Courtesy of Louise S. McGhee School

I was in the audience when Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and television personality, delivered the commemorative address about the late Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hers was a polished and thought-provoking address, at which time she offered her analysis of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  In essence, she concluded the following: the Civil Rights Movement failed to acknowledge, much less appreciate, the contributions of black women.

A few of her salient points led me to conclude that establishing African-American Studies programs at American universities is a great idea.  Why so?  It has been primarily scholars associated with academically solid African-American studies programs who have looked critically at works on black America, mine included.  In a number of instances, they have challenged premises and analyses on black America that before were accepted as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

One of Harris-Perry’s conclusions is a case in point: “Not one black woman spoke at the March on Washington,” she noted.  For this reason alone, her contention was that black women’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were not acknowledged. Is this fact proof enough to conclude that the Civil Rights Movement failed to acknowledge, much less give due credit to, the contributions of black women to the movement?

One studying the 1960s must not forget that the black church was the premier body in black America at that time, not the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, or  newer organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  Anyone familiar with the black church and its role in the Civil Rights Movement will attest to the fact that the black church repeatedly singled out black women and their involvement in the civil rights struggles.  Suffice it to say, the black church, like black ministers, did not divide up blacks along gender lines when pursuing civil rights.

A careful re-examination of King’s thoughts on the Civil Rights Movement is needed after listening to Harris-Perry. One thing can be said about King: his mission was not that of promoting feminism, but rather ensuring equality for everyone, including black women. He was guided by the conviction that all blacks — men and women, educated and uneducated, upper-class and poor, southern and northern — suffered under a racial caste system, and all blacks stood to gain by challenging this caste system.

I applaud Harris-Perry for informing the audience that Ella Baker, a black woman, took issue with King on how the Civil Rights Movement operated, although her thesis and analysis of King’s and Baker’s approaches to organizing a civil rights movement left something to be desired. Baker believed resolutely that “participatory democracy” was the best and only way of securing equal rights for black people. Her notion of an effective civil rights movement was: “Each person would become involved individually.” King, in contrast, was of the view that a bureaucratic hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism would best serve the cause of advancing civil rights.

The truth of the matter is that both Baker’s and King’s views had validity. In one speech, Baker said, “The movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.” In another speech, she urged activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with “heavy feet of clay.” Some scholars have interpreted this remark as Baker’s denunciation of King’s leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement. Baker left no diaries; therefore, her private thoughts about King were taken to the grave with her.

Barbara Ramsby’s “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision,” perhaps best shows that she and King were not all that far apart. She said: “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all of mankind.”

Despite my questioning several of Harris-Perry’s arguing points, the University made a good choice in inviting her to give the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Address.

Moore is a professor emeritus of history at UR.

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