During her victory speech in November, then-senator Kamala Harris took time to acknowledge the women who, in fighting for the civil rights of so many, made it possible for a Black and Asian-American woman to run for (and win) the vice presidency of the United States.
What many of these women also have in common: they’re over the age of 50, and decades into their advocacy work, they’re not slowing down. And so on the eve of women’s history month and as part of a weekly segment on Morning Joe, Forbes and “Know Your Value” that highlights women over the age of 50 who are changing the world, we’re spotlighting women who have been pioneers in the fight for civil rights. They are:
Marian Wright Edelman, 81: The founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (and as of September, its president emerita), Edelman has been fighting for disadvantaged children since she began her law career in the mid-1960s. This lifetime of service coupled with her octogenarian age would have excused any absence from the social justice protests of summer 2020, but Edelman did not stay at home.
“I was out there every night,” Edelman told the New York Times. “It felt like the sit-in movement to me. It felt like everything I’ve been living all my life. You see yourself again at 17, 18 and 19.”
Edelman’s accomplishments are many: she was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar; she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi; she worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign and, later, served as a mentor to Hillary Clinton. (Remember the story about Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, going undercover in Alabama in the early 1970s to investigate whether certain academies were discriminating based on race? Clinton was there at the direction of Edelman, whom she worked for at the Children’s Defense Fund.)
She is also often credited with coining two phrases that have remained popular in civil rights advocacy work: “leave no child behind” and “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Dolores Huerta, 90: Huerta cofounded the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers) alongside Cesar Chavez in 1962, and over the next six decades would become one of the most prominent and respected labor advocates in the country. In 1965 she and Chavez directed the Delano grape boycott, a nation-wide boycott of California grapes that led the California grape industry to sign a collective bargaining agreement with UFW. Huerta has also fought for 15 bills, including the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and has been arrested 20 times for peaceful demonstrations.
In a 2017 documentary and subsequent interview with NPR, Huerta admitted to a degree of reticence to take credit for her work. She remembers almost not running for vice president of the National Farm Workers Association during its first constitutional convention (“Oh, I don’t have to be on the board. I just want to serve all the women out there,” she says she told Chavez), but ultimately, changed her mind.
“Sometimes we think well, I’m not really prepared to take that position or that role. But I say [to women]: Just do it like the guys do it — pretend that you know,” Huerta said.
She is also a political organizer: she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in July 1971 with Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm; in 2004, she cofounded the Women’s Media Center, and for 25 years served as president of Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee.
“The ability to decide when and whether to have children is the single biggest determinant, worldwide, of whether a woman is healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or not, and how long she will live,” she has said.
Leona Tate, 66: While Ruby Bridges was walking into William Frantz Elementary as its first Black student on November 14, 1960, across town three other Black six-year-olds—Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost—were being escorted by federal marshals to desegregate McDonogh 19, an all-white elementary school in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Tate still remembers the chants of the mob that greeted them that day: “two-four-six-eight, we don’t want to integrate.”
Through funding from the National Park Service and a partnership with Alembic Community Development, the Leona Tate Foundation purchased McDonogh 19 in January 2020. It will reopen as the Tate Etienne & Prevost Center this year.
During a groundbreaking in March 2020, Tate said that the 5909 St. Claude Avenue address “carries a legendary, 60-year distinction as a place of extreme community discord where a desire for retention of a supremacist society openly was confronted by and battled hope and aspiration of equality for all.”
“The transformation of McDonogh 19 will be a place for racial healing,” Tate said in July. “I feel like the racism started there and we should end it there.”