3 influential women of the civil rights movement

Septima Poinsette Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash

February 24, 2022

Many who think of the civil rights movement often picture it through the lens of its great male leaders. Martin Luther King Jr sharing powerfully about his dream for America. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) giving a speech before the March on Washington. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) marching on the front lines at Selma. 

However, these men were not the only figures who led during the movement. Women worked and marched and bled alongside the men during the freedom struggles, even if they were not as prominent in media appearances. As Andrew Young, who worked closely with MLK as part of the SCLC has said, “There could not have been a civil rights movement without the sacrifice, the vision, the support and the hard work of the thousands of women.” Below are just three of the women who were crucial to the work of the freedom struggle. 

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)

Septima Poinsette Clark was described as the “mother of the movement” or the “queen mother” of civil rights because of her long activity in the struggle for freedom. Born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina, to a former slave and his wife, she would go on to become a teacher in the state at a Black school on Johns Island. She was active in the work of the NAACP, even participating in a lawsuit that gave equal pay to Black and white teachers in South Carolina. However, she was fired from her job in 1956 when the state passed a law forbidding state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. 

Rather than forego her civil rights work, she left her position as an educator. She went on to focus her time more on the activism that she had begun earlier. She was already working with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee which was focused on training activists and leaders in the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks was one of the trainees just a few months before her refusal to give up her seat in Montgomery). Clark led the institute in providing literacy training, citizenship information, and helping African Americans complete voter registration forms. She would go on to work with the SCLC in their Citizenship Education Program performing similar work to what she had done at Highlander. 

She was eventually recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her work in civil rights. Furthermore, in 1976, the state of South Carolina admitted that she had been unjustly fired and reinstated her teacher’s pension. She stands out because her work began long before people traditionally think of the civil rights era, but was crucial for the legislative and judicial victories that would occur during the 50s and 60s.  

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977)

The work of the civil rights movement would not have occurred without the activity of local, grassroots organizers. Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer serves as a powerful example of the ways that Black women were crucial in mobilizing people in support of the movement. Born to poor sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta in 1917, she would leave school at age 12 to pick cotton with her family. In 1944, she would marry her husband Perry Hamer, and the couple began working for B.D. Marlowe as sharecroppers on his plantation. In 1961, she attended a meeting of SNCC and SCLC were she began her role as a SNCC organizer. 

The next year, she and a group attempted to register to vote in Indianola but were denied because of a literacy test. As they were leaving, they were harassed and fined $100 by the police because the bus they were on was “too yellow.” Hamer was also fired by Marlow (though her husband was required to stay on and complete the contract), and after the season was complete he confiscated much of their property, necessitating their move to Ruleville, Mississippi, where she became a leader in organizing individuals to vote. She would be arrested and jailed in Winona in 1963 because she sat at a “whites-only” bus station restaurant. During her night in jail, she was beaten, leading to lifelong injuries. 

Hammer was also a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which protested the work of the local Democratic Party’s exclusion of African Americans. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the MFDP asked to be recognized as the official delegation rather than the all-white delegation sent by the Mississippi Democratic party. Though national leadership attempted to deny her press coverage, her impassioned speech, with its descriptions of injustice in the South, was televised. She was also instrumental in the organization of Freedom Summer which brought college students to the South to help register African Americans to vote. At the grassroots level, Hamer is representative of the thousands of women who organized in their communities, worked tirelessly, and mobilized others in the fight for equal rights and justice. 

Diane Nash (1938– )

Diane Nash is representative of the many college students who were crucial to the ativism that led to the end of the Jim Crow system. Though she initially started college at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she transferred to Fisk University in Nashville after a year. As a native of Chicago, it was in Nashville that she experienced the full weight of Jim Crow and its effect on African Americans. She began attending nonviolence workshops led by James Lawson, and though initially skeptical, she came to agree with their effectiveness. 

Nash was one of the leaders of the students who participated in department store sit-ins in Nashville to protest segregation because she ably presented herself to the press and police. She was especially noted for her refusal, when arrested, to post bail. In one instance, she along with her fellow detainees, told the judge that to pay bail would be “contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction” of the protestors. Nash and her fellow students were not going to let the state profit off their protest or validate the actions of the state in unjustly arresting them. 

Nash played a role in the founding of SNCC, eventually assuming the role of leading their direct action campaigns. She also helped to continue the Freedom Rides of 1961 through coordination and support. She would eventually be arrested in Mississippi on the charge of contributing to delinquency of minors because of her role in teaching them nonviolence. Though pregnant, she opted to serve her sentence rather than post bail, continuing her long-standing principle of “jail without bail.” The judge chose to suspend her sentence rather than face the negative publicity likely to arise from sending a pregnant woman to jail. Nash, and the many college students like her, were often on the front lines of direct action and leaders in the nonviolent movement. Her activity in coordinating and organizing that activity was crucial to the work of freedom.

Clark, Hamer, and Nash deserve to be lauded and remembered for their tireless efforts in the civil rights movement. Each of these women — along with those whose names we might never know — contributed to the long-overdue recognition of every human being’s right to be treated equally and with dignity. May we all have such a heart for our fellow man and for the pursuit of justice. 

Image caption: The House of Representatives met today to affirm seating of its Mississippi members, as Civil Rights demonstrators massed in silent support of their claim that the State’s elections were illegal because blacks were barred from the polls. They are, left to right: Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine.

Photo Attribution:

Bettmann / Getty Contributor

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24