Black Women and A Legacy of Direct Action

“I have come forward and made myself a hissing and a reproach among the people,” Maria Stewart claimed as she addressed the large crowd at Boston’s Franklin Hall on Sept. 21, 1832. The first American woman to speak publicly in front of a racially, gendered, and economically mixed audience, Stewart faced hecklers and naysayers, but this did not stop her. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, she was an activist, an abolitionist, and a women’s rights advocate.

Stewart paved the way for activists including Susie King Taylor, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mattie Crawford, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Queen Mother Moore, Daisy Bates, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among many others. These women fought for pensions during the Civil War, against lynching in the aftermath of slavery, and protested poor labor conditions in prison camps of the Jim Crow Era. In the 1920s, they advocated for universal freedom in the Pan-Africanist movement led by Marcus Garvey, and in the 1960s and ’70s, they supported political and labor rights in the Civil Rights Movement and fought for recognition in the Black liberation struggle.

In recent years, Black women have built upon the activism of their foremothers to express dissatisfaction with continued racial and ethnic injustice. They have and do use direct action to publicly reject the current iterations of white supremacy and discriminatory immigration policies that poison United States culture, politics, and society. Climbing flag poles, scaling statues, and painting monuments, Bree Newsome, Maya Little, and Therese Patricia Okoumou use their bodies to make strong statements about inequalities in American society. They represent an activist model which, although part of the current civil rights struggle, actually revolves around social injustices that our foremothers protested in the past such as racial violence and disenfranchisement.

For Bree Newsome, climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina State House in order to remove the Confederate flag was a courageous act that led to its permanent removal. For her and many others, the flag is a symbol of hatred and a representation of the period of slavery and discrimination during which Stewart and Newsome’s ancestors lived. A few weeks earlier, when nine African American members of the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were murdered during Bible study, Newsome could no longer tolerate Confederate symbols such as the flag hanging 120 miles away on the State House. As she explained it,

“When I made the decision to scale the flagpole and remove the Confederate flag that had been originally raised at the South Carolina statehouse in 1961, I did so for deeply personal reasons”

Newsome referenced “the horrific hate crime that took the lives of nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel,” and “recognized a history of white supremacist violence that had long impacted my family as well.” She understood the legacy of slavery and the long history of racial discrimination that continues today. Less than one month later, on July 10, 2015, the flag was permanently removed. Although Newsome acted alone, was arrested and faced charges, she did so to support a cause she believed in. This was not the first time she challenged injustice; Newsome has a history of activism dating back to the 1990s.

Three years after Newsome made national news, Maya Little poured her own blood mixed with red paint onto the Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC). The university erected the statue of an anonymous Confederate Soldier in 1913 to recognize "the sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland 1861-1865.” Little, a history doctoral student at UNC, explained that she poured her blood and red ink on the statue “because it sits sanitized, and yet it’s founded on this idea of violence towards Black people.” In fact, during the dedication speech of the statue, university trustee and former Confederate soldier Julian Carr “talked about whipping a Black ‘wench’ until her skirt was in shreds, on university grounds.” Thus, Little felt that the statue should not remain on campus without proper historical context. Like Newsome, Little acted alone and was arrested, faced charges of vandalism, and had her day in court. Silent Sam was later toppled over by protesters on Aug. 21, 2018 and university Chancellor Carol Folt removed the pedestal on which it once stood on Jan. 15, 2019.

A few months after Little painted Silent Sam, Therese Patricia Okoumou climbed the base of the Statue of Liberty in protest of President Donald Trump’s family separation policies on July 4, 2018. At the start of her trial, Okoumou said she “wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages,” and that as long as immigrant children remain in cages, “my moral values cause me to do something about it.” In December, Okoumou was found guilty of “several federal crimes stemming from her act of civil disobedience: trespassing, interfering with government agency functions, and disorderly conduct” and could face up to 18 months in jail. Her sentencing will take place on March 5, 2019.

Seeing the history of direct action Newsome, Little and Okoumou drew upon, it is no surprise that they believed the cause was greater than the personal risks they took. Like Maria Stewart, these women believe that “there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance,” and that nothing can prevent them from taking action. Black women have always been at the forefront of freedom movements. They were and are often the first to speak and the first to take direct action, often risking their lives to advocate for justice.

About the Author

Daina Ramey Berry is the Associate Dean of Graduate Education Transformation and Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a specialist on the history of gender and slavery in the United States with a particular emphasis on the social and economic history of the nineteenth century. She is the author of several books, including The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.