Rebecca Tuuri: Black Women’s Political Power (and Pragmatism)

Strategic Sisterhood by Rebecca TuuriToday we welcome a guest post by Rebecca Tuuri, author of Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, just published by UNC Press.

When women were denied a major speaking role at the 1963 March on Washington, Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), organized her own women’s conference for the very next day. Defying the march’s male organizers, Height helped harness the womanpower waiting in the wings. Height’s careful tactics and quiet determination come to the fore in this first history of the NCNW, the largest black women’s organization in the United States at the height of the civil rights, Black Power, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Offering a sweeping view of the NCNW’s behind-the-scenes efforts to fight racism, poverty, and sexism in the late twentieth century, Rebecca Tuuri examines how the group teamed with U.S. presidents, foundations, and grassroots activists alike to implement a number of important domestic development and international aid projects.

Strategic Sisterhood is now available in both print and ebook editions.


Black Women’s Political Power (and Pragmatism)

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’s surprise win over Republican Roy Moore in the December 2017 special election for Jeff Session’s vacant Senate seat has been explained by many factors, but one of the most important has been the crucial role that black women played in Jones’s victory. According to a Washington Post exit poll, 98% of black women voted for Jones. In the days leading up to the election, the controversial judge Moore, expecting to defeat his opponent in spite of sexual misconduct allegations against Moore, claimed that the election was in God’s hands. After Jones’s victory, author J.K. Rowling quipped that God must be a black woman. Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with surprise at and praise for the powerful mobilization of black women voters, but black women have long been highly engaged in both formal and informal political activity. My book Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle seeks to illuminate the longstanding political and social justice work of the National Council of Negro Women, one of the oldest and largest black women’s organizations at the height of the civil rights, Black Power, and feminist movements.

In 1935 Mary McLeod Bethune called together representatives from nearly thirty black women’s sororities, social organizations, and auxiliaries to create the NCNW as an organization of organizations. Bethune was a powerful presence in Washington, D.C. and the Deep South, as she helped found a school for black girls in 1904 (with only $1.50 and five students) that would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University. She also served in appointed positions under presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her most famous appointment was that of Director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration under Roosevelt. As a highly respected black leader with access to the president, she led the group of black political appointees and consultants known as the “Black Cabinet,” despite being the only woman of the group. Her newly created NCNW was meant to act as a lobbying body to speak on behalf of black women’s concerns, becoming involved in anti-lynching, voter registration, and desegregation activism, and serving as the only black women’s organization represented at the formation of the United Nations. In short, NCNW ensured that black women’s interests were represented both at home and abroad.

While the council was often excluded from formal leadership and recognition in the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement, it sponsored initiatives to bring women of all races, religions, and eventually classes together to fight on behalf of black communities. One of the most significant programs that the NCNW developed and sponsored from 1966 to 1968 was named Project Womanpower. As Black Power became the rallying cry of the black freedom movement in the late 1960s, this project united both establishment and grassroots black women leaders from around the country to boost their activist power. NCNW hired young women like Prathia Hall, Doris Dozier, Gwendolyn Robinson, and Frances Beal, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Students for a Democratic Society, as staff to draw in participants from around the country. Through this and other initiatives, the NCNW boosted its membership, created poverty programming in local communities, and established itself as one of the most vibrant black women’s organizations in the country.

Yet while the NCNW fostered black self-determination, it was also pragmatic (much like the voters in Doug Jones’ victory). Unlike other more radical groups that have come and gone during NCNW’s eighty-two-year-long existence, the NCNW fought for black women to be integrated into mainstream American society by opening up the workplace, political office, and homeownership to black women. They believed that reform, instead of separatism was the best approach for achieving black power. After receiving tax-exempt status, NCNW applied for and won grants from white-dominated federal organizations and private foundations. Its members certainly recognized the limitations of an integrationist strategy, but their approach helped them win funding, which they later transferred to more radical black-led initiatives. The NCNW’s work clearly shows the value of taking seriously black women’s pragmatic political work. But the women of the NCNW, just like the black women voters in Alabama, expect that their election of white leaders will lead to better resources and representation for black communities. And if it does not, they can–and will–withdraw their powerful support.


Rebecca Tuuri is assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.  You can read her earlier UNC Press blog post here.