At the intersections of sisterhood, education and social justice lies Bennett College. The institution located in Greensboro, North Carolina was founded in 1873 as a co-ed institution with a mission to educate newly emancipated U.S. citizens formerly known as slaves. In 1926 the college became an all-women’s college, catering only to African American women and their education. Author and Bennett alumnus Linda Beatrice Brown quotes in her book “Belles of Liberty” that Bennett was a “place where the ‘girls’ were taught the finer things of life and the social graces”. Like many other African American women who played critical roles to the organizational structure and success of the Civil Rights movement, no one suspected that it was the ‘girls’ who were “often dressed in white and sheltered beneath magnolia trees” would demand the rights that each American citizen was promised but few truly used in their daily lives. Brown encourages those who are not aware of Bennett’s history and its’ students to “not be misled” by their appearances. While Bennett College may have whole heartedly accepted white patriarchal standards of beauty, ideas and philosophies they could not seem to live with the idea of being mistreated, humiliated and killed for simply being a first class American citizen. That said, the women of Bennett College decided to strategize for change.
The story of the “A & T Four” often leads one to believe that such an idea of transformational action such as the sit-ins in 1960 on February 1st simply came to the young men while in their dormitory the night before. This narrative completely underestimates the rage, strength and power of white patriarchy, racism and southern culture. John Hatchet, previous faculty member of Bennett College, describes the passion and desire for social justice and freedom in the eyes of the Bennett Belles who were members of their campus NAACP chapter. Hatchet had a long, intimate relationship with race relations and the impact they have on society. Hatchet, at the request of the students, provided these brave soldiers with “informed guidance and fearless leadership” after the students were sure he met their “strict requirements”. Fortunate for Hatchet, he was there to aid these students in their mission to combat racial injustice in Greensboro. He recalls their strategies in reaching out to other NAACP chapters including Oklahoma City due to their recent sit-in demonstration that led to institutional change at various restaurants. After compiling research i.e. data from previous demonstrations and past experiences, the group collectively selected Woolworth’s lunch counter for their location of peaceful disobedience. DISCLAMER: Civil Rights Leaders took every step of the movement with a calculated and fearful step. Simply choosing the location of their demonstration was an effort within itself. Even with all their hard work, it was their beloved President Dr. Willa B. Player who reminded the young ladies of the importance of timing. Dr. Player, who was in full support of these students and appreciated their work personally and politically, encouraged them to consider the holiday break that, was approaching. She stressed that with students gone for the holidays there would be no one to sustain the movement in their absence. With the blessing and support of Dr. Player, the students decided to include the students from North Carolina A & T State University in the discussion and the (future) actions that would take place. The Belles found young men to join their efforts and met Monday – Friday and sometimes weekends strategizing, discussing, debating and finalizing actions.
The group agreed, Hatchett describes “that sometime between the Christmas recess and the return of the Bennett women to the college the students from A. and T. would put our idea into execution, and we would support them upon our return”. Hatchet recalls the men who would go on to be the “Famous Four” that they “heard; participated; believed and accepted”.
However, in agreeing to execute the actions on behalf of the Bennett women, these men also committed an act of violence based on gender. The Bennett College students who have been silenced and ignored is a common narrative that African American women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement endure, internalize and recount reluctantly. Phenomenal and idealized men such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held on tight to misogynistic beliefs which required the mistreatment and subordination of women to uplift the men. While Martin was deeply loved by friends and colleagues such as Rosa Parks, he never once saw the shame and violence within his very act of silencing profound voices such as those of his wife, Mrs. King. Other women who contributed to the movement describe how sexism, misogyny and gender operated within the Civil Rights Movement further demonstrating that men were willing to belittle the women as much as the women were willing to be belittled. A female boycott leader explains that “Women listened to men. They passed the ideas to men to a great extent. Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Robinson were very vocal and articulate, especially in committee meetings. But when it came to the big meetings, they let the men have the ideas and carry the ball. They were kind of like the power behind the throne.” These kinds of relationships were detrimental to the internal relationships of the Civil Rights Movement and continued to deepen the distance between African American men and women. The power structure of the movement failed the most important members and contributors of the movement which led to separation and disappointment. For example, Ella Baker was very opinionated about conflicts with King and his actions or lack thereof. Baker spoke of how King’s lack of respect for her and her work truly disturbed and angered her – “I wasn’t an easy pushover because I could talk back a lot. Not only could, but did”. Bayard Rustin, one of King’s closest comrades who was ostracized for his sexual orientation later, recalled that “Ella Baker was very tough on Martin”. Narratives of Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Coretta Scott King demonstrates how the power structure of black liberation continues to devalue the role of black women. That said, moving forward it is very urgent that all organizations which seek to liberate masses of people are free of their own mental imprisonment which will distort the path to success for the collective and individual.