The Chief Operating Officers (COOs) of Black History
By Cormekki Whitley
Last May, the entire staff of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Equal Justice Initiative sites. This was the first time most on our staff had visited the city known as the “birthplace of the civil rights” movement. While it was my second visit to Montgomery, experiencing it with my CLASP colleagues, was especially emotional and moving on many levels for all of us.
One of the most significant moments was going to the Rosa Parks Museum and hearing the museum guide describe the heroic and historic role that African American women played in the Montgomery bus boycott and the larger civil rights movement. The museum’s docent shared the stories of the many women you may not have heard about, the women who were the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement who helped to make the Montgomery bus boycott possible—Chief Operating Officers (COOs) of the movement. She went on to say women were already playing a large role in the civil rights movement, but Rosa Park’s arrest spurred a sense of urgency. The Women’s Political Caucus organized the plan that became the Montgomery bus boycott.
The boycott would last more than a year with African Americans in Montgomery refusing to use city buses and choosing instead to share rides or simply walk to get to work. 382 days after the boycott started, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared the city’s bus law unconstitutional. Can you imagine all the work it took to move hundreds of people, with different schedules to different locations for 382 days? Figuring out the number of people who needed a ride, developing the schedules, determining who had a car to transport people, arranging to purchase gas, developing a dispatch system, managing morale of the drivers and the boycotters—the list goes on and on. And, of course, all this happened with 1950s technology.
My first thoughts were that “women rock” (of course), but as I’ve come to learn in my career and my role as COO, all movements and organizations need a Chief Operating Officer—someone who is focused on the internal work that’s needed to execute an organization’s vision while the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) advances the vision and the voice of the movement or organization externally. As a Black woman COO of a progressive nonprofit, I am able to influence and shape our organization’s vision for our work and help to guide staff of diverse backgrounds, races, ethnicity, education, and experience who are all working to make a difference. Personally, the trip to Montgomery gave me a greater perspective and appreciation of my role as COO.
When people think of the civil rights movement and Black history, we immediately name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks—all significant—but most of us probably never think about Septima Clark, Diane Nash, Claudette Colvin, and Thelma Glass. Those are some of the civil rights COOs who organized everyone, financed the movement, recruited the people, and planned the marches and the sit-ins.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I believe it’s time to honor the women COOs of the civil rights movement. Without their leadership and commitment to operationalize the civil rights vision and mission, the work might not have been able as successful. These COOs made sure the people were at the right place to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. They made sure the freedom riders had a place to stay and something to eat when they arrived in a new town. They organized the bus boycott, using “Ubers” of that time to make sure Black people got the transportation they needed. The list goes on and on. This Women’s History Month, I salute Amelia Boynton Robinson, Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates, JoAnn Robinson, and every woman COO of the civil rights movement.