"What Josephine Baker Teaches Us About Women’s Enduring Legacy Within The Civil Rights Movement"
Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs, Justice and Freedom. Most are not aware, but on that hot summer day in 1963, only one woman addressed the crowd. Her name was Josephine Baker.
Two women, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, sang. But Josephine Baker spoke for more than 20 minutes, and introduced the “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” to herald women like Rosa Parks, whose arrest launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; and Daisy Bates, NAACP of Arkansas President and advisor to the Little Rock Nine. Her speech was simple and plainspoken, but she poignantly detailed her experiences with a segregated America and her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.
Baker’s presence and comments spoke to the lived experiences of millions of Black women who sat, and still do, at the intersection of individual freedom and civil rights for the broader community.
Josephine Baker was an international superstar before the likes of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé, rising to fame during the 1920’s and 30’s in Paris, France. Once homeless, she managed to enter the world of vaudeville and ultimately perform in Paris, France. She was one of the first African American women to star in a major motion picture and helped integrate the American stage. Her most notable costume is a skirt made of artificial bananas and she often performed on the Parisian stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita. She accomplished much off stage as well. During World War II she served as a spy for the French Resistance and was later awarded a military honor. She adopted 12 children from around the world and named them her Rainbow Tribe.
In 1963, she was 57 years old when she stepped up to the podium in her French Resistance uniform from the war. She did so not as a superstar, but as a woman who had seen a glimpse of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently spoke about. Though not a public speaker, she articulated her journey as a woman and vision for a new world that could exist for African Americans. She knew far too well the challenges of women within the African American community — and managed to bridge the unique experiences of black women who sought bodily autonomy, security, and happiness within a community seeking full citizenship under the law. Her speech was pivotal as she specifically defined civil rights through the eyes of a woman who had known both oppression and freedom. Baker also represented the legacy of black women seeking to balance their individual struggles with uplifting the entire community. This holds true for women of color seeking justice for a new generation.
Key themes from her speech that ring true today include:
Women’s lived experiences matter.
In an act of solidarity, Baker opened her speech by expressing her shared experiences of living in the South and pursuing her dreams in a segregated America. She said: “And as I continued to do the things I did, and to say the things I said, they began to beat me. Not beat me, mind you, with a club…but they beat me with their pens, with their writings. And friends, that is much worse… When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away.”
Like many women at the turn of the Century, she was silenced. While the Civil Rights movement was centered on all citizens having the access to public facilities, public education, and the right to vote, the denial of such right had very private and terrifying consequences for Black women whose work often forced them into the private spaces of America as domestic workers, cooks, and maids. Backlash in these spaces were far more terrifying than being forced to ride in the back of the bus or to drink from a “coloreds only” fountain. In comparison to the narrative of the broader movement, like “I am a man,” these stories were minimized as a part of the struggle for economic and political freedom.
Dignity and respect must be applied to the personal sphere, not just public places.
Her experience returning to the United States after being abroad brought great pain as she realized quickly that very little had changed. The lack of dignity and respect she received privately, despite her success, were just as bitter as public attempts to dehumanize her. Baker recalled her return trip on a cruise ship when a white actress refused to have dinner with her: “A very important star was to sit with me for dinner, and at the last moment I discovered she didn’t want to eat with a colored woman.”
Bodily autonomy and self-determination are not just about reproduction or parenting, but it is evident in simply being recognized as a human being and having mobility to access coffee, dinner, and friendship when and where one chooses.
A new world requires a clear vision, not just the absence of injustice.
She detailed the immense freedom she experienced living abroad in France: “I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn’t afraid anymore that someone would shout at me.”
Like most African Americans, Baker knew another America was possible but a new and high expectation needed to be described and reinforced. Like Dr. King, she had a dream that was free from fear but also allowed her to pursue her dreams and happiness on equal footing. She goes on to say: “I was happy, and because I was happy I had some success, and you know that too.”
It was immensely fitting that a woman could speak of love and happiness on the other side of justice and freedom. Women were not always at the forefront of the movement, but undeniably essential to its momentum. Reminders of life’s joys beyond the struggle itself were necessary in order to bolster future progress. Black women participated in the political activity, while working outside the home and overseeing family needs inside the home. Beyond the struggle, working and in the maintenance of the home life, happiness needed to be a goal.
Civil rights are intersectional and imperative to the future of the nation.
“You must go to school, and you must learn to protect yourself. And you must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun. Then you can answer them, and I can tell you — and I don’t want to sound corny — but friends, the pen really is mightier than the sword.”
Encouraging future generations to embrace education and future struggles associated with civil rights rounded out Baker’s speech. She wanted to inspire the next generation to carry on the legacy of the civil rights movement, but recognized that role of civil rights would play a role in advancing education, healthcare, and women’s rights. And while future generations might approach it differently, they had to continue the fight for freedom.
While reproductive freedom and women’s rights were not explicitly a part of Baker’s short speech, she effectively lifted up the experiences of the average women. Her commitment to the continued struggle honored millions of women who experiences were often relegated as secondary to the needs of the Civil Rights movement. Few had neither the opportunity to step into the limelight of the movement nor the power to escape the grips of segregation in the same way Baker did, but her presence lifted millions of women to the main stage, the same way her works had done decades before. Her legacy — and those of the countless women, who marched, organized and sacrificed for civil rights — stays with us today, as women continue to fight for equal rights and social justice.
Our guest blogger is Heidi Williamson, a Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress.