CAIR MLK Day Commentary: The African-American Women Behind the Heroes

Author: Jimmy Jones

[Jimmy E. Jones is Secretary of the national board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Professor of World Religions and African Studies at Manhattanville College. He may be contacted]

For African-Americans, the annual time period between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 15th and the end of February is bittersweet. This is because we hear quite a bit about Dr. King’s legacy and the importance of Black History for about six weeks, only to be shunted aside again on March 1st of every year.

Nevertheless, we rightly remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a genuine American hero. So was recently departed astronaut and senator John Glenn, the first American in space.

Yet neither of these men could have soared to the heights that they did without the passionate, persistent, consistent, and competent help of women who just happened to be African-American.

In John Glenn’s case, the full story of these women was finally told in the book “Hidden Figures,” written by Margot Lee Shetterly and released as a Hollywood film with the same title.

Mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson made calculations that were invaluable to the success and safety of America’s first manned space flight by our hero John Glenn.

I am a bit familiar with the racial mores of the part of the country in which these women worked. The Langley Research Center is located in Hampton, Va., near where I spent four years (1964-68) as an undergraduate at the overwhelmingly Black Hampton University.

Due to the intersectionality of racism and sexism at that time, I – along with most Americans – was totally unaware of the fact that Black women played a critical role in such an important national project.

In the case of American hero Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the important work of African-American women is something that is better known.

Rosa Parks has been recognized for her pivotal role in starting the historically-powerful Montgomery bus boycott. Her refusal to give up her seat on December 5, 1955, was indeed a pivotal movement in the Civil Rights Movement and American history.

As important as Rosa Parks was to the Montgomery crusade and to American history, there are many other little-known African-American women who were just as important to the success of the movement.

For example, had it not been for the leadership and the organizational skills of Jo Ann Robinson, the Montgomery Bus boycott would not have gotten off to the strong start that it did. Among other things, she mimeographed and distributed more than 50,000 handbills the weekend before the start of the boycott. An articulate president of the local Women’s Political Caucus, she had previously attempted to organize similar anti-discrimination bus boycotts.

Dr. King was definitely an all-American hero. However, there is no way that we would know him in the way we do without the many heroic women in the movement.

As America enters 2017 remembering Dr. King and emphasizing Black history, we need more heroes and heroines like Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson.

In a country obsessed with celebrity and faux riches, we need more people like John Glenn, who found multiple ways to serve his country while often putting his life on the line.

In a country in which racists, nativists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes feel emboldened, we need more visionary leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who assertively resisted the “triple evils” of poverty, racism and war.

In a country in which many have thrown up their hands in nihilist despair, we need more people like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson, who worked for the common good, with little or no public recognition, while keeping their “eyes on the prize” in the face of daily indignities.

As a Muslim, I am a bit concerned by the extent to which American Muslims, and immigrants in particular, have been demonized over the past few years.

As a human being, I continue to pray that we – and particularly our political and religious leaders – learn to recognize each other’s humanity in spite of our apparent differences.

In his commencement address at Oberlin College in June, 1965, Dr. King said:

“. . .all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”


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