Profiling books by and/or about Black women: Tiyi M. Morris

Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi by Tiyi M. Morris

 

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi, provides the first comprehensive examination of the Jackson, Mississippi–based women’s organization Womanpower Unlimited. Founded in 1961 by Clarie Collins Harvey, the organization was created initially to provide aid to the Freedom Riders who were unjustly arrested and then tortured in Mississippi jails. Womanpower Unlimited expanded its activism to include programs such as voter registration drives, youth education, and participation in the international organization, Women Strike for Peace. Proving to be not only a significant organization with regard to civil rights activism in Mississippi, Womanpower Unlimited also spearheaded a movement for revitalizing black women’s social and political activism in the state.

 

Womanpower Unlimited elucidates the role that the group played in sustaining the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Consistent with the recent scholarship that emphasizes the necessity of a bottom-up analysis for attaining a more comprehensive narrative of the civil rights movement, this work broadens our understanding of movement history in general by examining the roles of “local people” as well as the leadership women provided. Additionally, it contributes to a better understanding of how the movement developed in Mississippi by examining some of the lesser-known women upon whom activists, both inside and outside of the state, relied. Black women, and Womanpower members specifically, were central to movement successes in Mississippi; and Womanpower’s humanist agenda resulted in its having the most diverse agenda of a Mississippi-based civil rights organization.

 

Why I chose to write the book.

As Alice Walker writes in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, writing Womanpower Unlimited was in part an exercise in writing what I wanted to read and “what I should have been able to read.” My parents introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Fannie Lou Hamer at an early age. And until college, for the most part, these were the things I expected to read at home and not in the classroom. In college, African and African American Studies provided a new perspective to help me interpret our nation’s history and our world, in general. But I would soon learn, as Charles Payne puts it, that “sexism is a helluva thing.” Even within the context of Black Studies, Black women lacked the visibility of Black men. Luckily for me, I was young enough to benefit from the works of women such as Darlene Clark Hine, Deborah Gray White, Elsa Barkley Brown, Paula Giddings, Patricia Hill Collins, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, who centered Black women in their scholarship and validated the historical study of Black women. And, it is my responsibility, too, as an historian to continue to uncover the ways in which Black women have contributed to the Black Freedom Movement and how Black women have sustained their families, their communities, and each other.

 

That being said, there are any number of Black women who have been rendered invisible in the historical record that I could have researched. I chose this organization because I am a native Mississippian; Jackson is my hometown. Both of my parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and at one point I carpooled to school with Clarie Collins Harvey’s cousin, who lived down the street from me. And despite what was a solid education on the Civil Rights Movement as a child, I had never heard of this organization. Neither had many of the individuals I interviewed. The women who led this organization, and who were prominent figures in Jackson until their deaths, were loved and respected for a variety of reasons. But one of the key points of their activism, their work through Womanpower Unlimited, was relatively unknown. Writing this book allowed me to center Black women’s civil rights activism as not just support work, but also as mobilizing and leadership that was central to the Movement.

 

 

What learned from writing the book.

In the process of writing this book, I was constantly reminded how important it is for Black women to document, preserve, and make accessible their life stories. Clarie Collins Harvey left a wonderful collection at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, for which I am eternally grateful and without which the book likely could not have been written. But we need to encourage and help our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other women in our lives organize those papers in the basement or attic that provide insight into how they have struggled, survived, organized, (other)mothered, loved, and enjoyed life. We need those stories to preserve Black women’s legacy of activism and love and as a source of inspiration and strength for our own survival in a society that continues to degrade Black womanhood.

 

I also learned the importance of my scholarly work, a value that resides not within the context of academic accolades, but in being able to publically and with authority validate the contributions of our foremothers.

 

About the Author

Tiyi M. Morris is an Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University. She received her B.A. in African & African American Studies and Liberal Studies from Emory University, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue University. Dr. Morris has an interdisciplinary research and teaching focus that combines the fields of American History, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies. With this focus, she has taught courses such as 20th century US History; Gender, Sex and Power; Black Feminist Thought; and The Civil Rights-Black Power Movements. Her work has appeared in Southern

Black Women in the Civil Rights Era (1954-1974): A State By State Study (Texas A&M Press, 2013), Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party (IU Press, 2007), and Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America, (NYU Press, 2005). In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Morris is a board member of Women Have Options, Ohio’s statewide abortion fund, and has worked with The Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University since 2005.

 

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