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Sunday, February 1st, 2009
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Boycotts, Buses, and Passes: Black Women's Resistance in the U.S. South and South Africa

by Pamela E. Brooks

Fired Up

A review by Premilla Nadasen

Whom do we credit for the massive 1950s grassroots campaigns for racial justice that challenged South African apartheid and led to the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S.? The courage and fortitude of Nelson Mandela? The eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr.? While Mandela and King were the most visible leaders of black freedom movements in South Africa and the U.S., Pamela Brooks suggests looking not at how the men made the movements but how the movements made the men. In her view, they were movements constituted in good measure by women. Her history of the liberation struggles identifies an incipient feminism in which black women demanded equality with men, respect in their workplaces and economic security for their children. Her subjects are proud, defiant and fearless, refusing to ride segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., and gathering before the Union Buildings in Pretoria to burn the government-issued passes that controlled black women's mobility.

Because Brooks writes about parallel movements on distant continents, she enables the reader to imagine the transnational struggle for racial justice that was brewing across the globe. She highlights the cross-fertilization that energized these two mid-century struggles, but place and culture and community loom large in her story; they were the building blocks of the women's political campaigns.

Brooks carves out for these women their rightful place in the history of the black freedom movement -- one increasingly examined by scholars but still sometimes minimized. Women were not only participants and supporters, but also visionaries. They were domestic workers who walked to work for 381 days in Montgomery rather than ride segregated buses, and they were members of the Federation of South African Women who endured arrest and harassment for their opposition to apartheid. But Brooks also claims for them the mantle of feminism.

As she sees it, feminism was not separate and distinct from the struggle for racial equality, but rather an essential part of how these black women defined their own liberation. Gender profoundly influenced their experience of racism and apartheid -- whether in the form of limited job opportunities or the particular pattern of disrespect meted out to women of African descent. And gender identity became one way they established political connections, through groups such as the Montgomery-based Women's Political Council and the African National Congress' Women's League.

Boycotts, Buses, and Passes should give us pause to consider, on the heels of the election of our first African American president, not only the artificial divide between race and gender in much of the media coverage of the presidential campaign, but also the historic role of women in progressive causes and the many thousands of unsung heroines who laid the groundwork for Obama's historic victory.

Premilla Nadasen is associate professor of African American history at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States.

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