Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

by Janet Dewart Bell, PhD

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GAY McDOUGALL: An Oral History

Introduction by Janet Dewart Bell: Born in 1947, McDougall has a lifelong commitment to civil and human rights that began early. In her teenage years, she was selected to become the first African American to integrate Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. During her two years there, she was the only black student at this all-girls college just outside Atlanta. She transferred to Bennington College, where she earned her undergraduate degree. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the London School of Economics.


After the Civil Rights Movement, McDougall forged a storied career in international human rights. She was the executive director of global rights for Partners for Justice and became the first United Nations expert on minority issues. McDougall was instrumental in the Free South Africa Movement's protests against apartheid from 1980 to 1994, organizing demonstrations and support groups for this cause. At the same time, she served as director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In that capacity, she worked with South African lawyers often under secrecy to protect their safety to gain the release of thou‘sands of political prisoners.


As apartheid was ending, she was named one of five international members of the South African governmental body established through the multiparty negotiations to set policy and to administer the country's first democratic, nonracial elections in 1994. The result was the election of President Nelson Mandela and the transition from apartheid.


When Nelson Mandela died, pictures captured McDougall at his side as he cast his first vote as a free South African in April 1994. In 1998, McDougall was the first American to be elected to oversee the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 1999, she was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often cited as a genius award, for her human rights work. Most recently, McDougall was a distinguished visiting professor at Fordham Law School's Leitner Center for International Law and Justice and is a member of the faculty of the Oxford University Masters of International Human Rights Law Programme. She has received honorary doctor of law degrees from six universities including Georgetown University Law Center and the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). In 2015, the government of South Africa bestowed on her its national medal of honor for non-citizens, the Order of O.R. Tambo Award, for her extraordinary contributions to ending apartheid.


Then, as now, a woman whose delicate physical appearance belies a steely will and steadfast dedication to the liberation of all oppressed peoples, she is a visionary with a restless imagination. McDougall worked on civil and human rights issues for many years before meeting and marrying John Payton, another famed civil and human rights attorney. He died in 2012.


I interviewed McDougall in her office at Fordham. Before we discussed leadership, she wanted to talk specifically about the origins of the fight for civil rights in America and to frame the international human rights struggle.

Early Social Justice Consciousness

I grew up in a family where caring about and addressing unfairness were important. I lived in a house where my great-grandfather, a minister, was a presiding elder in the AME church. Doing the right thing had concrete form in my house.


One of my aunts worked as a field organizer for the YWCA in the '40s and '50s, going across the South trying to form interracial clubs among young women a precursor, really, of the civil rights era. All those things were swirling around me. They were a part of my upbringing. When I was growing up in Atlanta, our community was two steps away from slavery. We'd go to our friends' houses in what we called the country because they had horses. In reality, they lived in shacks where the wallpaper was newspaper. They had outhouses. Poverty was everywhere.


Most of the women in my family were social workers. I would sometimes join them on home visits. There was no question that we were in a ghetto. We were aware that other people had better, but our world then was our community. Even as a child, I was very concerned about the poverty around me, but when my aunts took me around I saw our circumstances in a different light. That experience had a powerful impact on me.


We didn't have a television until I was around eight years old. We only read the African American newspaper and, of course, Jet magazine. Television quickly brought us a worldview. This was before legal segregation ended in Georgia. I remember the first time I saw the United Nations on a little black-and-white TV. There were all of these guys of course they were guys black men in their ceremonial robes from Africa, looking proud, sitting down next to people from Sweden and other countries. They were all on equal terms and they were there to make decisions. This blew me away. Seeing the UN planted in my mind that there was a larger world that was different from the Jim Crow that we lived in. It gave us the hope that fueled our protest against segregation.


In high school, I began to see some other worlds. There was a global movement that came through Atlanta very focused on gaining African American converts. It came to my high school, Washington High. It was the Moral Re-armament Movement. People had to give their personal possessions away and join this movement to re-arm morality. I was really fascinated by the call for personal financial sacrifice and the idea that people would go to other countries to help others.


All of us in the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement did our part. Marching, refusing to ride the buses, walking instead, refusing to shop at white stores—where we were not respected—wearing old clothes instead. We attended church rallies where spirits were buoyed for the marches ahead. Yes, people were scared sometimes, and there were good reasons for fear. I remember one night when the Klan encircled a church we were in, and Martin Luther King was giving a speech to rally the crowd for the next action. The Klan was outside threatening to kill anyone who came out of the church.

Taking My Place in the World

Gender discrimination was everywhere, except at home. My immediate home and my extended family were very women-dominated. Outside of home was different—in churches, schools. Schools had mostly female teachers, but only male administrators. All of the work in the church communities was done by women. My mother was superintendent of the Sunday School at our church, St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church. But the pulpit was a male preserve. That's where I can first remember taking note of the irrationality of patriarchy. Even though I was an adolescent, it was very clear to me that the pastors, the bishops, and the presiding elders were of far less leadership quality than the women who were denied equal status.


The Civil Rights Movement was not an exception, and black women's organizations acknowledged women's leadership roles. Outside of church, I was not a joiner. I was very reluctant to sign the membership card of any organization, because I did not want to be just another woman whose role was to follow the male leader. I never signed up for women's organizations either. My mother, who went to Spelman College—where sororities were prohibited—made not joining a sorority a matter of principle. My sister and I followed her lead. We wanted to define ourselves as individuals first.


I always swam upstream. I think it is very important to maintain one's intellectual integrity, not to just follow along. That's another lesson from my mother. She was impressed by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, particularly those on civil disobedience and living a life guided by your own drumbeat and principles. Explore the ideas that are different, choose the path not taken by others. Instead of learning French, why not study Russian? So I took five years of Russian-language training in high school. However, she also taught me that certain things are right and there are some things that are just wrong. You must always have a moral compass that guides you through life.

Women in the Movement

For anyone who was close enough to the Movement to see actual preparations going on for protests, marches, and events like the Poor People's Campaign, I think it would be hard to conclude that women weren't playing traditional roles, that is, showing up in large numbers and handling the infrastructure work. Nothing could have happened without the infrastructure work. Most women didn't get recognized or named, largely, unless they were Coretta King. But they we were there. Building infrastructure, that's everything. It is the work that builds a movement. Community organizing, passing out flyers, providing food and accommodations, keeping people comfortable, tending to their needs. Singing the songs was also very important. Transporting people to the gathering places. When families came, it was the mother who brought the family, not the father. Women's contributions were substantial.


There were women who eventually emerged as leading figures. Fannie Lou Hamer, even in her time, was celebrated for her contribution. Everybody would say that. But there were so many others. Dorothy Height made sure that she was not ignored. Ella Baker. Emmett Till's mother, Mamie. Rosa Parks. Diane Nash was a hero,and a prominent leader in the Nashville student movement. Angela Davis. Kathleen Cleaver's substantive contributions were not celebrated to the extent they should have been during that time. She is remembered now more for her iconic looks and her connection to Eldridge rather than for her brilliant mind and her hard work on the Panthers' programs to support the black community's social needs. These are all exceptional women and we must take every opportunity to say their names. And they stand on the shoulders of many others whose names we do not know. But they made tremendous contributions of activism, courage, and thought leadership with little or no public recognition. Most did not seek the recognition, but it still matters that it has remained elusive.

Confronting Sexism

I recently had an argument with this young man who has written a biography of Stokely Carmichael. I took him on about Stokely's sexism, and the author went berserk. Stokely was a sexist? No, no, no, there's one phrase that everybody knows, he said in jest, as a joke in some situation, and it's just followed him.* I said he'd never taken it back.


You look at the leadership of the West Coast Panthers until you get to Elaine Brown, who finally says to everybody after the Movement is over, Hey, these guys were so sexist.


The Anti-Apartheid Movement was also sexist. Being the executive director of the Southern African Project of the Lawyers' Committee, which was my own shop, allowed me to have autonomy and to set the terms for my involvement in specific activities. My organization had unique access to people inside South Africa, which most other U.S.-based anti-apartheid groups did not have. Both the autonomy and the connections inside the country gave me a kind of standing to do my own thing.


When male leaders tell the history of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, I am mostly overlooked. But not only was I there for every important event, I played an important role in every event. I was there on the night we planned the tactic to stage a sit-in at the South African embassy that would result in high-profile arrests. I was there every day for the entire year, rain or shine, in the demonstration lines outside of the embassy and acting as one of the legal counsel representing those who were arrested to get them out of jail. I also staged a Lawyers Against Apartheid Day and organized upwards of a thousand lawyers to march, many of them from corporate law firms with their attaché cases in tow.


At the same time, I was raising millions of dollars from international donors and secretly sending it into South Africa and Namibia to lawyers there to pay for them to defend political prisoners and to file litigation that challenged apartheid structures.


I met my husband, John Payton, the first day I moved to Washington, in 1980. It was love at first sight. We had been called to a meeting hosted by Randall Robinson at TransAfrica. It was a very small group, maybe there were six of us, convened to think about strategies to use in our anti-apartheid activities. We talked about going into the embassy, sitting down, and refusing to leave. Five years later, it was the strategy that really loosened up the political space and gave members of Congress the political will to pass sanctions legislation and to override a veto by President Ronald Reagan. John was very involved already in the things that I thought were important, and he became involved even more. He was the chief lawyer of the Washington Movement, and did that brilliantly. When the liberation movements named me to be a member on the Electoral Commission that organized and ran the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, John came with me for the year I needed to relocate to Johannesburg. He also led a team of monitors that observed the elections in the South African Bantustan Bophuthatswana.


We were companions and each other's closest advisor. The nicest thing John ever said to me was that I was always skipping ahead of his imagination. And, you know, that also showed what our bonds were about, what we gave to each other.

Standing Up to Make the Difference

While in college, I worked for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in its heyday. I was attached to the office of the General Counsel in the Washington, D.C., headquarters, but I also did field work in Alabama and Texas. That was really fantastic. In those days the commission was bold; it was ready to be out there and lead the charge. Filled with people who had new ideas and worked hard and really wanted to get the job done. As I traveled, going across Alabama and Texas, I saw things I will never forget. We were looking for the human stories about life as African Americans and Mexican Americans living in those southern states during those times. We needed to know what the issues were, find people willing to testify in public. Then we would set up a hearing for presentations to the commissioners. It was an absolutely spectacular job for me at that age. My work on the Civil Rights Commission helped me to decide that I was going to be a lawyer, and that I was going to be a civil and human rights lawyer.


My participation as an African American in the struggle against apartheid was unique. I was involved both here in the United States and in South Africa. I worked in South Africa to free political prisoners, and then later with the multiparty congress on behalf of Mandela's African National Congress party to write the constitution. I was later put on the sixteen-member commission that actually ran the elections, and I was there with Mandela when he voted for the first time. I was also involved in the independence of Namibia.

Namibia has a similar but different story.


One of the things that is very important—and it sounds very simple, but it's the starting point is that all those African freedom movements started from inside their countries. The critical thing is to support the people on the ground, helping them in ways that they need. I was able to surreptitiously bring large amounts of cash into South Africa to pay the lawyers. I also did backup research they could use in their cases. I did the same thing during the constitution-making process. The credit for their independence goes to black South Africans. It's all them, but you can find ways to help. That's the best outcome.


In my life, I've learned that no advancement comes from one person alone. There has to be a number of people, a critical mass, willing to stand up, and sometimes do more than just stand up, to make the difference. There are some skills to leadership, but true leaders do not exist without other people who build the infrastructure. Another observation I have is that most of the groundwork is done by women—and women must learn to demand their recognition.


*Stokely Carmichael, SNCC leader and later Black Power proponent, joked that the proper position of women in SNCC is prone.

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