|English | Español||March 24, 2017 | Issue #67|
US Civil Rights-Era Leader Mary King Says Successful Social Movements Expand Space for Other Struggles
Paper Penned by King Helped to Spark Modern Women’s Movement
By Alice Driver
Mary King at the inaugural dinner of the 2013 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. DR 2013 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
From a tiny spark, the kind produced by pure belief in something and by the wild and willful certainty of youth, Mary King, while with the SNCC, is credited with helping to plant a seed for the modern women’s rights movement.
King spoke recently about that history while attending the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism — an intensive workshop focused on journalism and social movements held in Mexico from April 17-27.
King joined the SNCC in 1962 at the age of 22. Two years later, in 1964, she and fellow SNCC member Casey Hayden co-wrote a two page position paper which was titled “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo.” The paper represented “our own self-awakening as a byproduct of working in the freedom movement,” King said in a recent interview at the school.
“We awoke to the fact that we needed to work on our own liberation,” added King, a professor and guest lecturer at the school.
Although King and Hayden were initially afraid to sign the paper they coauthored, fearing ridicule, the duo eventually put their names on it and sent the document to 44 women working in the peace and civil rights movement.
“Sex and Caste” makes parallels between the situation of African Americans and that of women in the United States, and argues that both should be treated as equals before the law and in society. Historians now credit the document with creating momentum for the second wave of feminism in the United States — the first wave washing across the nation in the early decades of the 20th century with the women’s suffrage movement.
In the decades since the four influential years during which King worked for the SNCC, she has played a significant role in both political and public life in the United States. She held senior positions in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, including overseeing the worldwide operations of the Peace Corps; wrote the book Freedom Song about her experience in the civil rights movement; and is currently a professor at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.
King credits her formative experiences in the SNCC — the strategies she learned for organizing people, for collaborating in a non-hierarchal way, for making speeches — with giving her the skills to serve the people of the country.
When King gives a speech, she is both poised and extremely present, as if she cared about nothing more than the moment at hand and the audience in front of her. She also possesses a passion for language and exercises great precision in its use. In a plenary at the school, King described one tactic employed by the SNCC, which faced long odds of succeeding, as “a very slender reed” to which they all had to cling.
Mary King, introduced by professor Bill Conroy to the Investigative Journalism Workgroup at the School of Authentic Journalism, where she gave a presentation on memoir writing about social movements. DR 2013 Carolina Mascareño Orellana.
As King explains it, the civil rights movement created the “tinder to end the war in Vietnam, the colonial war; [and to help spark] the environmental movement and the modern women’s movement.”
This statement reflects King’s belief that women’s rights are an inherent element of human rights, her belief that issues of justice are interconnected in ways that affect all of us profoundly.
When asked about her current involvement in women’s rights issues, she explained: “For me it’s completely organic. It’s a part and parcel of everything. I could never pigeonhole it.”
One of the direct and concrete results of King and Hayden’s “Sex and Caste” was that it inspired the creation of the first rape-crisis centers in the United States. A number of the women who read the manifesto started consciousness raising groups.
“Part of what happened was the legitimization of women coming together to discuss concerns, issues, matters, related to rights, discrimination, status, self perception. It legitimated all of that, it made it important and significant,” King said. Those very groups were later involved in the foundation of the first rape crisis centers.
This was the same time period in which Gloria Steinem came to be defined as the face of the women’s rights movement. King lamented the fact that the women’s rights movement as we know it today has remained centered in New York and is led by urban activists because the movement has failed to adequately address the issues of other groups, such as rural women.
While talking about contemporary women’s rights, human rights movements and protests during one of her talks at the school, King also weighed in on the use of technology and addressed the use of the terms Facebook revolution and Twitter revolution.
She argued that although all nonviolent movements appropriate the latest technology, that the use of those terms takes agency away from the people.
“I think the media has done a great disservice by talking about social media as if they were formative or regenerative or as if they shaped the contents of these movements,” she said.
However, King recognizes that technology will always be a central part of movements “because of the fundamental need to explain clearly what the grievance is.”
“What is the wrong? What is the injustice? What is it that you want changed? If you can’t get that across clearly you really have very little hope of significant change.”
Although communications mediums have changed with the advance of technology, the importance of crafting an effective message for those mediums — one that has the power to challenge the status quo — has remained a constant across time.
For King, her formative years in the civil rights movement, working side by side with the likes of the regal Ella Baker, a key civil rights-era figure who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, informed both her sense of justice and equality, not only in the fight for equal rights for African Americans, but also in the awareness that women were treated as second class citizens. As King describes it, the connection between the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement has been “very profound.”
“This is something that happens with social movements incidentally,” she said. “They awaken other movements. They enlarge the political space for others to work on other forms of political justice.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism