Black Freedom Couples: Linking Marriage and Activism in the Long Civil Rights Movement

AHA Session 120
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Sara Rzeszutek Haviland, St. Francis College
Jane Dailey, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Feminist correctives to civil rights historiography have been kind to women and their leadership in the movement. By shifting historical inquiry away from the King-centered aspects of the movement, civil rights historians have recovered the important work performed by women. In addition to the women themselves, these histories bring attention to localized social and political networks led by women and facilitated a broader civil rights agenda—linking the local with the national. Emphasis on these networks, however, has led to a gloss over of more intimate relationships, especially those that occurred within marriages. Married couples sometimes operated as political partners, and these partnerships offer new ways to consider how gender functioned in the long civil rights movement.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience” is especially useful for thinking about civil rights political partnerships that came out of marriage. Although activist couples made significant political moves together, their individual proficiencies certainly influenced the other. The individual and the couple are thus emblematic of the local-to-national networks discussed in more recent civil rights accounts.

“Black Freedom Couples: Marriage and Activism in the Long Civil Rights Movement” highlights the activism and partnerships of three distinct married couples.  These couples challenged social hierarchies together while the men sometimes replicated variations of those hierarchies.  Marriage, in this context, is therefore a multi-layered site of resistance.  Together, the three panelists will explore those layers in social, political, and economic terms.

Francis Gourrier’s paper, “A Relationship Built on Activism: Rosa and Raymond Parks and Links in the Long Civil Rights Movement,” traces the origins of Mr. and Mrs. Parks romance and links it to their common interest in resisting white supremacy. It is also a response to historian Sara Theusen’s call for historians to link activism across generations: those activists from the classical phase of the movement with those from the first generation. Rosa and Raymond Parks’s marriage is a reflection of this cross-generational politics.

In “Tainted Love: Daisy and L.C. Bates and the Personal Price of Political Activism,” John Adams highlights the personal toll encountered by the Bateses as a result of their activism. Although Daisy and L.C. initially depended on one another to achieve their political goals, the stresses of dealing with a national crisis—as well as organized backlash—depleted the couple’s political resources. Their story demonstrates how activist couples navigated and maintained their marriages while simultaneously fighting for civil rights.

Finally, Crystal Moton’s paper, “‘We, my husband and I, were a team’: Negotiating the Economic Activism of Milwaukee’s Ardie and Wilbur Halyard” complicates our story of black freedom couples. While Ardie and Wilbur were partners in every sense of the word, conventional gender notions actually obscured Ardie’s role in their financial partnership, especially as they were initially building their savings and loan business. 

Conference attendees interested in gender and civil rights movement, African American History, and Modern U.S. History are encouraged to attend our presentation.

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