The Women of Selma:

The Backbone of a Movement

By Keecee DeVenny

Senior Digital Media Strategist

Every year, LDF sojourns to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the men, women, and children who braved state-sanctioned police violence as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in peaceful demand for their right to vote. This year’s journey feels particularly poignant as we enter year nine without Section Five of the Voting Rights Act and amid state-level battles over the truthful teaching of history

When we think about the march that brought us the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we frequently think of civil rights giants like the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rep. John Lewis — men who became the face of a movement and symbolized the power of unbreakable courage and tenacity. Too often, however, we forget that women were integral to the Selma campaign and the civil rights movement in general. And we forget that without these women’s contributions and sacrifices, the march as we know it — and thus the United States of America as we know it — wouldn’t exist.  

Black women have a deep history of contribution to transformative movements in this country, but that work is often overshadowed by the accomplishments of their male contemporaries. That’s why, in honor of Women’s History Month and the 57th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, LDF is shining a light on some of the women who played critical roles in securing the right to vote.

Women of Selma

Annie Lee Cooper

Annie Lee Cooper was the full embodiment of fierce determination. Born to a family of 10 in Selma, Alabama in 1910, she never considered that she would ever be able to vote. That all changed when she moved to Kentucky to live with her aunt at 14 and saw Black voters at the polls. While she was too young to cast a ballot then, that fire never left her. 

Moving from Kentucky to Ohio, Cooper became a registered voter in both states. In 1962, she returned to Selma and planned to become a registered Alabama voter. However, the discriminatory voting barriers in Alabama were plentiful and kept her shut out of the process. Numerous times she attempted to register but was unable to pass the literacy tests designed to keep Black potential voters locked out of the polls. She would often stand at the Dallas County courthouse for hours attempting to register but would never receive the opportunity. During this time, she became involved in the Dallas County Voters League — a group led in part by Amelia Boynton Robinson and Marie Foster. She often opened her home as a gathering spot for the League’s meetings and strategy sessions. 

“Upfront, pleasant and… absolutely fearless”

- John Lewis on Annie Lee Cooper

Cooper never gave up her effort to register to vote in Alabama, even when it came at a huge economic cost. In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized “Freedom Day,” an event that brought over 400 Black potential voters to the Dallas County courthouse to register to vote. Cooper and fellow participants stood outside for hours for a chance to register. Her employer saw her at the event and fired her within days. Soon, Cooper was blacklisted by white businesses in Selma, making it nearly impossible for her to find work. 

Despite encountering endless hurdles and suffering significant personal consequences, when the Selma campaign started in 1965, Cooper gladly joined the demonstrations. Most famously, she was waiting in line to register to vote at the courthouse at one of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s organized demonstrations when infamous Sheriff Jim Clark struck her with his billy club. Cooper retaliated and punched the sheriff, an action that landed her in jail. Despite this encounter, she still participated in the Selma march. Cooper died at the age of 100 on Nov. 4, 2010. Today, Annie Cooper Avenue in Selma is a physical reminder that she was one of the fiercest warriors in the fight for voting rights. 

Women of Selma

Amelia Boynton Robinson

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most well-known faces of the Selma march, but without Amelia Boynton Robinson, he may have never even visited the city. 

Born in 1911 in Savannah, Georgia, Boynton Robinson became a registered voter in 1934 at the age of 23 after becoming involved in the women’s suffrage movement early in life. Knowing what a rarity it was for a Black woman to be a registered voter at the time, she was invested in helping more Black people register to vote. 

After college graduation, she became a home demonstration agent in Dallas County. She traveled the county’s dusty backroads teaching Black sharecroppers new farming methods and how to “gain political, financial, and educational strength.” In the 1930s, she joined the Dallas County Voters League and, by the 1960s, was one of the first women to be appointed to a leadership position. From her position on the steering committee, she registered Black voters with a single-minded doggedness. By 1963, she had cemented herself in Selma’s civil rights efforts. 

A voteless people is a hopeless people.

Amelia Boynton Robinson at her home in Selma. (Source: Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group / Photo by Elizabeth Boone Aiken.)

In 1964, Boynton Robinson became the first Black woman to ever seek a congressional seat in Alabama and won 10% of the vote. Fittingly, her campaign motto was, “A voteless people is a hopeless people.” During this time, she also wrote a letter to Dr. King urging him to visit Selma and ultimately persuaded him to concentrate his voting rights efforts on the city. She volunteered her home for strategy meetings, attended countless organizing events, and was integral to the movement because of her ability to galvanize local support for the SCLC and voting rights efforts in Selma. 

Amelia Boynton Robinson speaks at the Brown Chapen AME Church. (Source: Alabama Department of Archives and History / Photo by Jim Peppler for the Southern Courier.)
Amelia Boynton Robinson with Pres. Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Rep. John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015. (Source: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The picture of her limp body being carried by friends after state troopers beat her is one of the most horrific photographs from Bloody Sunday. After the Selma march, Boynton Robinson continued her career of service and activism. In 2015 she completed her last march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, joined by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. When she passed in 2015, President Obama acknowledged Boynton Robinson’s lifetime commitment to service. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Boynton Robinson risked her life to ensure equal access to the ballot box. Without her, national attention to the movement may have never come.

Women of Selma

Diane Nash

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Diane Nash is best known as the co-founder of the SNCC. Lesser known about her, though, is that she was one of the architects behind the Selma voting rights campaign. She had a quiet and charming demeanor but was a powerhouse of organizing prowess. 

Nash began her journey into civil rights at Fisk University, attending non-violence workshops in 1960 hosted by James Lawson. It was at Lawson’s workshops that she learned the theory and practice of nonviolent movements. In 1960, she also became a founding member of SNCC after attending the founding meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. She would soon catch the attention of Dr. King after traveling to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to support the Friendship 9. They became the first protestors in the anti-segregation movement who refused bail and instead chose to serve 30 days of hard labor to draw attention to their efforts. While incarcerated, Nash penned a letter to the editor of the Rock Hill Evening Herald. This letter is said to be the inspiration for Dr. King’s famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. Writing to Nash and her fellow demonstrators, Dr. King said, “You have inspired all of us by such demonstrative courage and faith. It is good to know that there still remains a creative minority who would rather lose in a cause that will ultimately win than to win in a cause that will ultimately lose.”

Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.

Diane Nash at the 2011 Search For Common Ground Awards at the Carnegie Institution for Science in 2011. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)

Nash’s ability to organize and build coalitions was unmatched. In 1961, she left Fisk and began organizing the Freedom Rides. That same year, she got married and joined the SCLC. By 1962, she had made herself indispensable to the civil rights movement. In 1962, while four months pregnant, she faced a 10-year prison sentence for the delinquency of minors for her role in the Freedom Rides. Prepared to face her sentence, she declined an appeal and was eventually sentenced to 10 days in a Jackson, Mississippi jail.

Diane Nash with Harry Belafonte and fellow Freedom Rider Charles Jones (Source: Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
The Alabama Department of Public Safety compiled a two volume set of "Individuals Active in Civil Disobedience" for distribution to law enforcement officers around 1965. (Source: Alabama Department of Archives and History.)

In 1963, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls incensed Nash, and she immediately began to conceptualize the Selma march. Her ideas for a series of Selma marches drawing attention to the state of voting rights were initially dismissed. However, she continued to advocate for this approach. After becoming a core member of Dr. King’s inner circle, she was able to gain his support and that of other SCLC leadership to initiate the Selma march. In 1965, she was awarded SCLC’s Rosa Parks Award for her work developing the Selma campaign. 

Ultimately, Nash contributed more to civil and human rights than could ever be summarized in a few paragraphs. She did not stop at voting rights and segregation. She was involved in the anti-war movement, traveling to Vietnam in an all-women envoy in 1966, and later became a housing rights advocate. However, her immense work often flies under the radar. She has always remained a fierce rights advocate and has perfected the model of nonviolent organizing and advocacy. Often the only woman in the room, she constantly risked her life to dismantle discrimination and promote racial justice. She remains fiercely committed to the practice of nonviolent movements and is one of the most important civil rights organizers and advocates in living memory.

"You have inspired all of us by such demonstrative courage and faith. It is good to know that there still remains a creative minority who would rather lose in a cause that will ultimately win than to win in a cause that will ultimately lose."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Diane Nash

Women of Selma

Marie Foster

Marie Foster stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. (Source: Flip Schulke Archives via Getty)

Known as the “Mother of the Voting Rights Movement,” Marie Foster was born in Alabama in 1917. Foster’s civil rights journey began after she attempted to register to vote eight times before she was finally successful. From 1963 to 1965, she taught classes to Black neighbors on how to pass the discriminatory literacy tests that kept many Black people locked out of the electoral process. 

In the 1960s, Foster, along with Boynton Robinson, became one of the only women to hold a leadership position in the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL). The DCVL, and Foster especially, acted as a bridge among organizations like the SNCC, SCLC, and the Congress on Racial Equality, bringing national attention to the voting rights movement and on-the-ground efforts in Selma. Foster was known for going door-to-door with leaflets of voting information and asked all the ministers in town to make voter registration announcements at their pulpits.

In 1964, the DCVL invited Dr. King to Selma. When he arrived in town intending to use Selma to draw national attention to voting rights, Foster lent both her home and her ability to rally support to the cause. She was such an effective organizer that, in 1964, a Dallas County circuit court judge issued an order prohibiting Black residents from gathering and discussing civil rights, an action that many saw as targeting Foster.

On Bloody Sunday, Foster marched at the front of the crowd. She and other foot soldiers were met with brutal acts of police violence. Foster was clubbed by police. Despite the bloodshed she faced, she was undeterred from her work to secure Black people’s right to vote. Two days after Bloody Sunday, she was back to organizing for the first successful Selma to Montgomery march on March 21. She was one of only two women to participate. 

Her activism never ceased. She dedicated herself to fighting for public housing and the removal of a statue of a Klan founder from a public park. Just like in her days of teaching reading so Black voters could pass literacy tests, she continued to teach reading to underprivileged children in Selma. Foster passed away in Selma on Sept. 6, 2003. Her work on voting rights demonstrates that everyone can be an activist if they’re willing to take up the mantle.

Monument in Selma honoring “Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement Before and Beyond the Bridge; Didn't let nothing turn them around!” (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Bloody Sunday was one of the ugliest and most consequential days in U.S. history. However, it was the courageousness and persistence of those who sacrificed everything on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that brought us the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Launching the Selma campaign took a tremendous amount of work — often led by women who would come home after full days of organizing to then engage in hours of childcare and household management.

Our country still has work left to do. The Voting Rights Act sits defanged while federal legislation protecting the right to vote remains unpassed. Moreover, since January 2021, 37 states have taken steps or introduced bills that would strictly regulate accurately teaching the history of Bloody Sunday and the voting rights movement. That is why it is more important than ever that we take time to recognize and honor the women whose overlooked contributions had a critical impact on voting rights and the civil rights movement at large.

Published: March 7, 2022

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