By MURPHY BROWNE
The second Sunday of May has been recognized as Mother’s Day in North America since May 9, 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a presidential proclamation that officially recognized a national holiday to celebrate America’s mothers. On Mother’s Day many of us take the opportunity to thank and celebrate not only those women who gave birth to us but also our grandmothers, aunts, sisters and the women who we respect because of the mothering role they have played sometimes to entire communities.
In many African cultures and, by extension, those African communities in the Diaspora, mothers are revered. Without a mother nurturing us in her body and then bearing the labour pains giving birth to us none of us would be here today.
There are women in our communities who, whether or not they have ever given birth to a child, are considered mother figures to the entire community because of their caring and self-sacrificing nature.
Fanny Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman are all African-American women who did not have biological children but nurtured and mothered generations of their community members during the freedom struggles of African-Americans and these women continue to inspire us today.
Fannie Lou Hamer was an African-American civil rights leader and political activist who worked to improve the lives of African-Americans despite experiencing extreme racial injustice, including state and police violence. In 1961 Hamer, like thousands of African-American women living in Mississippi, was sterilized without her knowledge by a White doctor as part of the state of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the population of African-Americans.
In 1962 Hamer began working to help African-Americans register to vote. She was harassed, fired from her job and received numerous death threats. In 1963, Hamer and other activists were arrested and viciously beaten (she suffered permanent kidney damage, permanent damage to her left eye and a permanent limp) but that did not prevent her from continuing her quest to ensure her community gained their civil rights.
She helped to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964 and became Vice-Chair of the “Freedom Democrats” which was organized to challenge the all-White, anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-RoVzAqhYk).
In 1969, Hamer co-founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which helped struggling farmers acquire land. She was actively involved in grassroots Head Start programs and in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. She helped convene the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1970 and when the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) created the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, she became the chair of its Board of Directors.
Hamer’s life is documented in several biographies, including This Little Light of Mine: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, written by Kay Mills and published in 1993.
Dorothy Height, who recently transitioned to join the ancestors (April 20, 2010) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7AxfEiz2oA) was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Height, who celebrated her 98th birthday on March 24, 2010, published her autobiography, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: a Memoir in 2003.
Her autobiography documents the story of her life and her work as an African American woman who was born in the second decade of the 20th Century and lived through the torturous history of the African-American struggle for equal rights and human rights in the country of their birth.
Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Height was a leader of the National Council of Negro Women for more than four decades. She was an important part of the organizing of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and was one of the few women who participated in the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March in 1995.
Apart from her many accomplishments I always admired Dr. Height’s fashion sense, especially those amazing purple outfits.
Rosa Parks is recognized as the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement”. She is the face of the struggle to desegregate the Montgomery public transportation system which began with her refusal to obey a White supremacist law on December 1, 1955 when she refused to give up her seat in the “coloured” section of a Montgomery City bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the crowded section of the “White” seating area.
The law at that time compelled African-Americans who were sitting in the coloured section of a bus to vacate their seats for any White person who could not find seating in the White section of the bus. Parks refused to obey that law putting her life at risk. (African-Americans had been killed for refusing to obey that law). Parks was arrested and her arrest sparked the Montgomery bus boycott which saw the end of segregated seating on Montgomery City buses.
Parks and her family were threatened and were forced to move from their community for their safety. As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Parks was an activist before her brave action on December 1, 1955. In August 1955 she had attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for workers’ rights and racial equality. Parks had also helped to raise money for the defense of 15-year-old school girl Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the coloured section of a Montgomery City bus on March 2, 1955 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZOpqtdd8nw).
Harriet Tubman was the Moses of enslaved Africans and risked her life to free those who were brave enough to flee. Tubman is credited with the famous quote: “I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed thousands more if they knew they were slaves.” Tubman first risked her life in the service of her people when as a young teenager she refused to help restrain another enslaved African at the bequest of a White overseer.
Tubman suffered a head injury when she was brutalized by the White man whose orders she refused, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_TiW57ayGU) resulting in a lifelong debilitating medical condition. That injury did not prevent Tubman working to free her people, even working as a spy and a nurse during the American Civil War which eventually led to the emancipation of every enslaved African in the USA.
May 9 is Mother’s Day and while we celebrate the women who gave birth to us we need to take time to remember the many women whose sacrifices contributed to the freedom we enjoy today.