Louise Day Hicks, a leader of the movement against busing to achieve desegregation in public schools, during her campaign for Boston City Council in 1969.
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retrieval / memory

The Women Behind White Power

The history of the nation’s racism lets its most effective foot soldiers off the hook.
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As is the case with so much of history, stories about the nation’s racism have focused on the dramatic, not the daily, on the speechifiers, not the low-level campaigners: In school, we study Klan violence and elected officials like Mr. Eastland and Governor George Wallace of Alabama.
 
But it is the mundane and the persistent that make movements. Often, this work is done by women who are later overlooked; in the case of the civil rights struggle, for instance, women like Jo Ann Robinson and Georgia Gilmore fund-raised for and organized the Montgomery bus boycott. Their efforts, however, have often been eclipsed by stories emphasizing the rise of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In minimizing the grass-roots work of women, the framing of white supremacist politics was no different. Just as Ms. Robinson and Ms. Gilmore led the 1955-56 boycott of buses in Alabama, in the 1970s, women like Louise Day Hicks led the antibusing crusades in the North, in an effort to avoid the desegregation of Boston public schools. While men debated in legislative chambers and listened to challenges on the bench, women headed to school cafeterias, playgrounds and PTA meetings, doing the bulk of the behind-the-scenes work of supporting the politics of segregation.

White women organized precinct gatherings to pressure their politicians to uphold Jim Crow laws. They transformed their homes into centers of bureaucratic efficiency — copying fliers, assigning neighborhoods for petition drives and scheduling protest shifts at elementary schools and bus garages.

It was also women who shaped the way segregation, white supremacy and ideas about racial identity were knitted into the fabric of their communities. Working as midwives, teachers and social workers, women policed the racial identity of babies, students and clients to ensure that the dividing line between white and black remained intact. And across the nation, women-led groups like Patriotic American Youth and the Women for Constitutional Government and Pro America spread the message to the next generation that opposition to racial equality was about states’ rights and limited government, not white supremacy.
 
If narratives about white supremacy have been shaped by the overwhelmingly masculine lens through which we examine practically all political movements, there are also aspects of white supremacy that make it different.
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