The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture | Hooks National Book Award Finalist

This post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalists, written by the authors.

By Deanna M. Gillespie

The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture retells the story of the civil rights movement to foreground southern Black women’s formal and informal networks.  From 1957 to 1972, the CEP empowered thousands of Black women to teach their friends and neighbors to read and write.  This was subversive work in the Jim Crow South.  Literacy skills shifted the balance of power because literate Black people gathered information, registered formal complaints, demanded equal treatment, signed their names, and they stood in front of white county clerks and took the literacy test required for voter registration.  Across the South, Black women organized CEP classes in church halls, community centers, living rooms, and beauty salons. These makeshift classrooms were incubators for collective action.  Gathering twice a week for three months, local people organized to address long-standing inequities in social welfare and community well-being, affordable and accessible health care, equality and justice, education, and criminal justice reform.

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Black women taught CEP classes because it was familiar work.  It was “women’s work.”  In segregated all-Black schools designed to teach racial inferiority, Black teachers told and retold stories of resistance and achievement.  In local communities, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors guided children safely through Jim Crow’s unforgiving rules.  They taught the Bible on Sunday mornings and carried the message through the week.  Theirs was – and is – a political culture built on family and community, constant struggle, and the unshakable belief in human dignity and a just and better day.

Organized into four case studies, the book traces the CEP’s evolution from its beginnings on the South Carolina Sea Islands, to expansion into Savannah and southeastern Georgia, out to Mississippi, and back to Selma and Alabama’s Black Belt.  In the final chapter, I examine the program’s decline after 1965, a reminder of how quickly pieces can scatter when political winds shift.  By the time the CEP ended in 1972, the program had trained over two thousand local leaders who organized 7280 classes, reaching over 26,000 people. As teachers and students fanned out, they influenced an estimated 95,000 people to register and to vote.

The CEP tapped into a deeply-rooted gendered political culture and recent elections provide evidence of its enduring nature.  In Fall 2020, the United States held a presidential election during a global pandemic.  Across the country, voter participation soared through expanded use of mail-in ballots, drop-boxes, and early voting periods.  Grass-roots organizing and mobilization turned reliably-“red” Georgia “blue” for the first time in a generation.  News coverage shined a bright spotlight on Black women’s clubs, organizations, and local leadership.  Likewise, inDecember 2017, headlines announced Democrat Doug Jones’s victory for Alabama’s contested U.S. Senate seat.  Within hours, #BlackWomen trended on social media.  In post-election interviews, these women cited concerns about the future of social welfare programs, health care, education, and criminal justice reform as motivation for political action – the same issues that enlivened CEP classes a generation before.

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