“A Change is Gonna Come”: Making the Invisible Visible

Glenda Gilmore. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2008.


         In Defying Dixie, Gilmore argues that the origins of the civil rights movement began in the 1920s with the racial violence towards African Americans following World War I. Gilmore focuses on forgotten individual black radicals to tell her story such as Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Pauli Murray. The eccentric Fort-Whiteman was an early supporter of the Soviet Union and founded a number of communist organizations for African Americans such as the American Negro Labor Congress before the Federal government chased out of the country. He moved to the Soviet Union where he worked for a short time as a teacher before being sentenced in one of Stalin’s gulags in Kolyma, Siberia where he was worked and starved to death. During the 1940s, Pauli Murray, a transgendered black woman, worked to integrate institutions such as the University of North Carolina Law program. Although Murray was not successful in her endeavors, she paved they was for those within the Black Freedom Movement as well as transgender black women throughout the twentieth century.  
Scholarship on the black freedom struggle has suggested that the civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision or in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott. For historian Adam Fairclough, the movement took shape in the 1890s with Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. Patricia Sullivan traces the movement to the 1920s with the activists and organizations that emerged prior to and after the New Deal. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall who coined the phrase “long civil rights movement,” argues that the long civil rights movement formed in the liberal and radical environment of the 1930s. Nelson Lichtenstein, Robert Korstad, and Harvard Sitkoff locate the movement’s roots in the depression and in the 1940s placing emphasis on the emerging black urban working class. Tuck argues that the Civil Rights Movement took place from 1960-1965. Historians have adopted the notion of a long civil rights movement to encompass the roots of the movement as well as the ongoing struggles of African Americans to the present day.
Cha-Jua and Lang agree with Hall’s critique of how the New Right interpreted the movement to suit its own political needs. They also agree with long civil rights movement scholars to emphasize women’s roles within the movement, the coexistence of differing strategies and tactics, African Americans connections with Pan African and other revolutionary movements abroad, and to seriously research and study Black Power. Cha-Jua and Lang are critical of long civil rights movement scholarship. They argue that scholars need to appreciate the “intellectual and cultural dimensions” of the black freedom movement. Scholars need to emphasize the differences of activists during each decade. While activists used similar tactics, they used them to reach different goals and framed their objectives differently.
The activism of transgender black women has been largely ignored and these women are basically invisible in the literature. For the prospectus part of my final paper, I will focus on the activism of transgender black women throughout the twentieth century. It is through their activism that I look at how they (re)imagine and (re)define black womanhood. I am looking at how they contributed to the LGBT community as well as different movements through their activism. One of the activists fought for marriage equality early in the twentieth century. Another issue was the prison industrial complex. For transgender women, they are disproportionately incarcerated. Many fought for their ability to be able to dress up as women which was an important part of their livelihood, they made a living this way. There was a law enacted, Rule 9, which stated that it, was illegal to dress up in costume as a member of the opposite sex. I want to see how as transgender women they negotiate their womanhood in public and private spaces especially when in those spaces, they were not always recognized as women to begin with.  

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