Emilye Crosby's Bottom-Up Approach to the History of Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Emilye Crosby’s Bottom-Up Approach to the History of Women in the Civil Rights Movement

By Brandy Simula

As part of King Week 2012, the Center for Women sponsored a panel of academics and activists who reflected on women’s participation in the civil rights movement. Panelist Emilye Crosby—professor of history and coordinator of Africana/black studies at SUNY–Geneseo and a visiting scholar at Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference—talked with me about her current research project, a history of women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s and early 1980s, Crosby went to community events and heard her teachers talk about their participation in the civil rights movement. These early experiences introduced her to the movement in southwest Mississippi, which later became the subject of her first book, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi.

Drawing on community studies, Crosby uses what she calls a “bottom-up” approach to historical research. “The civil rights movement looks very different depending on whether you look at it through a top-down lens focusing on things like the court cases and legislation or major leaders like King and very visible events or whether you look at it at the ground level, from the bottom up, and see what people did on a day-to-day basis and what was important to them,” she says.

In her current project, Crosby uses this bottom-up approach to explore the day-to-day work life and experiences of women who participated in SNCC. She explains that within SNCC, there was a “real opening up of space” for women to do a wide range of work. “People in SNCC weren’t immune to the larger society’s ideas about gender, but it was an organization and a time when there was space for women to do, as Jean Wheeler Smith says, 'anything they were big enough to do,'"Crosby says. SNCC was unique among civil rights movement organizations, she explains, because it was much less hierarchical and less dominated by male leadership.

Emilye CrosbyCrosby is currently exploring the variety of forms of women’s leadership in SNCC. As an organization, SNCC “believed very strongly in developing leadership in others, so they worked with people in communities and tried to help identify existing leadership” among people who were not necessarily traditional leaders, she explains. SNCC focused on organizing people but also on helping them to develop their own leadership skills and “their own ability to fight for self-determination and to define the issues that were significant for them,” Crosby says. “Within the context of SNCC’s organizing, often the leadership that emerged was more likely to be poorly educated (in a formal sense), more likely to be women, more likely to be people who didn’t previously have status in the larger community,” she says. If you take the traditional top-down approach, Crosby explains, you would see that the chair of SNCC was a position always held by men and might miss the variety of forms women’s leadership took within the organization.

SNCC’s emphasis on recognizing and developing leadership among nontraditional leaders was, in part, the result of Ella Baker’s influence. Baker had worked for the NAACP and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organized the meeting at which SNCC was organized. Baker continued to serve as an advisor to SNCC for many years, and her commitment to grassroots organization rather than centralized leadership played a critical role in SNCC’s approach to leadership. “Baker’s ideas about people having a voice and determining for themselves what needed to be done, her focus on developing nontraditional leaders, helped shape SNCC, and all of these are key to creating space for women—whether they’re the young women in SNCC or the women in the communities that they organized,” she explains.

Women in SNCC, Crosby says, “were in many ways at the heart of some of the most important ways that the movement helped to transform our country.”

Brandy Simula is a doctoral candidate in Emory’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and is the Center for Women’s 2011–2012 Graduate Fellow.