A Road Map for Women’s Leadership
By Aljosie Aldrich Knight, National Council of Elders
Fay Bellamy Powell , one of the South’s most amazing lifelong organizers for human rights, justice and social change, won’t be around to celebrate International Women’s Day this year. On January 4, 2013 she succumbed to cancer in Atlanta, Georgia.
On February 22 hundreds of people gathered in the auditorium of the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta to celebrate her life and legacy.w.w.w.afpls.org/aar
Fay’s life is a road map for young and old, searching for inspiration, clarity, and direction.
Growing up in the small town of Clairton, Pa. not far from Pittsburgh, Fay suffered the discrimination and racism experienced by all African Americans,. But in 1955, when she was 17, the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, transformed her consciousness. Just being concerned with her own life lost its flavor. Then, in 1963, when Fay heard of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, she knew, she said, that “play time was over.”
Searching for the “baddest” Civil Rights organization, Fay joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was assigned to Selma, Alabama, to run the field office. With top notch skills acquired in business school, she became “the glue of the field operation.” Between the demonstrations held every other day and under dangerous, hostile conditions, she wrote press releases, worked with national and international press, coordinated logistics, documented operations and participated in the second Selma to Montgomery March.
In 1965, with co-worker Silas Norman she went to Tuskegee, Alabama, to talk to Malcolm X and ask him to come to Selma to speak . There is a photo of her sitting next to Malcolm in the pulpit of Brown Chapel in Selma.. In her essay in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women of SNCC, she writes how proud she was that Malcolm complimented the work SNCC was doing and said that he wanted to work with SNCC. Three weeks later he was assassinated in New York City.
After joining the national staff of SNCC in Atlanta, Fay started a newsletter, The African American, to enhance communication and unity between office staff and field staff. She pressed SNCC to open travel opportunities to rank and file staff. Her own travel opportunities included the USSR, Europe, and Central Asia. During these trips , meeting with local people and learning more about liberation struggles, she grew in international consciousness.
Elected to SNCC’s Coordinating Committee and Executive Committee, Fay strongly supported black power, African liberation struggles, Palestinian Independence, and protested against the War in Vietnam. Her co-workers , James Forman and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) are publicly recognized but nobody worked harder than Fay Bellamy Powell. After long work days, she volunteered nights in the law office of SNCC attorney, Howard Moore, Jr. In a letter read at the celebration of her life, Moore said that he would not have been able to handle the high volume of legal cases without Fay’s skilled typing and transcribing work.
Like most women, Fay Bellamy Powell, did not operate on just one front. She co-founded WRFG Radio Free Georgia (www.wrfg.org), a station dedicated to progressive information. Her show,” Inside Out”, remained on the air for 26 years. The program combined jazz, news, social commentary, and interviews. An initial focus on prison issues gained her a following with inmates at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Her strong, loving, intelligent, socially conscious, no nonsense qualities made her a mentor to many young women who are now community organizers and activists. She also developed her artistic and entrepreneurial capacities by converting some of her landscape photographs into greeting cards which she printed or mounted as wall art and sold to an appreciative audience.
Fay was my cherished friend, talented co-worker at the Institute of the Black World, a fierce worker for social justice and exemplar of female leadership.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to recall the life and legacy of leaders for these times. It is a day to gather our daughters and granddaughters as well as our sons and grandsons to read about the lives and legacies of women leaders. It is a day to talk with them about the children of Selma, Alabama who were the backbone of the Selma Movement, to read about Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Wangari Maathai (Unbowed: a Memoir, 2007), Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (My Beloved World, 2013) and 97 year old philosophic activist Grace Lee Boggs (Living for Change: An Autobiography, 1998). Turn off the televisions and other electronic devices. Spend time together talking about women leaders in your community or your family.
I plan to share stories about “Ma B”, my mother, Mamie Aldrich Baker, a self-appointed community leader during my childhood in Salisbury, NC.
I will remind my children and grandchildren that we are the leaders we have been waiting for.
Saturday, March 9, 10-3 pm, the UAW Women’s Department and the Boggs Center are cohosting “Listen to Women for a Change”, an annual International Women’s Day Celebration. UAW-GM Center, 200 Walker St. Detroit 48207. Free event. Lunch provided.