Women in the Civil Rights Movement

It’s January 2021! A year that has already given the ministry of preaching a plethora of prophetic proclamations and a burning need to bring Sunday’s sermon to a Monday-Saturday world. On this 18th day, we celebrate and remember a remarkable Baptist preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Undeniably, Dr. King was the face of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. His pastoral presence, preaching prowess, and peaceful protest marches led Time Magazine to name King the “1963 Man of the Year.” But “do not pass us by,” I hear the women of the movement singing who helped Dr. King earn this recognition.

Certainly, his wife, Coretta Scott King, was a dynamic Baptist woman who continued King’s legacy and fought to make her husband’s birthday the federal holiday we celebrate today.

Other influential women of the Civil Rights Movement include– Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gloria Richardson, and Dorothy Cotton, just to name a few. These women marched, organized communities, and placed their lives in jeopardy like the men. There would not have been a successful Civil Rights Movement (CRM) without the leadership of women who often challenged King for their voices to be heard. Regrettably, Dr. King’s racial justice work took precedence which often gave him blind eyes and deaf ears to the misogyny that was happening in the church and the movement. 

King represented the patriarchal culture that many black (and white) clergy had then and now. A culture that benefits from the gifts and graces of women while subjugating them to “behind-the-scenes” administrative work. Ella Baker often spoke out against the treatment of women connected to the movement and how the patriarchy prevalent in the Black church had spilled over to the CRM. Baker’s critique was on full display during the March on Washington, the premiere pulpit for a woman’s voices to be heard, but sadly, the women were silenced.

Mahalia Jackson was included on the program to sing, but no other women were originally given time to speak. Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Dorothy Height had to beg for women to have a role on this historic day. Can you imagine if the voices of Stacey Abrams, Katie G. Cannon, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Cynthia Hale were silenced today?

Prathia Hall

Despite the misogyny connected to the movement, Dr. King’s preaching was influenced by the daughter of a Baptist preacher named, Prathia Hall. Dr. King is quoted as saying, “Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.”  

Hall was a gifted, ordained Baptist preacher, activist, ethicist, and professor, with an earned doctorate in theology. In Freedom Faith, The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Pace writes this of Prathia Hall, “A man with her talents and successes would have been a nationally recognized civil rights leader, held a prestigious pulpit, and served as president of a major denomination.”

It was September 9, 1962, the night Dr. King spoke at Mount Olive Baptist Church and heard Prathia Hall pray. In her prayer she repeated the phrase, “I Have A Dream,” which caught the attention of the Civil Rights icon. With Hall’s permission, MLK began using HER phrase in his sermons and speeches, most notably, his “I Have a Dream Speech.” A speech drafted from the echoes of HER prayer.


HER voice needs to be heard. She is a preacHER who follows the women that marched from the tomb to the temple to proclaim, “He has risen!” Will your church invite HER to stand behind the sacred desk or proclaim on your social media platforms?

When your church invites a woman to preach several things happen–First, you extend Christian hospitality by providing an opportunity that is so rarely afforded to women preachers. Secondly, you affirm the calling God gives to women to prophesy. Thirdly, you help to establish a sorority of women who can provide mentoring and witness to future generations of women preachers. Finally, you engage in the equity work of combating sexism in the ministry. As Rev. Charmaine Webster rightfully noted, “If the Black Baptist Church is serious about supporting women clergy, then we must work to dismantle the boys club of pastoring and preaching. Practices such as only inviting pastors or personal friends to preach at revivals and large days hold women clergy back.”

So, let us spend January honoring King’s legacy; but let us prepare to transition to February by inviting women to speak in our churches!

Click here to learn more about how your church can participate in BWIM Month of Preaching


In Freedom Faith, The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Pace.

Unduly Supported: Black Clergywomen and the Baptist Church, Charmaine Webster, December 13, 2019.

Lynn Brinkley is associate director at Baptist Women in Ministry.