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One of the Most Inspiring Feminist Civil Rights Leaders That Deserve a Better Place in American History

Anna Arnold Hedgeman played a vital role in more than six decades of racial justice efforts.

In 1933, Anna Arnold (front row, fifth from right) was one of the promising young activists invited to attend the NAACP's Amenia Conference in upstate New York and to help define the direction of civil rights nationally.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Lot 13077

The following is an excerpt adapted from the new book Until There is Justice by Jennifer Scanlon (Oxford University Press, 2016): 

Cover image: In 1933, Anna Arnold (front row, fifth from right) was one of the promising young activists invited to attend the NAACP's Amenia Conference in upstate New York and to help define the direction of civil rights nationally.

New York City, 1934: In the midst of the Great Depression, widespread unemployment and a near halt in industrial production meant, for all too many urban dwellers, falling wages, fruitless job searches, squalid living conditions, and dire poverty. It was bad all around, yet African American residents of New York City were particularly hard hit compared with their white neighbors. Being white in New York literally doubled one’s chances of securing employment. On top of that, discrimination ran rampant in the distribution of essential welfare services for those who, try as they might, remained unemployed through the worst of the nation’s deprivation. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, New York City’s first consultant on racial problems, was frustrated that no blacks were in decision-making positions with any real power, and she quit her job to try to change things from the outside. She then secured the first 150 civil service appointments given to black Americans in the city of New York.

Washington, DC, 1948: On the eve of the national election, Democratic president Harry Truman faced potential party splits from the left, right, and center, and it seemed clear that, for the first time, the African American vote might well swing the election. Anna Arnold Hedgeman became the Democratic Party’s strategist for securing the black vote in key states and gave a series of speeches from her own, race-based, whistle-stop tour, helping to fortify the black vote and keep the incumbent in office.

New York City, 1934: In the midst of the Great Depression, widespread unemployment and a near halt in industrial production meant, for all too many urban dwellers, falling wages, fruitless job searches, squalid living conditions, and dire poverty. It was bad all around, yet African American residents of New York City were particularly hard hit compared with their white neighbors. Being white in New York literally doubled one’s chances of securing employment. On top of that, discrimination ran rampant in the distribution of essential welfare services for those who, try as they might, remained unemployed through the worst of the nation’s deprivation. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, New York City’s first consultant on racial problems, was frustrated that no blacks were in decision-making positions with any real power, and she quit her job to try to change things from the outside. She then secured the first 150 civil service appointments given to black Americans in the city of New York.

New York City, 1966: As the black freedom coalition seemed to be unraveling, most of the major civil rights leaders anxiously refuted cries of and for black power, and a generational divide appeared certain between civil rights and black power advocates. Anna Arnold Hedgeman urged the older generation, of which she was, not incidentally, a part, to do more listening than talking, to try and make sense of the nascent but insistent claims for power. She admonished Martin Luther King Jr. that “what love opposes is precisely the misuse and abuse of power, not power itself.”

Although most Americans have not heard of her, Anna Arnold Hedgeman was a remarkable—and remarkably understudied—twentieth-century civil rights leader, educator, social service worker, policymaker, religious activist, and politician. She played a key role in more than half a century of social justice initiatives, altering the civil rights landscape with her ideas, determination, and accomplishments. She made the choice to make a difference, and to do it with conscience and dignity.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman played a vital role in more than six decades of racial justice efforts. She worked as a teacher in the Deep South and grappled with a segregated YWCA as an executive in the North during the 1920s; she was an emergency relief worker and supervisor in New York City during the Great Depression, a fair employment practices advocate in Washington during World War II, a national political appointee in health and human services in the post-war period, and an assistant to New York City’s Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. in the 1950s; and she was a critical advocate for civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. She ran for political office three times, helped pass major civil rights legislation, and worked as the only female member of the organizing committee that planned the famed 1963 March on Washington.

The events of Hedgeman’s life would be reason enough for a biography, but her experiences also provide a window into the ways in which Americans tangled with critical questions about personal, religious, and national identity as they moved through the twentieth century. Born into a family of midwestern pioneers, Hedgeman was often a pioneer herself. She was both proud of and frustrated by her many “firsts”: the first black student to attend Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first black woman to run for Congress in the Bronx, the first woman and first African American to join a mayoral cabinet in New York City, and the keynote speaker at the first joint African American–African women’s conference, in Ghana.

She was raised to seek excellence and showcase her talents, yet Hedgeman had to wonder what her life would have been like had she not felt the need to fight relentlessly for racial justice. One white woman she encountered, she lamented, “was a little taken aback when I told her that I had been forced to spend my whole life discussing the implications of color and that this was to me a waste of time and of whatever talent I had.” Her “waste” was clearly the nation’s gain. Her lifelong practice of questioning and challenging common assumptions about race, gender, and Christian ethics provides an invaluable lens to explore social change and the cost to those who make it happen.

Hedgeman’s life and work transcended many shifts in African American history, and she struggled at times to figure out where she fit in to such a long freedom struggle. She played a key role in politics during the move American blacks made from the party of Lincoln to the Democratic Party. She participated in a community of struggle to achieve interracialism, which most often mirrored her personal, political, and religious needs but which also occasionally conflicted with a desire, born of frustration, for black separatism. She attempted to raise issues of gender in a prefeminist era and then struggled with white feminists as a founding member of the National Organization for Women.

She traveled to Ghana but found the “welcome home” to Africa complicated by how American the trip also made her feel. She struggled to understand how her religious life fit with her political life, how to integrate civil rights and black power philosophies and demands, and, perhaps most important, how to foster lasting social change. She interacted on a close professional and personal level with many of the movement’s most well-known male leaders, and she alternately deferred to them and resisted their authority. The March on Washington provides a characteristic example of the significance of Hedgeman’s life story. At A. Philip Randolph’s invitation, she joined the administrative committee for the march. She also took responsibility, in her job at the National Council of Churches (NCC), for inviting or, better yet, summoning, thirty thousand white Protestants to the march. Drawing on her long-standing relationships in government and in the black, religious, and women’s communities she had served, she worked tirelessly to get the message out to white Christians about the hazards of racism, for them as well as for black Americans, and the NCC later estimated that forty thousand people had marched under its banner. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, to put it simply, recruited the majority of white attendees to the March on Washington. She also advocated, with some limited success, for the inclusion of more black women in the planning and implementation of the march, and in the immediate aftermath of the march she played a central role in the passage of related civil rights legislation.

The 1963 March on Washington played a key and then formative role in the nation’s history. Its direct results included legislation, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Over time it provided a model for mass mobilization that would bring life to the women’s, antiwar, environmental, LGBTQ, and disability rights movements. Hedgeman and other black women played essential roles in the organizing that led up to the march, as well as in the larger civil rights struggle of which the march was a part. Their styles of leadership and activism, as well as their own understandings of the intersections of race and class and gender, shaped the movement in important and lasting ways. Yet before and during the march, women were largely ignored by the male organizational leadership and by the media. Since then, these women have been, with few exceptions, ignored by historians as well. Hedgeman’s contributions to the march, paired with her attempts to get the male leaders to embrace gender as well as racial justice, provide a critical new lens for understanding the civil rights movement’s limits as well as its legacies.

By all accounts, Hedgeman should have been one of the speakers at the March on Washington. She was an established leader with a long history of energizing crowds and moving them to action. She had served on the planning committee for the march from day one. But the male leaders balked, refusing to consider women as speakers and remaining unwilling or unable to acknowledge, own, or eradicate the deep discrimination they practiced. The irony was not lost on Hedgeman. As proud as she was of the interracial and interfaith effort, she felt angry listening to Dr. King’s speech, wishing he had claimed “We Have a Dream” rather than “I Have a Dream,” acknowledging the far larger collective of which black women were an essential part.

Given the resistance she encountered in her work on the March on Washington, and in other civil rights endeavors over her long life, Anna Arnold Hedgeman felt at times bitter and humiliated. She met resistance from male organizers who dismissed her entreaties for the full involvement of women, activists who scorned policy initiatives and policymakers who dismissed the potential of mass movements, and white religious and civic leaders who felt that the march, or other solitary events, formed ends in themselves. She relied on her faith and her family as she resolutely carried on. Because she viewed racism and sexism as religious assaults, and as damaging to perpetrators as they were to victims, and because she attempted to articulate those concerns to a wide variety of audiences, her life story uncovers many of the critical complexities of the nation’s continuing march toward dignity, equality, and justice for all its citizens.

In “Oughta Be a Woman,” the poet June Jordan explores the ways in which Americans, black and white, have depended so thoroughly on black women but then also paid them so little mind. “What do you think would be her surprise,” Jordan writes of the black woman, “if the world was as willing as she’s able.”

Hedgeman had such a world in her sights, and she drew the nation a bit closer to it. Her long and fascinating life provides a meditation on some of the most enormous changes in our nation’s last century, as well as on the still unfinished social justice work ahead of us. Anna Arnold Hedgeman’s life story encourages us, still, to be as willing as she was able.

Adapted from Until There Is Justice by Jennifer Scanlon with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2016 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.

 
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