Black Women Are Touching the Sky

The eve of Women's History Month and the close of Black History Month is the right moment to take note of Black women's unique history and the future they are writing.

Commentator Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

(WOMENSENEWS)-Today is the last day of Black History Month and tomorrow begins Women's History Month. Thus, it is only fitting to take note of the incredible accomplishments of African American women in business, just to pick one area where Black women's achievements stand out, as well as to recall the significant leadership of Black women in the U.S. civil rights movement.

One would think that the Black community must be on its way to solid middle-class Nirvana, given the impressive number of Black women who have overcome historic obstacles as profoundly suppressed minorities struggling up the success ladder.

Today, African American women have emerged to head major subsidiaries of Fortune 500 companies, although none head the top parent corporations-yet. Some Black women, whose powerful contributions are far from trivial, are Deborah Steward Coleman, president and CEO of AutoAlliance International, owned by Ford Motor Company; Paula A. Sneed, president of the e-commerce and communications divisions of Kraft Foods; Marie C. Johns, president of Verizon, Washington, D.C.; Brenda J. Gaines, president of Citicorp Diners Club of North America; Gabriella E. Morris, president, Prudential Foundation; Stacey H. Davis, president, Fannie Mae Foundation; Maxine B. Baker, president and CEO, Freddie Mac Foundation; Ingrid Saunders Jones, chairwoman, The Coca-Cola Foundation; Pamela Thomas-Graham, president and CEO of CNBC, and Dr. Bonnie Guiton-Hill, president of the Times Mirror Foundation, to name a few.

These women are part of the more than 100 Black women being congratulated in the March issue of Ebony for their top-ranked jobs in business, industry, Congress and state and local governments, as well as for their achievements in the more traditional areas of entertainment, sports and lively arts.

These Women Reflect Black Women's Changing Fortunes

In part, the women featured give an accurate impression of changing fortunes for Black women in positions of power in the corporate world. There are new faces in high places these days, quite a few belonging to Black women.

The African American women named have fully paid their dues and have climbed progressively up demanding rungs of career ladders, often within the same corporation or institution. Yet, their attainments do not prove that Black women no longer face the double bias of racism and sexism. With increasing frequency, Black women are moving inexorably upward by accepting lateral outside assignments as well. Their profile has been low, or invisible, and their moves discreet, both by choice and by tradition. In that respect, they often have mirrored the traditional profiles of African American women, even during the equal opportunity abuses and systematic violence of the civil rights struggle, beginning in the late 1950s.

In fact, recently released “Women's Voices” data, from research by the Center for Policy Alternatives, show that women's entrepreneurial spirit remains strong. Forty percent of the 1,200 women surveyed already own or would like to own their own businesses. Interest is strongest among African American women-two-fifths of the entire group. These women, with access to education, capital and opportunity, are clearly standing on the shoulders of the Black women who excelled in another intensely demanding arena-the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Achievers Are Standing on the Shoulders of Women in Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Britta Nelson, a former research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and author of “From Protest to Politics: Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement and in the United States Congress” (1998), writes:

“Throughout the 1960s, (Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes) Norton and many other young Black women who were involved in the Black freedom struggle also developed a high sensibility for gender discrimination. The civil rights movement itself, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had more women in leadership positions than any other civil rights organization, served as an important catalyst for the new feminism and the Women's Liberation Movement that emerged at that time.”

I have observed, for example, that every photo of the historic civil rights marches, demonstrations and rallies of the 1960s shows clear images of Dr. Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Dr. C. Delores Tucker, president of the National Political Caucus of Black Women; Mrs. Coretta Scott King, president-emerita of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and several other unnamed women.

They were photographed marching and standing right beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Urban League's Whitney Young, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins and the Congress on Racial Equality's James Farmer. But national media did then, and still do, refer to the “Big Four” of the civil rights movement, ignoring the ubiquitous Black women leaders.

In fact, the original leadership decision group, the United Civil Rights Leadership, already meeting monthly by 1963, included six-not four-civil rights giants: Dr. King, Wilkins, Young, Farmer and A. Philip Randolph of the black activist union institute named for him-and Dr. Dorothy Irene Height!

At the sub-national level, even more Black women were civil rights leaders, often being the prime strategists for the local struggle: Gloria Richardson, an embattled desegregationist from Cambridge, Md.; Diane Nash, a steel-nerved, Northern organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, and, of course, Fannie Lou Hamer, the pulse of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who changed the very nature of national Democratic Party nominating conventions. Hamer gets mentioned, lauded and acknowledged more often than any of the other women civil rights leaders, perhaps because the threat of her power is frozen in history. She died in 1977.

Yet, during these two months, it is also important to observe that although many African American women have reached positions of power and wealth, too many have stayed behind. The “Women's Voices” data and other studies still confirm that, while Black women are advancing, there remains a significant income gap for the majority of Black women whose average annual earnings are lower than the earnings of Black men, white men or white women.

The successful achievers in the corporate world, therefore, should be guided by what Dr. Dorothy Heights always says: “We must lift as we climb because Black women know how to get it done.”

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D., is the executive director and chief operating officer of the Black Leadership Forum Inc., a 23-year-old confederation of the nation's most prominent and prestigious civil rights and service organizations. She is a political scientist, urban planner and public administrator by training.

Other Women's eNews commentaries by Scruggs-Leftwich:

Jan 15, 2001 Dr. Martin Luther King: ‘Give Us the Ballot'
Nov 15, 2000 Significance of Black Women's Vote Ignored
Sep 27, 2000 Black, Latina Women Locked in Jailhouse, Poorhouse
Aug 24, 2000 Candidates: Don't Underestimate Black Women