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Examining the role of Black women in the civil rights movement

A film screening and discussion highlighted the specific struggles Black women faced to make their voices heard

May 18, 2022

The movie
The movie "Reflections Unheard" gives voice to the Black Women during the tumultuous civil rights era

In ongoing efforts to celebrate women’s relentless pursuit of having an honored voice in history, the Mount community was invited to a screening of a portion of 1977’s “Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights” by director Nevline Nnaji, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker.  The event was cosponsored by several academic programs -- ethnic studies; film studies; and women and gender studies – as well as the Center for the Advancement of Women and the Bernadette Gonzaque Robert Center for Equity, Diversity and Justice.

The virtual gathering was hosted by Kimberly Nao, PhD, associate professor, education, and director, Induction and Instructional Leadership and the Fritz Burns Endowed Chair. Nao explained that students some of the sponsoring classes had been reading stories by authors with similar struggles as the ones portrayed in the film. 

Film director Nevline Nnaji proudly holds the DVD of her documentary,
Film director Nevline Nnaji proudly holds the DVD of her documentary, "Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights"

“We’ve been engaging with these authors and other women of color as they forged a way to advocate for their concerns,” Nao said, “while the feminist movement often excluded their concerns, as well as those of lesbians, trans women and working-class women. These women fought for issues that directly affected their lives as women while often facing sexism and misogyny in their own communities.”

“Reflections Unheard” focuses on the lesser-known struggles of Black women’s political marginalization as told through mostly Black female civil rights activists, who were trapped between the male-dominated Black Power movement and the predominantly white, middle class feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, which not only overlooked women of color but also the specific issues of LBGTQ women.

The film combined reflections from participants in the Civil Rights movement as well as archival footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s, focusing on the work of individuals affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Black Panther Party, the National Black Feminist Organization and Third World Women’s Alliance. Commentary was provided by Frances Beale, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, Helen Reddy, Judy Richardson, Deborah Singletary, ad Maxine Waters, among others.

“History is more often than not shared from the male/masculine perspective,” Nnaji said. “We see this phenomenon happening in all areas of life, not just pertaining to civil rights stories. There is, however, a rising emergence of women’s stories, as well as the feminine perspective. Reflections Unheard centers the historical focus on black women. By giving voice to our unique stories, perspectives, and experiences, we re-shape historical narratives, creating and maximizing space for ourselves in the world.”

Nnaji is a founding member of New Negress Film Society, which supports Black women filmmakers.

“Reflections Unheard” focuses on issues ranging from health care to reproductive rights to inequities in the workplace and their roles at home. The overriding feeling of the women interviewed was that white women didn’t understand their specific struggles. The common attitude from men was even worse, as they felt that no woman had legitimate concerns regarding civil rights. For example, their feeling about women seeking equal pay or advancement opportunities at work was that women didn’t need to work and that their attempt to joining the workforce was nothing more than a lark. The feminist movement eventually became more inclusive.

“I loved hearing from these richly diverse women,” Krishauna Hines-Gaither, PhD, vice president of diversity, justice and equity, said after the screening. “It’s sad that they were fighting for so many of the same issues that we lament today.  When we consider the Civil Rights Movement, we often herald the same voices, and predominantly men. ‘Reflections Unheard’ disrupted this pattern. Filmmaker Nevline Nnaji brought the contributions of Black women activists from the margins to the center.  While honoring the experiences of women of color, she also illuminated the intersections that their work had with other social movements, such as feminism.” 

The DVD cover to the movie
The DVD cover to the movie

Tonya Michelle, interim executive assistance to the vice president of student affairs, shared the views of Hines-Gaither. “We have moved the needle, but we have so far to go,” said Michelle. “It was an excellent film that gave really great insight into the movement and the role of Black women. Black women were fighting and are still fighting racism and sexism. We need to tackle racism first and women’s rights second.”

“Reflections Unheard” served as an important reminder of the power of the medium to document social unrest that can serve as a barometer as to what progress we have – or have not – made. As Kelli Agner MS ’97, fieldwork coordinator for the educator department, remarked, “Thank you for a film that reminds us about being human.”

The full film can be viewed through the library’s streaming channel. The run time is 81 minutes.

 

 

 

Note: Other recent events celebrating historic contributions of women include:

  • An in-person Mount celebration of the American Women Quarters program minting a quarter featuring world renowned writer and activist Maya Angelou.
  • A screening of the movie “Maestra,” which documents the 1961 year-long campaign to eliminate illiteracy in Cuba. This documentary can also be viewed by anyone using their Mount credentials.