Civil rights speaker recalls role of women in shaping a movement


October 25th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s monument was officially unveiled earlier this month in Washington D.C – a celebration of one black man’s contributions to American civil rights history. But what role did the mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts play in the ultimate success of the civil rights movement? Angel Martin interviewed one of many active civil rights working women and has this week’s KVNO in the Community report.

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“Our job was to listen to people, to find out what it was they wanted to do, and to assist in any way we could.” One of the original members of the 1960s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Martha Norman-Noonan was in Nebraska last week, sharing her experience in the civil rights movement to students at the Universities of Nebraska Omaha and Lincoln.

“The direction was to come from the people who were suffering the most,” Noonan said.

Women played an essential role in the civil rights movement, many behind the scenes organizing and knocking on doors. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

In an interview with KVNO News, Noonan recalled that while working in towns like Albany, Georgia and Greenwood, Mississippi, her job was to do support work by organizing the community and raising funds. She said group leaders instructed them to become a part of the community. And so, they went door to door, passing out leaflets and holding meetings, all to get the word out about the movement. But, Noonan said, this wasn’t an easy job.

“It was scary to be there,” she said. “I was afraid of what might happen. At the same time, it was enriching to be around communities where people were risking everything they had to make a better life for themselves and for their children.”

Noonan recalled when segregation of schools and public places was law. She said at that time, black men weren’t allowed to look white men in the eyes. And if these rules were broken, she said, people’s lives were in danger.

“There was a whole series of reprisals,” she said. “You might lose your job … a cross might be burned on your (property), and people might shoot into your house. You could get arrested. It’s just a whole series of things that I would call terror, terroristic tactics, using force and violence to keep people from doing what should have been legal.”

Noonan said her experience as a black girl growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, a majority-white community, motivated her to join the civil rights movement.

“In the 1960’s, students started ‘sitting in’ in the south,” she said. “So, here was the student movement, with people my age, who were doing things to kind of change the situation. So, yeah, I was kind of ready, willing and waiting.”

Noonan is also one of the editors of a recently published book called Hands on the Freedom Plow. She said the book is filled with stories about women during the civil rights movement specifically from the 1960s through the 1970s in the Deep South, with a total of 52 firsthand accounts of black, some white and a few Latino women. Noonan shared the story of one of those women from the book who was faced with a difficult decision during the movement.

“One is a story of Diane Nash, making a decision to go to jail in Mississippi, when she was pregnant with her first child,” Noonan said. “Why she decided, and the logic, that was very interesting to think of someone facing that decision and how they came to a choice.”

Noonan said many issues including racial disparities with poverty, education, access to health care, and incarceration rates still hinder America, specifically people living in the black community. She said we rise and fall together, and in order to see a change in the community, unity is essential.

“I think that I understood then, and I think it’s still true now, that what happened in those communities affected what would happen all across the country,” she said. “All of us suffer, say for instance, from not having good public schools, even if you’re able to send your children to private school, then you pay to send them to private school. So, it affects us all, some of these things, even if we think we can isolate ourselves from it.”

Although there are no women from the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Angela Davis and even Martha Norman-Noonan standing beside the monument of Dr. King in Washington D.C., Noonan said her role wasn’t to lead the people, but rather to organize them to stand behind that movement toward change.

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