Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina. By Christina Greene. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 366 pp. Cloth, $59.95, ISBN 0-8078-2938-2; Paper, $19.95, ISBN 0-8078-5600-2).

Reviewed by Catherine Fosl

       

   Christina Greene's impressively researched Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina offers a thorough unpacking of the civil rights scholar Charles Payne's observation on women's participation in the modern freedom movement in the U.S. South: "men led, but women organized." 1 Not satisfied with that dichotomy, Greene launched a wide-ranging community study to identify Durham's grassroots activist women and to track their work over more than two decades of successive southern movements that both predate and outlast the mass civil rights era of 1955-68. In doing so, she refines and gives new texture to Payne's thesis, offering us one of the most comprehensive and important surveys to emerge yet by a historian on women's contributions to the southern freedom movement. This research suggests that women's organizing is in fact an important form of movement leadership—an argument first advanced by Kathryn Nasstrom in a 1999 essay in Gender and History. 2

   Greene is telling a local story, but it is an ambitious, sweeping one whose outline, she notes in her introduction, is "not unlike that of countless towns and cities, especially in the Upper South" (p. 5). Durham's black women activists had a history of forming their own protest groups, but they also formed a majority at many demonstrations and in mass organizations such as the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), doing the bulk of what field organizer Ella Baker, one of the civil rights movement's spiritual mothers, called "spade work"(p. 64)—recruiting, sustaining, and keeping track of members. To continue Baker's imagery, this book shows us what went into that tilling process, as well as its import and its counterforces. Readers conversant with other southern communities will recognize much that is familiar in women's activist approaches, both in single-sex and in "mixed" organizations. While Greene does not really attempt them, generalizable observations from this local study may also extend beyond the South and beyond the United States to comparable liberation struggles in nations such as South Africa, for example.

   What Greene also makes clear is that much more analysis is needed to understand women's contributions to social movements than simply to "add women and stir." She brings that analytical lens to bear throughout the book, extending the sites of her investigation to include the neighborhood as well as the workplace, and the boycott as well as the picket line. In the latter case, Greene finds that women—as the primary consumers for their families—were much more likely to engage in and sustain economic boycotts than were their male counterparts, a finding consistent with earlier scholarship on the Montgomery bus boycott.

   Greene's decision to examine more than one generation of movement activists produces both strengths and weaknesses. Her first two chapters augment and heavily reference a growing body of scholarship on how Cold War anticommunism blunted an upsurge of post-World War II southern civil rights activism by marginalizing many of its leaders as "red" and by casting wider aspersions on dissent itself as disloyal. This is fascinating work, but we get only the broadest contours of the story because Greene's cast and time frames are moving on too swiftly for much detail. We meet, for example, the feisty and creative Arline Young, a determined local leader who invigorated NAACP youth activism and organized tobacco workers regionally. In what is likely both a problem of sources and a sobering commentary on the disabling power of the domestic Cold War, Young's story ends prematurely and somewhat anticlimactically in the book's second chapter. After her blacklisting, the only conclusion drawn about this vibrant character is that Young "disappeared from the historical record" (p. 40).

   The book's mid-section focuses on the mass civil movement years, in particular on one of the author's most compelling points. Greene demonstrates here that, as the 1960s unfolded, it was largely black women's concerns that shifted the civil rights agenda toward neighborhood organizing, economic development, and antipoverty campaigns.

   The final three (of seven) chapters cover the late sixties and seventies, an era about which historical work is only just now beginning to flower. One of Greene's most intriguing contributions to new scholarship is her examination of the women within and behind Durham's Black Power movement, as well as an investigation of the ways that class tensions among African Americans intersected with and could, on occasion, undercut racial solidarity. Greene's survey approach allows her to cover a lot of interesting ground here, but one always gets the feeling that there is also a lot left unsaid. She writes, tantalizingly, of a "hypermasculinized Black Power politics," (p. 165), for instance. Yet the specific Durham intra-movement conflicts she describes revolve much more around class than gender, and she relies too heavily on national accounts to explore the gendered dynamics within Black Power.

   This book foregrounds black women, as its title indicates, but Durham's white women activists hover in the margins to aid, impede, and occasionally supplant the protagonists of this study. Although "interracialism was not the only or even the primary concern of organized African American women," as Greene notes (p. 35), the dialectic between southern blacks and whites could not be ignored either. Activism by both black and white women in the postwar South grew out of a history of halting efforts to reach across racial divisions and counter the social as well as the political restrictions posed by segregation. Part of Greene's project, necessarily, is to chart the ebbs and flows of such efforts. Their turn-of-the-century origins proved frustrating and humiliating for many black women. Yet Greene finds that by the late 1960s, interracialism informed poor people's campaigns to the degree that white women—though perhaps still racist in their words and actions—organized their own reform projects based on models pioneered by black women in the civil rights and Black Power movements. While a whole book could easily be devoted to this subject, Greene gives us one chapter: an investigation of an interracial, women-led campaign to save a racially integrated neighborhood school and clinic. Although we all know that no interracial movement of the poor succeeded on any grand scale, within this chapter lies a more complicated rendering of the bridges that were built, if only for a time. It also contains one of the book's most poignant stories of the friendship that evolved between a poor African American woman neighborhood activist and a former Klansman.

   It seems paradoxical to suggest that a community study is too broad, but Greene's book verges on being too wide—ranging-with nearly as much fascinating data in the endnotes as in the text. There are shortcomings in attempting such a sweep, and hers entail losing sight of the people in the stories and the larger history within which those stories are set. Sometimes, the book reads more like a series of related essays than as a discrete narrative. Yet in offering the most detailed illustration to date of Kathryn Nasstrom's argument on women's organizing as a form of leadership in the civil rights movement, Greene has broken new historiographical ground here and has further refined Payne's earlier thesis. She has also laid the groundwork for several more important works that she herself could pursue, as could others who read this book and take its insights seriously. This study may appeal most to specialists on women in the southern freedom movement, but it should not be overlooked by any scholar of women in modern social reform movements.

   Catherine Fosl is an assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).


1 Charles Payne, "Men Led, but Women Organized: Movement Participation of Women in the Mississippi Delta," in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990).

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2 Kathryn L. Nasstrom, "Down to Now: Memory, Narrative, and Women's Leadership in the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, Georgia," Gender and History 11 (April, 1999): 113-144.

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