In October 1991, before #MeToo, American viewers, both male and female, watched the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with growing discomfort as an all-male panel of U.S. senators questioned a young Black woman, Anita Hill (now 65),in live televised hearings about details of her allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her while she was his legal advisor at the Department of Education Office and EEOC. She’d gone public after an FBI interview with her leaked to the press.
Long and embarrassing were the sessions of questioning, during which Hill (then 35) remained poised and forthcoming: Thomas was narrowly confirmed, 52-48, but her testimony shrouded his character for decades to come and knocked down an initial barrier to #MeToo. Anita Hill, a Yale Law alum, is now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University. (She was the baby in a family of 13 children.)
Claudette Colvin (now 82) is called the original Rosa Parks by those who have heard of her. At age 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, March 2, 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the white section of a crowded bus while a standing white woman refused to sit in empty seats across the aisle because “if she sat down on the same row as me it would mean I was as good as her….
“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman on the other — saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,” she later told Newsweek. “We’d been studying the constitution,” Colvinsaid. “I knew I had rights. A white rider yelled from the front, ‘You got to get up!’ A girl answered from the back, ‘She ain’t got to do nothin’ but stay black and die.’” Nine months later, Rosa Parks became a legend for doing the same thing. In June 1956 Montgomery’s buses were desegregated. In December 2021, 66 years after her arrest, a judge wiped Claudette Colvin’s record clean.
Marian Wright Edelman (now 82) founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973 when she was 34, its mission being to Leave No Child Behind®. Named after the great singer/activist Marian Anderson, she was the youngest of five children growing up in a segregated South Carolina community, singing and taking dance lessons, instilled by her parents with a strong sense of service to others. And she was very bright. Edelman was the first Black American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1964. She also helped found the Head Start program in 1965. She was the first Black woman elected to the Yale board of trustees in 1971.
For CDF, Edelman worked for decades persuading Congress to overhaul foster care. In February 2018 the Family First Prevention Services Act, tucked inside a massive spending bill, was signed by President Trump. Family First promotes keeping families together and regulates placing children in institutional settings or group homes. It’s the most expansive overhaul of foster care in four decades. In October 2020, Congress honored Marian Edelman and CDF’s work protecting children in the welfare system.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was the first Black woman to write a play staged on Broadway. When she was only 28, the 1959 Broadway production of Raisin in the Sun, her best-known work, won the New York Drama Critics Circle’s Best Play award before going on to film adaptations and TV. Based on her own family’s violent experience after moving into a white neighborhood in Chicago in 1937 (Lorraine was seven), Raisin is still viewed as one of the 20th century’s most notable works of drama.
An early activist for equal rights regardless of sex, she was a closet lesbian until sealed personal documents and letters revealed the fact 50 years after her death, as directed in her will. Lorraine Hansberry died at age 34 of pancreatic cancer.
Lola Smith-Jones (now 10) was a precocious five-year-old from Seattle who loved playing dress-up when her mother Christi, an amateur photographer, first came up with the idea of helping Lola understand Black History Month 2017 by dressing her up as a different Black female icon every day in February. The images went viral. Among the transformations: Rosa Parks (mug shot); Sojourner Truth; Ida B. Wells; Toni Morrison; Harriet Tubman; Dr. Mae Jemison; Mary McLeod Bethune; Zora Neale Hurston; Shirley Chisholm; and Misty Copeland — 28 in all.
They borrowed wigs and glasses and rummaged through the attic for costumes. Most of the shots were edited on her mother’s iPhone. Lola Smith-Jones is still dressing up every February, believing she can be anything she wants “ and you can change your mind — you don’t have to be the same thing forever.” Maybe Lola will grow up to alter the course of civil rights in a way no one else ever imagined.