I’m proud to have been part of a delegation of 1199ers that went to be in Alabama this month to retrace the footsteps of our heroic sisters and brothers whose courage and sacrifice helped forged a key victory in our ongoing march to equality: the right to vote.
We commemorated the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which spurred the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It also is the subject of writer-director Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking film “Selma.”
It is noteworthy that the anniversary events take place during Women’s History Month because, like the film, the commemoration provides an opportunity to acknowledge and thank the women who played an integral role in winning the passage of the act.
“Selma” correctly places Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its center. King was the unquestioned leader of the campaign and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, but DuVernay, as she has underscored in interviews, rewrote the original script to include the contributions of women leaders of the movement.
For example, the film includes a scene in which Malcolm X meets with Coretta Scott King to offer support to King, who was then in jail. The scene between Malcolm and Scott King highlights both the narrowing of the differences between King and Malcolm at the time and the key role of Scott King, who counsels her husband to accept Malcolm’s support. Unfortunately, Malcolm was gunned down Feb. 21, preventing a collaboration between him and King that many historians say was on the horizon.
DuVernay also introduces us to other women leaders who had previously been marginalized and even erased from history. Amelia Boyton Robinson was a greatly respected veteran leader of the sit-ins as well as the march. Annie Lee Cooper, who lived to be a hundred and who had tried unsuccessfully to register five times, famously punched the bigoted Selma Sheriff Jim Cooper in the jaw.
Dianne Nash, still active today, was a brilliant founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a leader of the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, as well as the Selma Voting Rights campaign.
“Selma” also pays homage to the white women and men who answered the call of King and others to go to Selma. One was Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit activist and mother of five, who, during the campaign, was shot to death by members of the KKK.
The film’s Academy Award-winning song, “Glory,” written by Common and John Legend, two of our most dedicated artists, ties the events of half a century ago to our struggles today. It references last year’s Ferguson, Mo., demonstrations that protested the killing of Michael Brown. Here again, in the struggle to put an end to the killing of our Black youth, women have taken the lead.
The popular hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created by three young women of color—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Closer to home, two young African-American women, Synead Nichols and Umaara Elliott, last year initiated the Millions March NYC, which organized an action of some 50,000 marchers last December.
1199SEIU women also are on the frontlines. 1199er Constance Malcolm is a frequent speaker at protests and commemorative events. Her son Ramarley Graham was killed by an NYPD officer in his grandmother’s Bronx home in 2012. 1199er Valerie Bell is also a prominent voice. Her son Sean Bell was killed by an NYPD officer in 2006 on the eve of his wedding day.
Many of us have come to know the names of these and other courageous mothers, but they represent many more mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and loved ones. Many are victims of repression and of larger systemic evils that consign them to the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladders.
Last November’s takeover by right-wing Republicans of both houses of Congress, as well at the growing number of Republican-led state houses, only means increased assaults that will disproportionately affect working and poor women. As always, we are fighting back and winning. Throughout the nation, for example, women and men are demanding and winning higher minimum wages and benefits. The “Fight for $15” is a prominent example.
But victory demands greater solidarity and stepped-up organizing. That means fighting for advances that particularly affect women and girls. That also means continuing the march toward the dream, with both sisters and brothers in the lead.