3 Women Civil Rights Activists Who Changed History

March 20, 2015 by Maxine Phillips Through reading, discussion, and small group activities, students learn about three relatively unknown women in the civil rights movement: Diane Nash, Virginia Durr, and Claudette Colvin.

Current Issues, Civil Rights Movement, Black History Month, Women’s History Month


Students will

  • Share knowledge about women in the civil rights movement
  • Study the work of three relatively unknown women in the civil rights movement
  • Learn about the trajectory of social change


  • Research
  • Critical thinking

Materials needed:

  • Today’s agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Chart paper (or space on the board) for writing
  • Copies of the short biographies below (or download this pdf
  • Individual chart paper for small groups, plus markers


  • Gathering (10 min.)
  • Agenda Review (1 min.)
  • Small group reading & poster-making (15 min.)
  • Poster reports and discussion (10 min.)
  • Closing (4 min.)

What do we know?

In a go-round, ask students to say one thing they know about the civil rights movement. Ask what civil rights are. Write down the answers, making sure that the right to vote, right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, and equal protection under the law are included.

Accept all responses and chart them in a few words each on chart paper.

Explain the following, making sure to provide information that addresses any factual errors in what students have shared.

  • When we talk about the civil rights movement today, we are usually talking about the movement to gain the true right to vote, an end to racial segregation, and equal protection under the law for people who are not considered white in our society.
  • A few years after slaves were freed (emancipation), the U.S. Constitution was amended  or changed to give males the right to vote. (Women did not gain the right to vote until almost 50 years later.) However, almost everywhere in the South and in many other places, there were many laws and regulations to keep African Americans from voting. Many immigrants from certain countries, such as China and other parts of Asia, were specifically not allowed to become citizens or to marry white people, either. The civil rights movement of the 1960s helped change laws that targeted Asian people as well as black people.
  • The civil rights movement was mainly led by young people. Many of the activists were students in high schools and colleges. They were only a few years older or the same age as the students in the room.

Check agenda and objectives

Review the agenda and check off the first item.

Small group posters and discussion

In a go-round, ask students to share one name they associate with the civil rights movement. Write down their responses and then review them with students. It’s possible that Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Fannie Lou Hamer will be listed, but there are probably more men than women on the list.

Tell the students that there were many, many more women, both black and white, who were involved in the civil rights movement. Their names are not always in the history books.  Many times, they were taking care of children or working to earn money when the men lost their jobs because of their activities. They were also at the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the demonstrations, but they were not always the ones who got their pictures in the paper.

Today we are going to find out about three women in the civil rights movement whose names are known, but who are not written about a lot.

Divide the class into three groups and give each group copies of one of the biographical sketches below (or in this pdf ), a sheet of chart paper, and markers. Give the groups 10 or 15 minutes to do the following:

  • read their biography together by going around in a circle with each person reading a sentence
  • write down any questions they have
  • make a poster describing the most important points they want their classmates to know

Then, reconvene the class and ask each group to present their poster and report to the class. Allow about 10 minutes for the reports, and for questions, if there is time.

After students have reported and discussed each person, ask students to think about how each person’s actions in the civil rights movement helped other people. The victories of the civil rights movement did not come from one brave person but from many brave people.

Ask students to turn to a neighbor and give an example from what we learned today or what they already know about how one person’s action builds on another person’s action. Each student should talk for about a minute.

Ask for volunteers to share examples.

Follow up activities

  •  If students have questions for which there are simple, direct answers, provide those answers to the class.
  •  If other questions require further study, ask for volunteers to look into them and give poster reports back.
  •  Encourage students to do research on other women in the civil rights movement.


Ask for several students to tell how the work of civil rights activists has made their lives better today.


(Download the pdf or see below.)

Diane Nash: In the photos of the civil rights movement, she is next to Martin Luther King and other more well-known leaders, but she was also in the meetings where civil rights activists planned strategy. Her courage inspired not only thousands of people, but her own family, which became active because of her work.

Virginia Durr: This white child of the Old South was almost kicked out of college in the North because she refused to sit next to a black classmate. She soon learned more about injustice against blacks and became an activist. Her husband, a lawyer, is mentioned more often than Virginia in the history books, but she was there from the beginning of the struggle.

Claudette Colvin  If we know her name, we know her as the teenager who preceded Rosa Parks in refusing to give her seat on the bus to a white person. But we probably don’t know that she was part of the lawsuit that made bus segregation illegal.



Diane Nash
Biographical Sketch

Before she started school at Fisk University in Nashville, Diane Nash had never seen a sign that said “Colored” or “Whites Only.” She grew up in Chicago, where her parents tried to shelter her from racism. At Fisk, she decided she wanted to fight against racism. Soon, she heard about people who were learning nonviolent ways to resist racism. She signed up for training in nonviolence and started to study what Mohandas Gandhi had done in India.

The first campaign she was involved with was to integrate the lunch counters in stores in downtown Nashville. Black shoppers could buy food at the counter, but they had to take it outside to eat it. The lunch counter sit-ins started in Nashville and spread throughout the South. Nash and many other students were arrested. As soon as they were arrested, others would take their place at the counter. After over 150 students were arrested and negotiations with the Mayor, the protesters eventually won their demand, and downtown lunch counters began serving Black customers for the first time.

Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and dropped out of school to be in charge of its direct action arm. A historian who later wrote about her said she was “…bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move.”

Next, in 1961, Nash helped lead Freedom Rides. The Freedom Riders were interracial groups who rode interstate buses across the South as a way of challenging segregation on the buses. The Freedom Riders were beaten up when the buses rolled into town. The leaders of the campaign wanted to call off the rides because they were sure somebody would get killed. Nash refused. “We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence,”  she said. She and other Freedom Riders made out their wills and were prepared to die. They were not killed, but some of the people who were beaten never recovered from the effects.

Nash married a fellow civil rights activist, James Bevel, and was pregnant with their first child when she was arrested for her Freedom Ride work and sent to jail. She could have paid bail and gotten out, but, she said, “I believe that if I go to jail now, it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.”

President John Kennedy appointed Nash to work on the national committee that promoted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But at the same time, Nash knew that it was very important to put pressure on politicians to make such progress possible. She worked with Martin Luther King to plan the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, and to get publicity for the cause.

After being a leader in the civil rights movement, Nash became active in protests against the war in Vietnam. Many years later, when someone asked what the best piece of advice was that she’d ever gotten, she said, “When I have a decision to make, I always make the choice that will make me proud of and will make me respect the person I see in the mirror.”

ImageDiane Nash (front row, center) and other activists march to the Nashville City Hall on April 19, 1960, to confront the mayor over segregation and violence against protesters. Credit: Copyright New York Times/Archive 


There are a number of powerful videos and video segments that explore Nash’s life. They include:

http://www.makers.com/diane-nash (video interview with Nash)

Virginia Durr
Biographical Sketch

Virginia Foster Durr saw a lot of change in her life. She was born in 1903 and died in 1999. She came a long way from the beliefs and prejudices of her early life. Raised in the South, the daughter of a well-known minister, Durr thought that her life would be similar to those of other privileged white women. But her life changed because of something that happened when she went to school at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

At the school, students were expected to eat dinner with different people. When she saw that she was supposed to sit next to a Black student, she refused.  The dean of the school told her that she had to eat with the student or she would have to leave the school.  She wrote later that she stayed up all night thinking about her choice, then decided to stay at school and sit with the other student.

That decision changed her life, because she started to rethink all the things she had been taught about race. Later, after Durr became well known and wrote about how she had changed, some developmental psychologists called what she went through a “Virginia Durr moment.” That is the moment when you make a choice that advances your moral development. You  reflect, you change your beliefs, you move forward morally.

Durr married a white lawyer from Montgomery, Alabama, named Clifford Durr. They had five children. She and Clifford moved to Washington, D.C. to work for President Franklin Roosevelt. They became involved in civil rights work. Virginia began to work on getting voting rights for Black people. Many states had poll taxes that people had to pay before they could register to vote. The taxes were a way to keep poor people and African Americans from voting. Usually, the law was written so that if you had an ancestor who had voted in 1867, then you didn’t have to pay the tax.

Virginia Durr and her husband were active in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They had to send their two youngest children away to school because of all the threats against their family. The Durrs helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail after Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. Durr had employed Parks as a seamstress and had helped her get a scholarship to a school that trained activists. When Virginia died, Rosa Parks said that Virginia Durr’s “upbringing of privilege did not prohibit her from wanting equality for all people. She was a lady and a scholar, and I will miss her.”



Social Activism and Civil Rights, by Virginia Durr
Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr
Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years

Claudette Colvin
Biographical Sketch

Claudette Colvin was 15 years old when she walked onto the stage of history not once but twice. She was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The officers kicked and handcuffed her.

Colvin was active in the NAACP youth group. Rosa Parks was a mentor to the group.

The NAACP had been looking for a test case to oppose segregation on the city buses. The lawyers thought that Colvin’s case would be it the right case (see our brief classroom activity on this).  But when Colvin became pregnant to a married man a few months after her arrest, they worried that the deeply religious black community might not be sympathetic to her.

Nine months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and the bus boycott began. Lawyers for the NAACP knew that they had to get the courts to declare segregation on city buses illegal. Even if the boycott worked, there would be no legal way to make another bus company stop segregating. The lawyers knew it would take a long time for the Parks case to go through the state court system. They needed a federal case.

They took another look at Colvin’s case. They found four other women who had also been arrested for refusing to give up their seats on the buses. All the women and their families knew that they would be in danger once their names became public.

The NAACP realized that those cases could be filed as a class action in a U.S. district court, and a decision could be made faster.  They asked Colvin and another teenager, Mary Louise Smith, to be part of the lawsuit along with three other women.

The case is called  Browder v. Gayle. Aurelia Browder was what is called the lead plaintiff in the case, and W. A. Gayle was the mayor of Montgomery. One of the women dropped out of the case because of threats from whites.

It took almost a year, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided that segregation on the buses was illegal.  A brave teenager was partly responsible for this historic win.


Please see this short Teachable Instant activity on Colvin. 

http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/performance-%E2%80%9Crage-not-1-day-thing-untaught-history-montgomery-bus-boycott%E2%80%9D  (one-woman play about women involved in the boycott, including Colvin)

The Real Rosa Parks Story Is Better Than the Fairy Tale

The way we talk about her covers up uncomfortable truths about American racism.

By Jeanne Theoharis

Dr. Theoharis is a professor of political science and the author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements including “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks Young Readers’ Edition,” co-adapted with Brandy Colbert.

  • Feb. 1, 2021
  • 197
A  booking photo of Rosa Parks taken on Feb. 22, 1956, at the county sheriff’s office in Montgomery, Ala.
A booking photo of Rosa Parks taken on Feb. 22, 1956, at the county sheriff’s office in Montgomery, Ala.Credit…Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

Mug shot No. 7053 is one of the most iconic images of Rosa Parks. But the photo, often seen in museums and textbooks and on T-shirts and websites, isn’t what it seems. Though it’s regularly misattributed as such, it is not the mug shot taken at the time of Mrs. Parks’s arrest in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, after she famously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. It was, in fact, taken when she was arrested in February 1956 after she and 88 other “boycott leaders” were indicted by the city in an attempt to end the boycott. The confusion around the image reveals Americans’ overconfidence in what we think we know about Mrs. Parks and about the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks dominate the Civil Rights Movement chapters of elementary and high school textbooks and Black History Month celebrations. And yet much of what people learn about Mrs. Parks is narrow, distorted, or just plain wrong. In our collective understanding, she’s trapped in a single moment on a long-ago Montgomery bus, too often cast as meek, tired, quiet and middle class. The boycott is seen as a natural outgrowth of her bus stand. It’s inevitable, respectable and not disruptive.

But that’s not who she was, and it’s not how change actually works. “Over the years, I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested,” Mrs. Parks reminded interviewers time and again.

Born Feb. 4, 1913, she had been an activist for two decades before her bus stand — beginning with her work alongside Raymond Parks in 1931, whom she married the following year, to organize in defense of the “Scottsboro Boys” (nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women). Indeed, one of the issues that animated her six decades of activism was the injustice of the criminal justice system — wrongful accusations against Black men, disregard for Black women who had been sexually assaulted, and police brutality. With a small group of other activists, including E.D. Nixon, who would become branch president, she spent the decade before her well-known bus stand working to transform the Montgomery NAACP into a more activist chapter that focused on voter registration, criminal justice and desegregation. This was dangerous, tiring work and Mrs. Parks said it was “very difficult to keep going when all our work seemed to be in vain.” But she persevered.

Dispirited by the lack of change and what she called the “complacency” of many peers, she reformed the NAACP Youth Council in 1954 and urged her young charges to take greater stands against segregation. When 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in March 1955, many Black Montgomerians were outraged by Ms. Colvin’s arrest, but some came to decide that the teenager was too feisty and emotional, and not the right test case. Mrs. Parks encouraged the young woman’s membership in the Youth Council and was the only adult leader, according to Ms. Colvin, to stay in touch with her the summer after her arrest. Mrs. Parks put her hope in the spirit and militancy of young people.

That evening on the bus, Mrs. Parks challenged the police officers arresting her: “Why do you push us around?” There are no photos from the arrest — no sense this would be a history-changing moment. But networks that had been built over years sprang into action late that night when Mrs. Parks decided to pursue her legal case and called Fred Gray, a young lawyer and fellow NAACP member, to represent her. Mr. Gray called the head of the Women’s Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson, who decided to call for a one-day boycott on Monday, the day Mrs. Parks would be arraigned in court.

Braving danger, Ms. Robinson left her home in the middle of the night to run off 50,000 leaflets with the help of a colleague and two trusted students. In the early-morning hours, the women of the W.P.C. fanned out across the city, leaving the leaflets in churches, barbershops and schools. Mr. Nixon began calling the more political ministers to get them on board. Buoyed by the boycott’s success that first day, the community decided to continue. The boycott succeeded in part because the Black community organized a massive car pool system, setting up some 40 pickup stations across town, serving about 30,000 riders a day, and in part because of a federal legal case challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation that Mr. Gray filed in February with courageous teenagers, Ms. Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, serving as two of the four plaintiffs.

The boycott seriously disrupted city life and bus company revenues. Police harassed the car pools mercilessly, giving out hundreds of tickets — and then, when that didn’t work, the city dredged up an old anti-syndicalism law and indicted 89 boycott leaders. Refusing to be cowed or to wait to be arrested, Mrs. Parks, along with others, presented herself to the police while scores of community members gathered outside. Mug shot No. 7053.

The Rosa Parks fable also erases the tremendous cost of her bus stand and the decade of suffering that ensued for the Parks family. They weren’t well-off. The Parkses lived in the Cleveland Court projects, Mrs. Parks’s husband, Raymond, working as a barber at Maxwell Air Force Base and Mrs. Parks spending her days in a stuffy back room at Montgomery Fair department store altering white men’s suits. Five weeks after her bus stand, she lost her job; then Raymond lost his. Receiving regular death threats, they never found steady work in Montgomery again. Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, the Parks family was forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived. They continued to struggle to find work, and she was hospitalized to treat ulcers in 1959, which led to a bill she couldn’t pay. It was not until 1966, 11 years after her bus arrest, after she was hired to work in U.S. Representative John Conyers’s new Detroit office, that the Parks family registered an income comparable to what they’d made in 1955. (Mrs. Parks had supported Mr. Conyers’s long-shot bid for Congress in 1964.)

Editors’ Picks

Here’s What We Would Nominate for Best PictureFollowing the Trail of a Nazi Mass Murderer Who Was Never CaughtContinue reading the main story

Mrs. Parks spent the next several decades of her life fighting the racism of the North — “the Northern promised land that wasn’t,” she called it — marching and organizing against housing discrimination, school segregation, employment discrimination and police brutality. In July 1967, on the fourth day of the Detroit uprising, police killed three Black teenagers at the Algiers Motel. Justice against the officers proved elusive (ultimately none of them were punished for murder or conspiracy) and Detroit’s newspapers grew reluctant to press the issue. At the request of young Black Power activists who refused to let these deaths go unmarked and the police misconduct be swept under the rug, Mrs. Parks agreed to serve as a juror on the “People’s Tribunal” to make the facts of the case known.

Rosa Parks at her Detroit home in 1988.
Rosa Parks at her Detroit home in 1988.Credit…Michael J. Samojeden/Associated Press

“I don’t believe in gradualism,” she made clear, “or that whatever is to be done for the better should take forever to do.” In the 1960s and ’70s, she was part of a growing Black Power movement in the city and across the country. Describing Malcolm X as her personal hero, she attended the 1968 Black Power convention in Philadelphia in 1968 and the 1972 Gary Convention, worked for reparations and against the war in Vietnam, served on prisoner defense committees, and visited the Black Panthers’ school in 1980. “Freedom fighters never retire,” she observed at a testimonial for a friend — and she never did.

But this Rosa Parks is not the one most of us learned about in school or hear about during Black History Month commemorations. Instead, we partake in an American myth, as President George W. Bush put it after her death in 2005, that “one candle can light the darkness.” A simple seamstress changes the course of history with a single act, decent people did the right thing and the nation inexorably moved toward justice. Mrs. Parks’s decades of work challenging racial injustice puts the lie to this narrative. The nation didn’t move naturally toward justice. It had to be pushed.

The boycott was a tremendous feat of organization that drew on networks built over years. Understanding the demonization, death threats and economic hardship Mrs. Parks endured for more than a decade underscores the costs of such heroism. Most Americans did not support the civil rights movement when it was happening; in a Gallup poll right before the March on Washington in 1963, only 23 percent of Americans who were familiar with the proposed march felt favorably toward it.

Reckoning with the fact that Mrs. Parks spent the second half of her life fighting the racism of the North demonstrates that racism was not some regional anachronism but a national cancer. And seeing how she placed her greatest hope in the militant spirit of young people (finding many adults “complacent”) gives the lie to the ways commentators today have used the civil rights movement to chastise Black Lives Matter for not going about change the right way. Learning about the real Rosa Parks reveals how false those distinctions are, how criminal justice was key to her freedom dreams, how disruptive and persevering the movement, and where she would be standing today — an essential lesson young people, and indeed all Americans, need to understand to grapple honestly with this country’s history and see the road forward.

Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science and the author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements including “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks Young Readers’ Edition,” co-adapted with Brandy Colbert.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.