Giving Thanks For The Mothers of the Movement
They’ve faced down suppression, racism, and sexism to ensure their descendants have equality
My mother is a mother of the movement.
Because my grandmother died in childbirth, Eleanor Barber had to raise her siblings amid enormous pressures. At 12 years old, she finished high school in Indiana, went to a leading Black business school, trained as a concert and church pianist, and became a government employee — all before 1960. After marrying my father, she came to the South to challenge a school system that was still segregated 12 years after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was illegal.
Here, in the face of resistance to justice, my mother decided to birth and nurture transformation. I was her only child, and she could have easily stayed where facing the reality of segregation would not have been necessary. But she came to the South and enrolled me in segregated kindergarten. She and my father took jobs at the all Black school — she as a secretary to the principal. My mother called together parents in the community and offered their children concert piano lessons, whether they could afford them or not. When my mother was asked to be the first Black woman to serve as the secretary of the formerly all-white high school, she broke the color line to birth a new reality in a rural Southern community.
My mother, who grew up without a mother, became the mother of desegregation in Washington County, North Carolina. When she retired after 53 years of serving, mothering, fighting, loving, and persevering in that system, she said to me, “When I began, some people called me ‘nigger,’ but now their children’s children call me ‘Mother Barber!’”
My mother’s story is exceptional, but it is not unique. Many women through the years have been mothers of the movement for love, justice, and civil and human rights. Some of these women are known by the masses while many are only known by a few, catalogued in the memories and folklore of the community.
As a preacher and theologian, I know no one should dare talk about Moses without talking about Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who delivered him and stood up to the pharaoh when he sought to kill Moses in ancient Egypt. Shiphrah and Puah were mothers of the movement.
There is no way to talk about the lives of Jesus or John the Baptist without lifting up the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, their mothers respectively.
No one should dare talk about standing against slavery without talking about mother Harriet Tubman — the Moses of her people — who escaped from slavery, helped others escape, and fought with the Union Army. But neither can we forget all the unnamed mothers who escaped with her, helped her hide and plan, and built a movement to overthrow slavery.
When we speak of the women’s rights movement in America, we must not forget the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, where mother Sojourner Truth, a Black woman and a former slave, raised a question to men who were questioning the legitimacy of women’s rights: “And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
But as we remember Sojourner Truth, may we also not forget the many other women at that convention and in the movement whose names we may not know but whose legacy and moral impact endure.
We know about Rosa Parks, who attended the Highlander Folk School and worked with the NAACP for years and who was also a seamstress par excellence in Montgomery, Alabama. After the murder of Emmett Till and the quick acquittal of his killer, Parks knew that something needed to be done. On Dec. 1, 1955, she decided to challenge the entire system of segregation on a public bus.
Mother Rosa Parks has been lauded and valorized in popular memory, but most people do not know about the black women she risked her life to interview through her work in the 1940s with the NAACP in Alabama. These women were heroines who, despite having been physically raped by vicious racists, were willing to speak through their pain and tell their stories.
Then there are all the mothers who laid the groundwork in Montgomery, long before the boycott in 1955. They raised families and raised the conscience and character and commitment of the community.
These are the untold stories of the strength, sacrifice, and stamina of mothers in and of the movement. We know about mother Mary McLeod Bethune, the powerful founder of Bethune Cookman College, who said God gave her an immaculate conception to educate Negro children. However, when we name Bethune, let us not forget the mothers of The Little Rock Nine who stood with and beside their children to break down the walls of segregation.
In every transformational movement in this nation’s history, mothers were at the heart of the work. When the NAACP was formed, a white woman, Mary White Ovington, was chair and worked alongside Ida B. Wells and other mothers to demand a full and committed battle against the systems of injustice.
How can we even talk about the battle for economic justice without discussing the first female U.S. Labor Secretary, Francis Perkins? In the middle of the Great Depression, Perkins (who had been shaped by the Social Gospel movement) was a member of FDR’s cabinet with Mary McLeod Bethune. Both deeply influenced the policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which brought the nation Social Security, a minimum wage and stronger labor laws.
From the mothers of the church who modeled holiness and charity to Michelle Obama who modeled brilliance and character before the nation and world, mothers have helped to wake up and raise up a slumbering nation.
This list could go on from Fannie Lou Hamer, who braved savage beatings in a Mississippi jail and stood up to a political convention to demand the right of all people to vote in the 1960s, to the mothers of slain sons and daughters demanding equal justice and the right of their children to live today.
The mothers of Trayvon Martin (Sybrina Fulton), Dontre Hamilton (Maria Hamilton), Michael Brown, Eric Garner (Gwen Carr), Jordan Davis (Rep. Lucy McBath), Hadiya Pendleton (Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley), Sandra Bland (Geneva Reed-Veal), Tamir Rice (Samaria Rice), and Amadou Diallo (Kadijatou Diallo) today embody the spirit of mother Mamie Till, who through great grief and anguish had the fortitude to show the world the monstrosity of racism. She refused to be silent and cloak the deeds of evil with a closed casket. Through her pain and deepest inner groaning — through her personal travail — she birthed a movement that lifted the sentiment that would later become a mantra: “Black lives matter!”
From the mothers of the church who modeled holiness and charity in the community to Michelle Obama who modeled brilliance and character before the nation and world, mothers have helped to wake up and raise up a slumbering nation. Like many mothers who call their children from their beds each morning to a day of productivity, they were not just satisfied with waking the nation. They understood then, as do mothers of conscience now, that waking was not enough because any “woke” people must also rise to do the work of justice.
Mavis Staples helped sing a song with Hozier in tribute to another mother of the movement, Nina Simone. With grit and guts, Nina sang our souls sturdy in the face of struggle and called us to damn the racism of Mississippi and to raise a rhythmic cry and march against the discords and madness of oppression. She wrote a song that I believe best describes what mothers of the movement all down through the years have known. It’s titled “Nina Cried Power.”
It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.
It is the grounding of a foot uncompromising.
It’s not forgoing of the lie.
It’s not the opening of eyes.
It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.
It’s not the shade, we should be past it.
It’s the light, and it’s the obstacle that casts it.
It’s the heat that drives the light.
It’s the fire it ignites.
It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.
Mothers of the movement have called us to wake up, rise up, and cry POWER!
This story is part of Moonrakers 2020, the inaugural edition of The Blackness from Color Farm Media, published in partnership with ZORA.