Torchbearers of Justice – Celebrating Black Women of the Civil Rights Movement | NASW Member Voices

Feb 14, 2024

By Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW

No matter the generation, Black women have always been relentless advocates for change, fighting tirelessly for equality, peace, and justice.

We must honor these women – the unyielding warriors who carved a path through the storm of prejudice and laid the foundation for today’s Black women leaders.

Ella Baker, a key figure of the civil rights movement, dedicated her life to the fight for Black humanity. More than just a backroom strategist, she was integral in the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker championed the cause of “participatory democracy,” teaching Black people about their rights, inspiring a generation of young leaders to take control of the struggle, and helping them organize their own communities. Her legacy was not just in her actions, but in her relentless refusal to capitulate to any force that sought to undermine Black agency and humanity.

Next, we admire Fannie Lou Hamer, whose fierce spirit was emblematic of the lengths Black women were willing to go for their rights, their freedoms, and their dignity. From being a sharecropper in Mississippi to becoming a prominent voting rights activist and a brave voice at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she unwaveringly stared down white rage and bigotry. The broad echo of Hamer’s undying phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” is a testament to her unyielding spirit. She embodied the essence of resilience in the face of adversity, embodying the determination of her people.

Then there’s Shirley Chisholm, the warrior-politician, who relentlessly pursued peace and justice under the law for Black people. Chisholm broke barriers as the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for president. Her motto – “unbought and unbossed” – succinctly defines her lifelong  commitment to civil rights, her passion for justice, and her unwavering integrity.

Carrying the torch into the contemporary era, Black women today are charting courses across numerous fields: from politics, where women like Kamala Harris hold some of the highest  positions of power; to literature, with the works of authors like Roxane Gay and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shaping global narrative; and science, where Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett was instrumental in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Yet the battle is far from over. Black women continue to face barriers in every sphere of life. That’s why it’s so important to draw inspiration from the likes of Baker, Hamer, Chisholm – and the countless unsung sheroes who fought with them.

Their tireless pursuit of justice, their resilience, and their absolute refusal to give up or give in must inform the way we honor their struggle – by continuing it. I’ve been inspired by each of them and I’m thankful for their contributions and the legacy of social change that they left.

As we celebrate these powerful figures, let’s also lay claim to the path they paved and determine to press forward for the future they envisioned.

The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die. Together, we rise.

(Photo: Clockwise from top left: Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm)

Chad Dion Lassiter

Chad Dion Lassiter is a nationally recognized expert in race relations. He has worked on race, peace, and poverty-related issues in the United States, Africa, Canada, Haiti, Israel, and Norway, and is frequently featured in the media providing commentary and solutions to racial issues.

Lassiter is executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, where he has legislatively delegated authority to investigate filed complaints alleging the occurrence of unlawful discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and commercial property, education, and/or regarding public accommodations.


Disclaimer: The National Association of Social Workers invites members to share their expertise and experiences through Member Voices. This blog was prepared by Marisa Markowitz in her personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the National Association of Social Workers.

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