Black Feminism: The Civil Rights and Black Power Era (Part 1) Section Overview

This third intimate covered passageway explores the narratives of Black feminists in the Civil Rights and Black Power era–two movements intertwined in DC’s history. Overflowing collages of larger-than-life images, objects, and quotes cover the two interior 10 feet tall walls of the passageway. Light filters through holes punched in a metal and wood panel above that cover the passageway, creating a light-dappled, intimate space. 

A vivid blue, floor-to-ceiling introduction label sets the scene in the first panel on the right. The story then progresses further down the passageway from right to left in a larger-than-life collage of images and objects. If you turn around, the rest of the story is told through a larger-than-life collage of images and objects on the opposite side from left to right. 


Introduction Label: Black Feminism: The Civil Rights and Black Power Era


Many of DC’s Black feminists were shaped by the civil rights and labor movements of the 1940s through the 1960s. Black feminist lawyers Pauli Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton used their skills inside and outside the courtroom to challenge Jim and Jane Crow segregation that relegated Black people and all women to second-class citizenship. The DC-based a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock energized a generation of feminists with their powerful lyrics. Their songs challenge state-sanctioned violence against Black women and enlarge the meaning of freedom.  

Etta Horn’s close connection to labor organizations supported her struggle against the mutually reinforcing harms of poverty, racism, and sexism as she helped to lead the National Welfare Rights Organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Horn extended the goals of his last major political and social effort, the Poor People’s Campaign, to address the sexism embedded in racialized capitalism. 


Collage 1: Eleanor Holmes Norton and Pauli Murray 


An entire wall covered in images and objects continues past the introduction label, framed by two photographic portraits larger than all other images–Pauli Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton. 

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910–1985), pictured on the right side of the collage, entered Howard University Law School in 1941, intent on fighting for civil rights. By then, Howard was the premiere institution training Black lawyers to overturn racial segregation on constitutional grounds. Her activism combined lawsuits with direct action. Murray organized students to protest the exclusion of Black people from the Little Palace Cafeteria at 14th and U Streets. Murray had many allies in the fight against racism, but felt isolated as the only woman in the law school–a picture of Murray’s graduating class is the backdrop to Murray’s story in the collage. Murray’s experience is reflected by a quote hovering above their portrait:  

“I had entered law school preoccupied with the racial struggle and single-mindedly bent on becoming a civil rights attorney, but I graduated an unabashed feminist as well.” Pauli Murray 

Connecting racism and sexism, Murray later coined the term “Jane Crow” for the unique form of discrimination Black women experienced. Murray’s path-breaking theory advanced legal arguments that were used in women's rights litigation for decades. Murray also wrote poetry and prose. One of Murray’s books, Song in a Weary Throat, is set in a case just below a collage of photographs of Murray throughout their life. 

On the left-hand side of the collage, you’ll find find Eleanor Holmes Norton (1937–), DC's longest-serving Congressional representative. In 1960 she joined Howard’s Nonviolent Action Group to desegregate lunch counters, and during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 she worked with SNCC to register Black voters. Photographs of her attendance at protests and actions throughout the Civil Rights movement fill the wall around her portrait, including a candid photograph with her mentors, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. In public office and the courtroom, Holmes Norton has advanced the rights of Black communities and women of all races. She was the keynote speaker at the National Black Feminist Organization’s founding conference (1973) and is a long-time advocate for reproductive freedom. She also contributed the essay “For Sadie and Maud” to two feminist texts, the Black Woman’s Manifesto and Sisterhood is Powerful, copies of which are set in a case just below her smiling portrait. Norton argued: “If you were associated with civil rights and labor rights . . . the transition to feminism is easy. What I don’t understand is why the transition doesn’t happen to everybody who was in the civil rights movement.” 

You can find more details about each image and object in the text labels below. Or you can skip to the next collage in this section, “Sweet Honey in the Rock and Etta Horn.” 


Image: Eleanor Holmes Norton, 1970

Courtesy of the DC Public Library, The People’s Archive 

Image: From left: civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes, and Ella Baker at a rally supporting SNCC’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party outside of the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964 

Photograph by George Ballis/© 1976, George Ballis/TakeStock
Civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker mentored Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Image: (From left) Betty Friedan, Elinor Guggenheimer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Gloria Steinem at a meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), New York City, 1971

Photograph by Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times/Redux
NWPC was established to help women run for political office. 

Image: Frances Beal (center) and other members of Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) demonstrate at the Women’s Strike for Equality march, with a banner in support of Black Power activist Angela Davis, New York City, 1972

Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
TWWA grew from Black women in SNCC’s commitment to Black and women of color feminism. By 1972, Holmes Norton was no longer a member of SNCC, but wrote an essay for TWWA’s Black Woman’s Manifesto.

Image: Pauli Murray while a student at Howard University Law School, 1941

Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute/© Estate of Pauli Murray, used herewith by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency

Image: Pauli Murray, “The Dude”, 1931

Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute/© Estate of Pauli Murray, used herewith by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency
At times Murray chose to wear clothes typically worn by men and as a teenager insisted on the androgynous name “Pauli” and wore short hair. Later, Murray sought and was denied hormone therapy. Today some would consider Murray transgender, queer, and/or gender non-conforming, but that language was not available during Murray’s lifetime.

Image: Pauli Murray (bottom row), Howard Law School Yearbook Class of 1944

Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute/Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Image: Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, 1954 

Bettmann/Getty Images 

Object: Black Woman’s Manifesto, 1970

Distributed by Third World Women’s Alliance
Black Woman’s Manifesto is a collection of essays distributed by the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), a Black feminist organization that grew out of SNCC’s women’s caucus. Eleanor Holmes Norton contributed “For Sadie and Maud,” which examines class differences between Black women. Frances Beal contributed “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.”

Object: Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement edited by Robin Morgan, 1970

Published by Random House
As numerous women’s liberation organizations blossomed in the late 1960s, anthologies showed the breadth and diversity of the movement. Sisterhood is Powerful included Holmes Norton’s essay “For Sadie and Maud.” By the 1970s, Holmes Norton was one of the best-known Black feminists in the United States, and her ideas influenced many white feminists.

Image: Photograph and description of Eleanor Holmes in Individuals Active in Civil Disturbances, vol. 2, 1965 

Published by the State of Alabama Department of Public Safety Alabama Department of Archives and History
This secret publication meant for Alabama law enforcement officers included photographs and descriptions of civil rights activists so they could be more easily identified and arrested. Mug shots and surveillance photographs of Eleanor Holmes Norton and Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) are included. 

Image: Dorothy Height looks on from the right as Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963 

AP Photo
Dorothy Height (1912–2010), president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, was the only woman leader of the March on Washington, but she was not permitted to deliver a speech. Height was instrumental in protecting women working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from violence during the civil rights movement and was an early advocate for Black women’s reproductive freedom. 

Object: Song in a Weary Throat by Pauli Murray, originally published posthumously 1987

Published by HarperCollins
Murray’s memoir tells the story of a Black feminist’s life from childhood in North Carolina through law school and civil rights and women’s liberation activism. Stories of Murray’s mentoring of Black feminists and friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt come alive on the page. 

Image: Pauli Murray (second row, seated, third from left) at the founding of the National Organization for Women, October 30, 1966

Photograph by Vince Graas/Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Pauli Murray to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Five years later Murray and other members of the commission formed the National Organization for Women.

Image: Left to right: Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Ella Baker at a rally supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party outside of the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964

Photograph by George Ballis/© 1976, George Ballis/TakeStock 


Collage 2: Sweet Honey in the Rock and Etta Horn 


On the opposite wall to the left of where you entered the passageway, a collage of images and objects shares the stories of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock and welfare rights activist Etta Horn. A quote from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock is at the top of the collage, sharing the powerful words the group sang out: 

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” Sweet Honey in the Rock 

The song, written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, echoes the civil rights leader Ella Baker’s insistence that violence against Black women’s children should be as repugnant as violence against white women’s children. Until Black lives are equally valued by the state, promises of equality and freedom are a farce. 

Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942–), a founding member of SNCC's Freedom Singers (1962), understood music’s power to sustain political struggle and affirmed the political responsibility of Black musicians. The SNCC Freedom Singers are pictured mid-song in the foreground of the collage. Johnson Reagon moved to DC to earn a Ph.D. at Howard. In 1973 she founded the a cappella music group Sweet Honey in the Rock with Black women performers Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, and Mie. Two of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s album covers sit below a large photograph of the group embedded in the background of the collage. The group’s songs “Joanne Little” and “Oughta be a Woman” became popular anthems among feminists. Johnson Reagon also contributed to the Black feminist anthology Homegirls, edited by Barbara Smith. A copy of the anthology is set in a case below.

The right half of the collage on this wall shares Etta Horn’s story, with a portrait of Etta Horn filling the farthest right side of the space. Etta Mae Horn (1928–2001) lived in southeast DC’s Barry Farm Dwellings and negotiated renovations to the majority-Black public housing project. A photograph of Barry Farm residents appears in the lower right of the collage. In the late 1960s, Horn helped to lead the Citywide Welfare Alliance and the National Welfare Rights Organization—a feminist movement led by women of color. Photographs of Horn as part of these organizations and as part of their actions fill the collage. Horn framed welfare not as a privilege, but as a right rooted in the caring labor of mothers. She called for lawmakers to address the connections between racism, sexism, and poverty. In this spirit, Horn told Congress: “You sit up here on the Hill and talk about building subways and bridges” for tourists and people from the suburbs, but “it’s time to talk about the people who live here” in DC, especially women and children. 

At the center of this wall is a touch screen interactive that shares recordings of Black feminists from throughout the exhibition. You will be able to select a recording a listen to the words spoken by the person in question.  

You can find more details about each image and object in the text labels below. Or you can skip to the next section, “Black Feminism: The Civil Rights and Black Power Era (Part 2).” 


Image: Bernice Johnson Reagon (center), with members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, 1992

Photograph by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images 

Image: SNCC’s Freedom Singers, Café Lena, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1963 

Photograph by Joe Alper/Image courtesy of Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC
(Left to right) Charles Neblett, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell H. Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris 

Image: June Jordan, c. 1968

Photograph by Louise Bernikow/Harvard Radcliffe Institute,/courtesy of the photographer
Black feminist poet and essayist June Jordan (1936–2002) was the author of numerous books including Civil Wars (Beacon Press, 1981) and On Call: Political Essays (South End Press, 1985). Jordan’s poem “Oughta be a Woman” was set to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1981.

Image: Poor People’s March, Lafayette Park and Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC, 1968

Photograph by Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division 

Image: Residents and volunteers pick up garbage during a “clean-up” day at Barry Farm Dwellings, 1966 

Photograph by Paul M. Schmick/Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post 

Image: Etta Horn (left) at a conference sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), c. 1985

Photograph by Leigh Mosley/courtesy of the photographer 

Object: Sweet Honey in the Rock by Sweet Honey in the Rock, 1976

Label: Flying Fish
This album contains the song “Joanne Little.” In 1974, Little, an African American woman, was charged with the murder of a white prison guard who tried to rape her in her cell. Little’s case helped to establish the legal right of women to defend themselves. 

Object: Breaths…The Best of by Sweet Honey in the Rock, 1987

Label: Cooking Vinyl
This album includes “Oughta be a woman” by Black feminist June Jordan, which concludes that making “a way outa no way,” for which Black women are often praised, is “too much to ask.” “Ella’s Song” echoes Ella Baker’s words: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until we are free.” 

Object: Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith, 1983 

Published by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Pres
Barbara Smith was a founding member of the Boston-based Black feminist Combahee River Collective. Home Girls discusses the intersections of racialized capitalism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Bernice Johnson Reagan’s essay “Coalition Politics” discusses broad-based alliances that coalesced between the civil rights, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements. 

Image: Members of the Citywide Welfare Alliance lead a protest march on Pennsylvania Ave, c. 1967

Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post
Etta Horn connected the punitive treatment of Black people by the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program with the history of slavery. Through Congressional testimony and demonstrations, Horn criticized the government for its dehumanizing treatment of Black mothers and children.

Image: From left: Etta Horn, George Wiley, and Beulah Sanders of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) addressing the Democratic Platform Committee, Chicago, 1968

Bettmann/Getty Images
At the Democratic National Convention in 1968 Etta Horn and other welfare rights leaders demanded that the Democratic Party expand its platform to include a minimum wage that was high enough to support a family and stop relegating Black families to poverty. 

Image: NWRO activists marching in the Poor People’s Campaign, 1968

Photograph by W.H. Spradley/Jack Rottier photograph collection, C0003, Box 8, Page 28, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries
The connections Martin Luther King Jr. made with DC’s Black feminists like Etta Horn and Beulah Sanders led the welfare rights movement to support King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Their first event was a Mother’s Day march sponsored by the National Welfare Rights Organization and led by Coretta Scott King, just a month after King’s assassination. 


Next Section 

As you leave this covered passageway, travel ahead and slightly to your left to the next section: Black Feminism: The Civil Rights and Black Power Era (Part 2). Once you enter this next covered passageway, the next QR code is on the first panel to your right.  


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