombed.  The attack on a Sunday morning and the resulting death of four girls shocked the American public and reinforced the necessity of civil rights workers to bring about the beloved community Martin Luther King espoused.

The issues of class and access continued to divide middle and working class black people. In 1967 the founding convention of the National Welfare Rights Organization was held. Johnnie Tillmon served as chair, Etta Horn as first vice chair, Beulah Saunders as second vice chair, Edith Doering as secretary, and Marian Kidd as treasurer.  The NWRO was populated with women receiving financial assistance and sought to bring dignity to a system that denigrated black women. “The movement was based on grassroots, often militant activism of thousands of black welfare recipients who fought for compensation for their work as mothers in the form of increased benefits or a guaranteed annual income to create a better life for their children.”8  The activism of this decade by women led to the formation of Head Start, under President Johnson, an early program to assist poor children.

There were hundreds of African American women organizing, working and leading grassroots efforts during the civil rights era.  They formed a composite image of the new black women leader. Some were college educated and clubwomen, while others were grassroots organizers. Some were young adults who were displeased with the conditions of black, poor and working class people while some were middle age women whose lives were testimonies of struggle and survival.


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