People’s Historians Online: Black Feminist Organizing: 1950s to the 21st Century

On May 29, the weekly People’s Historians Online session on the history of feminist organizing was held as the nationwide rebellion in protest of police brutality was on everyone’s hearts and minds. Barbara Ransby talked about the activism of Mamie Till Mobley when her teenage son Emmett Till was lynched and attendees immediately thought of the parents of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, who had been murdered by police or vigilantes in recent weeks. In their evaluations, participants noted the importance of coming together at this time:

Honestly, this was an hour of love and catharsis for me. I definitely thought differently about how to encourage my young people and how to teach them about their own ability to organize and their own power. But I really felt renewed and empowered by this community, particularly today.

Thank you for making the explicit connections to what is happening today. This history is important, but what makes it powerful is learning to apply what previous generations have fought and died for to improve conditions today for the future generations.

First, THANK YOU, this moment, this day, as the fires of rebellion swirl around us all, was a blessing. Wherever one is along their respective continuum of educational activism, humility is key to any effort to move forward. I am grateful for the work to make this richly textured and nuanced opportunity for learning/reflection available.

Ransby reminded us that the role of being an educator is not a neutral one. “I am an activist and a teacher,” she said. “I share my political beliefs with my students. Not to indoctrinate them, but how cynical would it be to say, ‘I’ve spent all this time studying and I have no position on what is right?’ That would be irresponsible to our students.”

We offer below highlights of the session, a full video recording, recommended resources, and participant feedback.


Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.



Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants in the chat box.

ella baker book cover

Books by Barbara Ransby

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.

Related Books

Amplify: Graphic Narratives of Feminist Resistance by Norah Bowman, Meg Braem, and Dominique Hui

A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph

Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark by Katherine Mellen Charron

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner

Haymarket Books Against Policing & Mass Incarceration (list)

How We Get Free: Black Feminism & the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor

Making Face Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative & Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color edited by Glora Anzaldua

Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin

This Bridge Called My Back, Fourth Edition: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation edited by Gloria Anzaldua and AnaLouise Keating

Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall

Angela Davis


Rose Brewer Mandy Carter | Septima Clark | Angela Davis | Erica Garner-SnipesEricka Huggins | Mamie Till Mobley | Pauli Murray | Gloria Richardson


Black Lives Matter at School | Black Mamas Bailout | BYP 100 | Combahee River Collective | Dream Defenders! | Harriet’s Daughters | Project South | Scholars for Social Justice | Southerners on New Ground


Standing on My Sister’s Shoulders Documentary film on women in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.

Articles and Statements

Combahee River Collective Statement “The Combahee River Collective Statement is a wonderful text to use in your classroom, particularly paired with the 10 point platform from the Black Panthers,” — session participant Andre Gilford

“I am one dedicated person working for freedom”: Septima P. Clark’s Contributions to Social Justice Adult Education at Highlander Folk School by Lisa Baumgartner

It’s Time We Celebrate Ella Baker Day by Mark Engler

Movement for Black Lives’ Demands RE: COVID-19


Beyond Suffrage: “A Unifying Principle” Understanding Intersectionality in Women’s Activism Primary documents with exploration and discussion questions, from the Museum of the City of New York

Teaching SNCC: The Organization at the Heart of the Civil Rights Revolution by Adam Sanchez. A series of role plays that explore the history and evolution of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including freedom rides and voter registration.

Women of the Day by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca. A high school teacher looks at how a daily activity focusing on the representation of women helped transform her classroom.


Poem About My Rights by activist June Jordan. The poem “is a masterclass on inter-sectional and anti-imperialist thinking,” — session participant Robyn Spencer

Digital Collection

SNCC Digital  Historical materials, profiles, timeline, map, and stories on organizing by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and connections to today.

Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was learned

Responses to the question: What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today and what may you do with what you learned?

“Need to transform the narrative, not just add color” — make sure to include the voices and experiences of all people, especially those typically underrepresented, but make sure that the narrative changes too, not just adding people in to say you are including different groups.

Love the quote about the “larger ecosystem of Black power organizations,” the way that Black women’s resistance fits into that ecosystem, and the connections to past Zinn Education Project Friday sessions.

I loved learning about Ella Baker’s role as a “movement teacher,” who advocated for a different vision of both education and leadership. The idea of distributed leadership and democratic education are ones that resonate with my hopes for my own pedagogy.

All of it, I had an extreme knowledge gap.

I was made especially aware of the gaps in my curriculum when I teach my 5th and 6th graders about the Civil Rights Movement and Black activism/organizing when it comes to including the work of Black feminist organizers.

Loved the idea that our current language had expressions in the past, just with less fancy terminology and I liked the idea that we should not “fetishize” youth — respect them but note they, like us, are on a continuum.

I liked the discussion on intersectionality between Black feminism, anti-war, and anti-capitalism and how we can connect past movements with today.

Chicago Public Schools reparations curriculum.

So much. But I cherish the comments about being your authentic, situated, political self in the classroom.

The recognition that Black Lives Matter is the first mass movement actually anchored in Black feminism. I will want to read her book to understand this deeply and bring it into my work with LGBTQ elders.

How many activists were also teachers – Mamie Till.

I learned about a great number of books and films that can be used to teach about intersectional Black feminism. Thanks. Didn’t know about Mamie Till’s (I didn’t catch her married name) ongoing activism.

Grassroots efforts of self-taught Septima Clark and philosophy for activism by Ella Baker. I will integrate these concepts into my 6th grade history curriculum.

I’m left thinking about the the brave choice many Black women make to allow their personal grief and pain to become public and politicized as a means of provoking change so that other Black folk don’t have to experience similar grief and pain. I feel like there’s a connection between the way the public and private intersect in these critical moments and the focus on intersectionality Black feminist leaders have gifted us, but I’m not sure how or what that connection is yet. This was a great experience. Thank you!

I was really struck by learning about the complexity and power of Ella Baker’s pedagogical approach to movement building/teaching. Paulo Freire’s work was always what I learned about (in graduate school and beyond), but I really want to study Baker’s approach and philosophy. I also was reminded about the power of study groups and smaller collectives to do the self-education that is needed to fortify and train ourselves to do the different levels of work we need to engage in (to strengthen and heal ourselves and to create a liberated society).

Mamie Till was a community organizer. I knew her choice to make Emmett Till’s funeral open casket and the media coverage of those images were intentional and very important to creating national discourse and outrage, but had never heard of her spoken as an organizer beyond reference of that one choice.

The format.

The format continues to be a great way for me to learn and grow.

The polling was really interesting, and interactive. Definitely the most engaging kind of big Zoom session I have been to so far.

The breakout groups worked and I am so grateful that for the past three times, I have had a facilitator in the classroom, which was really awesome! I love breakout rooms because, as a college student, I am exposed to teachers, professors, and other educators who influence how I hope to teach my future classrooms and have resources for me! The length of time was just right, the breakout groups didn’t have too many people, and the inclusion of photos was apt.

Jesse and Barbara connected brilliantly. Breakout group worked much better than I expected.

I think this worked well. I particularly liked to un-mute and thank each other for a moment at the end.

Never enough time for the breakout rooms, but it works in the time allotted for these sessions and on my own working calendar

It’s great overall. The breakout groups could be slightly longer, and it might be useful to include some brief exercises, such as presenters sharing stimuli then inviting participants to share how they would/could use them in their classrooms. This would provide a way for teachers (who usually make up the majority of participants) to share ideas and get feedback from experts.

Breakouts add always too short — excellent participation in #13 so we needed five minutes more! Whole seminar is too short . . . such rich info!! Sometimes hard to catch all the names the speakers throw out. Any chance for split screen with info on a PowerPoint? I can’t follow the chat quickly enough!

Have been in all sessions — it is something I look forward to each week. Self-quarantining can become quite frustrating. It helps with both little grey cells, a sense of positive struggle, and enjoyment just hearing the wide range of locations that the participants come from. It’s a reminder — we ain’t each alone, there is a broader community out there than what we see from our individual windows.

Excellent, great facilitation and seamlessly overcoming technical problems was very impressive. These are the best web classes I have ever attended.

Loved the format, discussion . . . the breakout group always seems a little short to me too, but I understand. It was so inspiring to listen to Barbara speak. Love that the Zinn Ed organizers are also thinking about creating community on the call, it is palpable. And while I sometimes personally get distracted looking at the chat during the discussion, I think that is very important for the spirit of community developing on these calls.

First of all, this was great and I am so glad to be connected and signed up for future sessions! I loved hearing Dr. Ransby speak! The perspectives of my breakout group were very interesting! As an elementary teacher, I’m used to speaking with other elementary teachers, so to hear from those in other roles was interesting.

I really enjoy the format. The large group lecture is always fast paced and engaging and the breakout rooms are lovely opportunities to meet inspiring people in the ZEP network. I am so grateful to the facilitators for helping us get the most out of the time!

Breakout session was short, but the size of the group was perfect. Greatly appreciated the connection to what is happening today. It further reminds us that even in the worst of days, there has been light and movement forward. May it happen again and soon. Barbara, you were an excellent and inspirational presenter. Although you helped me face the reality about how much I don’t know about our history, you also shared details about the work and strengths of these feminist warriors that will never be forgotten.

Happy to see one of my students in same breakout room; facilitator was helpful in keeping the conversation going; meeting like-minded from around the nation.

Additional Comments

Thank you SO much for doing this and encouraging so much participation. These are awesome and so glad I came across the Zinn Ed Project on Twitter.

Your online programs are well organized, peopled by wonderful experts, fascinating and important — awesome.

Thank you. This series brings magic to my Fridays.

These sessions have been causing me to think about starting something in my local area. Beyond union membership, I’m in conversation with colleagues to start a teacher-activist group that centers the voices of our students of color. I appreciate all the resources and materials to help make that possible.

This was my first session of People’s Historians Online. I am HOOKED and will pass on this valuable resource to many. In Solidarity and Love!

THANK YOU! This series has been both a balm and light for me in these past few weeks/months.

Thanks to the facilitator of the breakout room! 🙂 And thank you for organizing these sessions! I will be recommending them to the rest of the education team at my union, Public Service Alliance of Canada.

So grateful for a room full of women (which was a first in my breakout groups) during this particular topic — from a high school senior, to a preschool teacher, to a middle school teacher, to a graphic designer — it was really just so wonderful to engage with these other folks. I was so excited that the high school senior learned and was inspired by the Combahee River Collective today — what a powerful influence y’all are having on her life through that.

Thoughtful, timely, and so important. I’m working hard to unlearn + learn the things I was never taught so I can be better for my students. These sessions are incredibly helpful.

Much appreciation to Zinn Education Project for the amazing compendia of resources. Political education and community is how we get through.

I am so grateful for how all the information today, and the Black Freedom Struggle sessions have built and intertwined over the last few weeks. Thank you for giving us the background, and the resources for liberatory conversations with teachers and students! Here’s to centering Black Feminists in future instruction!

One of the great things about these events his how wide a geographic spread we have together via ZOOM. Thanks to Zinn Education Project, et al!!!


Barbara Ransby is an historian, writer, and longtime activist. She is a Distinguished Professor of African American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Ransby is author Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic VisionEslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robesonand Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st 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 Schoolsthe co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

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