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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Black Working-Class Women from St. Louis Played Critical Role in the Fight for Civil Rights

MU scholar offers historical context to black social movements

December 28th, 2015

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By Sheena Rice

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Recently, the nation has been focused on conversations about race relations and discrimination. Some college students and community activists nationwide have referenced the fight for civil rights in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet, University of Missouri historian Keona K. Ervin says that movements around race, equality and economic justice in the state have a long history. St. Louis, for example, not only was home to racial segregation and economic inequality, it also was a hub of organized resistance with black women at the center. Ervin credits these relatively unknown black women for the movement for black freedom and the conversations around racism that continue today.

“Ora Lee Malone, Jean King, and Carrie Smith may not be the household names that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are, but a critical mass of 20th century labor activists from St. Louis had a significant impact on this region and beyond,” said Ervin, an assistant professor of history and an affiliate faculty member in the MU Department of Black Studies. “I was fortunate to meet Malone, and found that she, like other black women in the city, used unions, community institutions, and labor organizing to advance economic justice in their communities.”

Ervin interviewed Malone and developed a lasting relationship with her, learning from their in-depth conversations about activism from the 30s through the 80s. As a result, Ervin is finishing her first book, an in-depth look at African-American women’s economic activists in the urban Midwest from 1931-1969, and is able to provide historical context to social movements currently occurring nationwide.

“Malone’s trajectory as a community leader does not fit the way we typically think about Civil Rights activism,” Ervin said. “She was a woman who believed in the promise of democratic unionism and used struggles around wages and working conditions as the avenue to advocate for justice. Black working-class women played prominent leadership roles in the movement for economic equity. For instance, a 1969 rent strike in St. Louis was the culmination of years of tension between public housing tenants and the St. Louis Housing Authority that erupted when rents were unexpectedly raised. Led by women such as Jean King, tenants organized and went on ‘strike,’ refusing to pay rent until their demands—capped rent, timely maintenance and tenant control—were met. The rent strike once again put St. Louis on the map nationally with regard to debates on race, housing and segregation. Struggles for racial justice always have been more than just sitting wherever you want on the bus. Through strikes and boycotts, activists were able to bring issues of economic equality, dignity and economic justice to the forefront; we are seeing similar movements and fights happening today.”

Ervin specializes in African-American women’s history, U.S. urban and labor history and the history of black social movements. She received her bachelor’s degree from Duke in 2001 and her master’s and doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis. Her upcoming book on black women’s labor activism in St. Louis, “The Labor of Dignity: Black Women, Urban Politics, and the Struggle for Economic Justice in the Gateway City, 1931-1969,” will be published in late 2016 by the University Press of Kentucky for its series, Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century.