BAR Book Forum: Alison M. Parker’s Book, “Unceasing Militant”
The author explores Mary Church Terrell’s long history of activism, to remind us that movements for social justice do not happen overnight.
“Although she was never a member of the Communist Party, Terrell willingly worked with left wing activists.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Alison M. Parker. Parker is History Department Chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware. Her book is Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Alison M. Parker: Readers today will find that Black women have long been a force in electoral politics. After the Civil War, even though they did not yet have the right to vote, they supported the Party of Lincoln, the Republican Party, for its leadership in securing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that ended slavery, guaranteed citizenship to African Americans, and offered Black male voters protections from discrimination at the polls on the basis of race. During the Reconstruction era and beyond, Black women supported Republican candidates whom they thought would enforce these rights and pass other legislation crucial to the Black freedom struggle, such as federal laws against convict lease-labor systems and against lynching.
As a Black suffragist, Mary Church Terrell marched in the 1913 national woman’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., and picketed the White House with the National Woman’s Party during World War I. But even as Black women demanded the right to vote, they always insisted that Black men’s voting rights be enforced. After ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Black women voters moved quickly to formalize their longtime participation in partisan party politics. They were regularly hired by the Republican National Committee to rally Black voters to the GOP. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal finally encouraged the beginning of a shift of Black voters to the Democratic Party.
The legacy of Black women as partisan activists with a strong civil rights agenda and well-honed organizational skills is clear today. Black women played a crucial role in securing the votes needed for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to enter the White House. Harris, a Black and Indian woman, could not have become Vice President of the United States without the mobilization of more than 90% of eligible Black women voters in support of the Democratic ticket.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Unceasing Militant demonstrates the centrality of Black women to the freedom struggle by highlighting Mary Church Terrell’s fight for racial and gender justice from the 1890s to the 1950s. Focusing on her ultimate goals made Terrell flexible about how to achieve them. For instance, in the 1930s, she worked within multiple organizations at once, from the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of Negro Women, the Republican Party, the Washington Federation of Churches, the New Negro Alliance, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Communist Party-affiliated International Labor Defense. Some of these organizations advocated for more moderate reform and others engaged in direct action and a leftist critique of a racist capitalist system in the U.S.
Terrell worked for her goals within each organization, to whatever extent was possible in that group at that moment. She did so because she believed that she and other activists could change the conversation, redefine the goals, and help people across the ideological and activist spectrum see the magnitude of racial and gender injustice and begin to take the action needed to achieve justice and equality.
Terrell’s long history of activism reminds us that movements for social justice do not happen overnight. Activists need optimism, persistence, and determination to achieve their goals, recognizing that major social change comes slowly and unevenly. And any progress must be maintained with vigilance. Ultimately, the message for activists and community organizers today is that Black women leaders like Mary Church Terrell inspire us to continue the fight, recognizing their clarity of conviction that the Black freedom struggle can and will be won.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
There are some common misconceptions about Mary Church Terrell that I hope to disprove. First, Terrell was a highly educated member of the Black elite who graduated from Oberlin College (1884) and conducted a two-and-a-half-year European tour to hone her fluency in Italian, German, and French. Yet, she was not an elitist. Terrell used her education and her privilege to fight for all African Americans. She wrote stinging critiques of the convict leasing system throughout the South and lobbied for decades for federal anti-lynching legislation. Furthermore, she worked to expose the racial prejudice inherent in a criminal justice system that convicted, imprisoned, and even condemned Black women and men to death on false charges. She fearlessly met with governors and entered prisons to meet with illiterate and impoverished girls and women who were unfairly condemned to death because they had defended themselves against attack by a white person.
“Terrell used her education and her privilege to fight for all African Americans.”
Terrell also worked closely with the Communist Party and several of its affiliated organizations, including the International Labor Defense in the 1930s to help free the Scottsboro Nine. Then, in the 1940s and early 1950s, she chaired two Civil Rights Congress (CRC) committees, one that successfully ended segregation in Washington, D.C. shops and restaurants, and one that fought to gain clemency for Georgia sharecropper Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons. Although she was never a member of the Communist Party, Terrell willingly worked with left wing activists. I entitled my biography Unceasing Militant based on Paul Robeson’s eulogy praising Terrell as an “unceasing militant,” always struggling “for the full citizenship of her people.” I hope that readers will come away from my biography of Terrell with a deeper understanding of her cross-class collaborations and her fearless determination to fight for justice.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell are two inspiring intellectual feminist foremothers who articulated a Black intersectional feminism long before Kimberlé Crenshaw gave a name to “intersectionality” in 1989. Anna Julia Cooper was a brilliant contemporary of Terrell’s who also attended Oberlin College, became an educator in Washington, D.C., and helped found Black women’s clubs and reform organizations, among many other accomplishments. Cooper insisted on Black women’s distinct voice and perspective. In A Voice from the South (1892), she argued: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”
An understanding of intersectionality also shaped Mary Church Terrell’s thought and activism. Identifying the unique double “handicap” of racism and sexism facing “a colored woman in a white world,” Terrell strove to create a new society based on gender and racial equality. She envisioned a country in which young black women could grow up expecting to vote and be full citizens, to be free from sexual assaults and constant aspersions regarding their sexual purity, as well as to be free of the contradictory but equally pernicious stereotype of the asexual, subservient “Black Mammy.” Insisting on Black women’s full equality, Terrell demanded their right to their bodily integrity by calling for an end to the sexual harassment and rape of Black women, especially those who worked as domestic servants.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Unceasing Militant allows us to see how activists can work in coalitions across gender, race, and class divides. It helps us see the continued interconnected struggles of Black women—their calls for the need to pay attention to and eradicate racism, sexism, classism, and more.
We can imagine new worlds with living wages and health care for all. Today, Black women of all classes are calling attention to the fact that women of color in low wage jobs still bear the brunt of sexual harassment and abuse. It was a Black woman, Tarana Burke, who first started the #MeToo campaign in 2006. She and other activists are making the link between safety from sexual abuse in employment and economic empowerment through decent wages. Not coincidentally, the Fight for $15 Campaign set up a sexual harassment hotline. The life history of Mary Church Terrell teaches us to value and participate in this intersectional activism.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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