Want to Start a Revolution? Black Women Radicals Confront the Red Scare

On January 23, 2023, we hosted historian Dayo Gore in conversation with Jesse Hagopian to discuss Black women radicals who were active during the Red Scare. As one participant shared during the event, “Black women are the engine of change — were, are, and will be.”

This session was part of our monthly Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online class series. Don’t miss the 2023 lineup — register now.

Participants shared what they learned and additional reflections on the session:

The most important idea is that there were not just a few Black women leaders in our history, there were many. And we need to bring them up to the surface for all to see, learn from, and recognize. If we don’t then we are saying that they don’t exist.

I was most impacted by the roster of Black women radicals mentioned and the depth and breadth of their intellectual and political organizing despite the constellation of obstructions they faced during the era of McCarthyism.

Tonight had me considering the ways in which women’s, specifically Black women’s, contributions to movements are too often down-graded or overlooked. The view of being a helper versus a creator, a follower versus a leader, is central to how people are viewed. Tonight’s session reminded me to look for the leaders and changers in those around me that may be being pushed into the background and to help propel their voices and ideas to the forefront.

It’s powerful to learn about the buffet of organizing tactics Black radical women during the era used: due process/legal tactics, direct action, using the media, etc.

I will use these stories to empower my youth to be great thinkers for social change.

Thoughtfully organized — Dr. Gore’s speaking was riveting and I wanted to re-enroll in college at age 55 to re-engage my history learning at this level all over again!

The theoretical work that radical Black women did in the 1950s with the Communist Party did not die with McCarthyism — they carried it on in other organizations and by other means!

There is so much to process but the most important thing was to be active, show up to these school board meetings, and fight for educational rights! I learned about some new stories that I am eager to research and read about. I will be purchasing the recommended books. I am extremely grateful for this resource and tonight’s session.

I have been to many sessions and I do enjoy the time when we spend with others to help connect our learning. I greatly appreciate all of the presenters that have shared with us.

Event Recording

Recording of the full session, except for the breakout rooms.


In this ninety-second audiogram, Dr. Gore describes the legacies of struggle that Black women spearheaded during the Red Scare and beyond.


Selected remarks from session in a tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.


Many of the lessons, books, and articles recommended by the presenters and participants.


Rosa Parks and Ericka Huggins at a Black Panther Party free breakfast program.

Framing Black Power Through the Life of Rosa Parks by Tiffany Mitchell Patterson and Jessica Rucker 

Subversives: Stories from the Red Scare by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca 

Teaching With Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca 


Radicalism at the Crossroads book cover showing Black women organizing.

In addition to Dayo Gore’s Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York University Press) and Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York University Press), the following books were referenced.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby (University of North Carolina Press)

Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing edited by Jodi Dean and Charisse Burden-Stelly (Verso)

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and young readers edition by Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press)

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain (Beacon Press)

101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed US History (Haymarket Books)

Articles, Art, and Archives

graphic showing cassette tape with "International History Declassified" written on the tape.

photo of Beah Richards.

photo of Vicki Garvin.


Listen to Dayo Gore on the Wilson Center’s International History Declassified podcast, where she discusses Black women activists of the Cold War. And check out Gore’s “Eslanda Robeson’s Journey,” a review of Barbara Ransby’s Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (Haymarket Books).

Disguising Imperialism: How Textbooks Get the Cold War Wrong and Dupe Students by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series)

More than McCarthyism: The Attack on Activism Students Don’t Learn About from Their Textbooks by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series)

The Poem That Inspired Radical Black Women to Organize” by Ashawnta Jackson (JSTORY Daily)

Vicki Garvin collection at Freedom Archives

The West Oakland Mural Project
Includes the Women of the Black Panther Party Mural and the Mini Museum, created to recognize and honor the role of the BPP women and the over 60 Community Survival Programs they created and managed.

This Day In History

Robeson and Du Bois in Paris, 1949 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Sept. 29, 1951: “A Call to Negro Women” Sojourners for Truth and Justice

Dec. 17, 1951: “We Charge Genocide” Petition Submitted to United Nations

Dec. 25, 1951: Murder of Harriette and Harry Moore in Florida

March 30, 1952: Charlotta Bass Accepts U.S. VP Nomination

June 12, 1956: Paul Robeson Testifies Before HUAC

Participant Reflections

With more than 200 attendees, polls showed almost 55% were teachers or teacher educators, while another 10% of attendees were librarians and historians. Here are more comments that participants shared in their end-of-session evaluation. 

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

Oh my goodness, too many to count; I have a page full of notes. I love the paucity of frameworks and the ways Black women formed spaces of liberation and solidarity.

Black women were integral in organizing and leading grassroots organizations in the McCarthy Era. Their individual stories are impactful.

One very important idea that I will use in my classes, is to share the stories with my students using poetry and news articles written by these ladies. My students really resonate with poetry and can really see connections between the poetry and the history.

Reminder of the importance of community; activism built from collective efforts. Even when organizations disappear, the connections often sustain and inspire the next iteration.

The importance of teaching female activism and agency.

The importance of intersectionality in teaching the truth.

There were so many stories that Dr. Gore shared as well as Jesse. . . it’s hard to pick one.

There were many stories of individual women that I was not aware of. I am an immigrant to this nation; not sure if this is also a reason much of this is so new. I was struck by the connection to the Communist Party. This will be anathema to teach in Florida, however! But the parallels to McCarthyism have been helpful and inspiring.

The people doing the work aren’t often in the spotlight, but we need community to survive and to do the work.

It was all important. The most important thing was that there is a beautiful community of like-minded individuals.

What will you do with what you learned?

I will incorporate this information into the unit I am currently teaching on the novel 1984 during the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action as we connect the themes of the book to the activist struggles from Orwell’s time and today.

I really appreciated the entry points discussed and suggestions towards the final discussion. There is so much information and rich resources that suggestions for entry points and for conversation starters are really appreciated!

As a librarian I will bring more books about Black girls and women.

Grateful to have more resources to help me show students that organizing is messy and that it takes all of us!

I will teach about the intersectional racial justice work being done within the Communist Party — not separating the Civil Rights Movement and the McCarthy era.

I’ll definitely include these women as part of a project on Black radicals that my students are already doing.

I will use this in my U.S. Government class as an example of historical figures making change, to use as an example for my student’s action project about how they can make change.


Dayo F. Gore is associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Georgetown University, author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War, and co-editor of Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. Gore is a member of Scholars for Social Justice and currently working on a book length study of African American women’s transnational travels and activism in the 20th century.

Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools, the co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and on the staff of the Zinn Education Project.

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