Exhibit honors 20 women for contributions to civil rights

Published 10:33 pm Saturday, March 15, 2008

A veteran civil rights leader says this year’s Democratic presidential field represents what she and others who have worked for equal rights have long anticipated.

Myrlie Evers-Williams was in Cincinnati on Friday to preview a new Smithsonian traveling exhibit called “Freedom’s Sisters” that showcases the pivotal roles that she and 19 other black women have played in the struggle for civil rights.

Referring to the strong candidacies of a woman and a black man, Evers-Williams said: “I knew this day would come; it was a matter of when.”

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She said people need to look at the candidacies of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in one sense as the result of years of work by many people — including those represented in the exhibit — who have struggled for equal rights, regardless of race or gender.

“It’s more than time for this to happen,” Evers-Williams said.

Fellow civil rights activists and exhibit honorees Dorothy Height, Sonia Sanchez and Charlayne Hunter-Gault also attended the preview and ribbon-cutting at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where the exhibit opens to the public Saturday. The four, along with activist and university professor Kathleen Cleaver, are the only living women among 20 whose lives are chronicled in the exhibit.

Evers-Williams’ husband, NAACP leader Medgar Evers, was assassinated in their driveway in Mississippi in 1963, and she continued her activism after his death. She served as chairwoman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and become the first black female commissioner of public works in Los Angeles.

Height, who was elected president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957, was often the only woman attending top civil rights meetings in the 1950s and 1960s. Poet and playwright Sanchez was a leading voice in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, while journalist Hunter-Gault and another student won a court case enabling them in 1961 to become the first black students at the University of Georgia.

Height, 95, said she also was thrilled to live to see the strong candidacies of a black man and a woman and to see an exhibit honoring some of the many black women who have contributed to the growth of civil rights — women she said have not always received enough recognition for their efforts.

“When I look back and see all these women who always had a positive outlook and knew what could happen, it makes me so grateful to be part of this,” Height said. “I hope the young people seeing these stories will realize that we have come a long way, but we also have a long way to go.”

The exhibition was created by the Cincinnati Museum Center in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and made possible by a grant from the Ford Motor Co. Fund. It is for all ages, but is aimed primarily at young people — especially those in upper elementary school and middle school grades.

“We wanted to give young visitors a chance to walk into history and understand the incredibly important role these women played,” Fredie Adelman, director of exhibits with the Smithsonian traveling service, said.

The exhibition includes large-scale photos of the women accompanied by information about their contributions and several interactive displays.

Included are well-known women such as Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 led to the end of segregation in public transportation and helped spark the civil rights movement. But also honored are women who may not be as well known — like educator Septima Poinsette Clark.

Clark, fired in 1956 after 40 years as a South Carolina teacher because of her NAACP membership, later started the Citizenship Schools that taught adults reading and writing skills required to pass voter literacy tests.

Clark’s granddaughter traveled from her home in Atlanta to see the exhibit. She said it would have made her grandmother very proud, but she also would have been very humble.

“She didn’t think anyone should think big things of her,” said Yvonne Clark, who cried when she saw the exhibit. “She just did what she felt was the right thing to do.”

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