“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – The Continual Impact of Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

With the ongoing global protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is now more important than ever to look back at the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements. When we look at these movements, the work and contributions of women are often overlooked, although current protests take far more inspiration from historical female activists than is often recognised. The impact of women, such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, in the black freedom struggle can be seen clearly. Many of the global demands being made at this time concern the police and prisons; however, it can only be helpful to take a closer look at the successes of women and attempt to learn from them as best we can.

The most well-known leading female figure of the black liberation struggle, and arguably the most influential in the current protests is, without a doubt, Angela Davis. An active and continuing campaigner for the black liberation struggle for over 5 decades, she has an exceedingly large body of experience to examine. The influence of her commitment to police and prison abolition and her lasting criticisms of the prison-industrial complex can be seen throughout many of the demands currently being made in protests. Furthermore, her internationalist, intersectional outlook should undoubtedly be the standard against which organisations attempting to foment radical change should be measured. There is much that has already been said about Angela Davis, but her ubiquity should not serve to diminish her influence. We should not focus simply on her work, but also the work of other contemporaries and past figures. The most important, yet overlooked, is Ella Baker.

Angela Davis speaking at Columbia University. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP, via Flickr)

It is hard to overstate the monumental impact that Ella Baker had on the civil rights movement. However, compared to many of her contemporaries, her contributions remain largely unrecognised. During her lifetime she was an active member of organisations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and even helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was deeply critical of organisations driven by a single, usually male, charismatic leader and feared that such organisations would distance themselves from the very people they were intending to help. Ella Baker fundamentally believed that people should always be prioritised over organisations, and her approach to activism remains forward-thinking and progressive by modern standards. By prioritising grassroots appeal and more horizontal, technocratic forms of organisational hierarchy, she showed commitment to her belief that every individual has the capacity to engage with, and fight against oppression. 

The nature of the current protests exemplifies these womens’ lasting influence. We see now movements driven not by a single, messianic leader, but by a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and cultivate solutions. We are beginning to see forms of group-centered leadership with individuals accountable to each other. Never before have calls for police defunding or prison abolition been so loud and so widespread; more people than ever are attempting to fight and dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and violence. However, none of this means that the current protest demands and organisational forms are beyond reproach, and it is important that we look back and learn from the actions and demands of women such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, as well as unmentioned figures such as Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Ramona Africa and many, many others. Looking reflectively at the past, and the pioneering work of these women is critical to ensuring the current movements can be as effective as possible, and provide the best chance of inducing real change.

Freddy Fossey-Warren

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