Is the room at the top of civil rights organizations reserved for men only?


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

In a petition circulated online, minced no words, “NAACP: Hire the First Woman President in the NAACP’s 104 year History.”

Seventy percent of the respondents agreed that it was time that the NAACP elected its first permanent woman president in its history to lead the organization. The petition, and the clamor for a woman president of the NAACP came virtually within moments after current NAACP President Ben Jealous announced that he was stepping down at the end of the year. This is hardly the first time that there’s been a loud clamor, and an even louder criticism of the dearth of female leaders at the top of the major civil rights organizations.

The litany of civil rights groups past and present has been earmarked by two things. One is that throughout the history of the best known major civil rights organizations, the Urban League, SCLC, CORE, SNCC and of course the NAACP, there have been no women at the top spot in any of them. The sole exception was the SCLC, which in its markedly declining years finally elected its first woman head, Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, in 2009. But that breakthrough was short-lived when King could not reach agreement with the SCLC’s male-dominated board regarding the terms of her presidency.

The second thing that has been an earmark of civil rights organizations has been the number of prominent Black women who played pivotal roles in the fight for justice and equality. They are well-known: Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Gloria Richardson, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, to name a few. They had to wage two fights. One was for civil rights, and one was against the blatant sexism and male dominance among the rank and file and leadership of the civil rights organizations. The men frequently denigrated and minimized women’s role and importance, or pigeon-holed them into so called women’s roles—typists, receptionists, general gofers and just plain flunkies for the men.

In some cases, they sexually exploited and abused women. The most blatant example of this was Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver’s frequent admonition that the only position for women in the movement was “prone.” This ignited a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from female Panther members, and among women activists in various other civil rights organizations. Though Cleaver took much deserved heat for his insulting and outlandish digs at women, he reflected the quiet sentiment of far too many men that sans their view of women, were otherwise regarded as some of the most advanced, forward thinking, and progressive in their social views and activism.

The Achilles Heel of the civil rights organizations remained the quiet and destructive sexism within their ranks. This history burst into public view in the run-up to the 50th anniversary commemoration and celebration events of the March on Washington this past August. A number of Black women took dead aim at the 1963 MOW organizers for what they considered the deliberate exclusion of women from a major role in the planning, organizing and deliverance of any of the keynote speeches at the March. They didn’t stop with a nostalgic glance over the shoulder critique of the events 50 years ago, but openly wondered how much had really changed within major civil rights organizations today.

Apart from the towering roles that women played in past civil rights battles as activists and organizers, radical women such as Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Hamer showed by their courage and example that they could more than hold their own—and even surpass most men, including men that were considered the movement leaders, in terms of vision, passion, energy and steel like dedication to the fight for economic and social justice. Yet, in spite of the power of their leadership and example, they still had to struggle against marginalization by male leaders.

Despite their prominence and name recognition, they constantly bumped up against the intrinsic and galling reality that when it came to leadership and decision-making in organizations, the hard edge of traditional and ingrained male domination and female marginalization continued to be the order of the day. While many applauded an Angela Davis, and rallied to her defense, she was still seen by many men as a woman first, second and often last, and not a Black leader. Even so, just as in the past, there were powerful examples of women as activists and leaders in the civil rights movement. There are even more women today who are fully capable of being not only the visible face of a major civil rights organization, but one of its leading decision and policy makers as well.

The NAACP has legions of women in local decision and policy making roles in their various chapters, any one of whom could step into the top presidential spot. There are also prominent women outside the organization that named who could assume the president’s mantle. They include: Stefanie Brown James, former NAACP youth and college director; Aisha Moodie-Mills, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Sherrilyn Ifill, president and counsel-director, NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The appointment of any one of them to head the organization would signal that the NAACP has shattered the glass ceiling at the top within this organization, and would send a powerful message that the fight for gender equality and against sexism is seen as just as potent and compelling as the historic and continuing fight for racial justice and equality. The NAACP has a golden opportunity to open the door of its male only room at the top, to women. It’s an opportunity that it and no other civil rights organization that purports to call itself a champion of civil rights, should blow.


Originally published in the November 30th edition of The Chicago Defender/

Chicago Defender columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D. is an author and political analyst. His newest ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media, a weekly co-host of the “Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Networks” and he is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles, KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: @earlhutchinson.


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