Remembering Jane Crow in January and Always
“To be alive at such an epoch is a privilege, to be a woman then is sublime.” These are the words of scholar and activist, Anna Julia Cooper. Her historical assessment is piercing as she wrestles with the “unproclaimed influence of black women” in her book, A Voice from the South by A Black Woman from the South. Cooper’s work is the earliest published by an African American woman in her era. While calling the roll of black women who have made strides in the American landscape, Cooper acknowledges that their labor goes without laud. The productivity and activism of black women must no longer go unnoticed or unheralded. In an age as such, womanhood is indeed sublime. It was then. It is now.
Women newly elected to Congress have taken their rightful legislative seats. The cohort includes two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota. Native American Representatives, Deb Haaland from New Mexico and Sharice Davis of Kansas, join this group. Annals note that beginning with Shirley Chisholm of New York to most recently mother-turned-activist, Lucia McBath of Georgia, over forty black women have been elected to Congress. Twenty black women currently serve in the House of Representatives, and Kamala Harris, who is biracial, posts in the Senate.
This is worth noting particularly as the country turns to honoring the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The nation will pivot to recall King’s activism and preaching prowess. The fruit of his frontline presence during the civil rights movement cannot be overlooked. Let us not forget that his wife, Coretta Scott King, was on the same lines. In a socio-political parallel akin to what Cooper posits, the presence of the sisters took a back seat as the brothers drove the racial uplift vehicle. Male leaders chose not to couple race work with sexism fight. The legacy of Pauli Murray points to this contradistinction.
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was a lawyer, activist, poet, and close acquaintance of Eleanor Roosevelt. She co-founded the National Organization of Women with feminist Betty Freidan. Many may not associate Murray with King and justice demand. However, she organized sit-ins while a law student at Howard University and had a longtime relationship with Bayard Rustin who himself was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963.
At Howard, Murray discovered that socially forward challenges were not only yoked to race, but such movement was also wedded to gender. The all-male faculty and student body exposed Murray to a different type of oppression and marginalization. Whereas the tenor among many black people was the urgency to decapitate Jim Crow, Murray’s own experiences at Howard and strivings with her sexuality and gender brought to the surface degradation she coined “Jane Crow.” “Jane Crow” subverted any efforts to advance the social, economic, political, and racial status specifically of black women.
Even the March on Washington shined a light on the ugliness of Jane Crow. Black women leaders such as Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, and even Murray, had laid the groundwork and planted the resistance seeds for the day. Nonetheless, no woman was allowed to speak. Murray quotes Rustin as saying “Women were a part of all groups represented on the podium.” It is ironic that Rustin as a closeted gay black man in the 1960s would justify this decentering. The next day black women gathered and had their say. Murray determined that human rights would be her impetus lest the black woman become invisible.
Murray and Cooper expressed a similar sentiment almost eighty years apart. And still the refusal to honor black women in the public square had not changed.
Women who ran roughshod through the 2018 mid-term elections have inaugurated tenures fighting for the publics that trust them to do right by them. Now is the time that this work from the loins of womanhood, from lesbian, gay, transgendered persons, from varying religious traditions and trajectories to shine and dissipate the darkness seeking to make it invisible, insignificant, and inconsequential.
May this be the epoch for the exceedingly extraordinary.
 Anna Julia Cooper, “The Status of Women in America,” in A Voice from the South by A Black Woman in the South, (Xenia, OH: Aldine Printing House, 1892), 143.
 Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, (Oxford University Press, 2017), 267.