When the Rev. Rosetta Ross was a girl growing up in South Carolina, a deeply religious woman named Victoria Way DeLee was changing the lives of African Americans in her state.
DeLee’s Christian upbringing fueled her social action work, which ranged from leading protests and boycotts to organizing voter registration campaigns and school desegregation efforts. "I knew her and knew about her and grew up going to those mass meetings," Ross says, adding that her parents, Thomas and Bertha Ross, participated in civil rights activities with DeLee.
Ross, who later became an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, remembered DeLee and used her as an example when writing her dissertation about people living out their faith.
The work on DeLee also heightened her curiosity about other women prominently involved in civil rights issues. Ross, now the McVay Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, eventually expanded that interest into a book exploring how the religious consciousness of African-American women related to their work as civil rights activists.
The result, Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights, was published in January by Fortress Press.
Though she considers the seven women that she chose to highlight to be "pretty central" to the civil rights movement, Ross notes that the extent of their influence has not received as much attention as the influence of the prominent men in the movement, either then or now.
Common elements of the lives of all seven women – DeLee among them – include being strongly influenced by an elder or elders and by traditions of faith in early life; having deep connections to their communities through community work motivated by religious traditions; and seeking, in general, to improve society.
In the preface to her book, Ross explains that the civil rights activism of these and other African-American women "is their female enactment of black religious values that reflected an internal concern for the black community’s survival and flourishing and a related external concern to address society’s formal and conventional sources of inequality."
One of the earliest examples is Sojourner Truth, the former slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.
"Perhaps most important in Truth’s moral vision is affirmation of her own human identity," Ross writes. "She expected divine intervention in behalf of her own life and her children’s lives. Her religious perspective sustained her emotionally and guided her social activism. In addition, her use of Scripture to support her arguments and her expectation of divine protection as she lectured about the rights of all women and black persons reflects a perspective that divine intent included full life for all human beings."
In the early 20th century, Nannie Helen Burroughs helped found and led the National Baptist Convention’s Women’s Convention, which supported education, the resettlement of black people moving to cities, and social and moral reform. She also helped connect middle-class women with female industrial workers, including housekeepers and laborers, and supported the unionizing of domestic workers.
In those earlier times, according to Ross, religion affirmed the humanity of black people even as the outside world did not. "The church and religious perspectives were so important to affirming people who were told in society, ‘You’re not even human,’" she explains.
So being religious also meant being socially responsible, dealing with structures that held blacks down and then "attending to society so that every person can life a full life," she adds.
For Ella Josephine Baker, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that message was carried by her mother and grandfather, who were able to "clearly communicate to her through the work that they were doing that what you did with your life is make the world a better place," Ross says.
Both Baker and Septima Poinsette Clark were college-educated professionals born around the turn of the last century who "not only carried on the work of improving African Americans’ immediate material conditions but also saw the bigger picture and more possibilities. They helped inaugurate and shape the civil rights era," she writes. Clark created the Citizen Education Program, a method of teaching literacy for voter registration that was replicated across the South.
Women like DeLee and Fannie Lou Hamer, who both grew up in poverty and had limited formal education, had to deal with survival issues first for their own families before expanding into the needs of society. But once they became activists, their work was acknowledged, even by men. "I don’t think their leadership in the community was ever debated or challenged," Ross says.
She believes it would be difficult for someone with Fannie Lou Hamer’s background to succeed today. "There was a sense, in the civil rights era, a sense of possibility that I think we’re very far removed from right now," she explains. That sense included "the possibility that Fannie Lou Hamer could be elected to Congress or that Fannie Lou Hamer could be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention." Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi in 1964 and was a delegate to the 1968 and 1972 conventions.
Christian women were not the only ones with influence on the civil rights movement. In her book, Ross also profiles Clara Muhammad, who comes from the same generation as Baker and Clark but had less education and grew up in poverty. Muhammad and her husband, Elijah, founded the Nation of Islam. That Muslim organization’s emphasis on black self-esteem and racial pride was the genesis of the black power movement that became a part of the civil rights movement. "Her work was directly related to that," Ross says.
Ross hopes the stories of some later movement workers – Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson – will be inspiring to younger readers of her book. Both became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while attending college in the late 1950s and early 1960s and served jail sentences for participating in sit-ins and other protests. Robinson eventually became the committee’s highest-ranking and most authoritative woman.
Although young people often are not given credit for what they do, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was an example of a group that "helped shake up the society," Ross says.
Witnessing and Testifying has a list price of $23 and can be ordered online at www.fortresspress.com or by calling toll free (800) 328-4648.
By Linda Bloom