Story and Interview by Maureen Hartmann
I first met Frances M. Beal in a poetry group in our senior residence in Oakland. Later, beginning in August 2011, I came to know her for three years as a somewhat feisty fellow resident council member. Our board meetings involved some personal sharing and I got to know in the meetings that she had a doctorate in African-American women’s studies from the Sorbonne.
I am concerned about race relations in Oakland, and I have personal friendships that matter to me. In the 1960s, as a young woman studying existential philosophy, I was concerned about civil rights in the southern states.
I participated in the Oakland Stand Up for Peace on Saturday, March 14, 2015, held by S.A.V.E. (Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere) in which African-Americans and whites commemorated and prayed for those slain by gun violence in Oakland, and for those they left behind.
A black mother participant expressed grief for the loss of her murdered son. As an Episcopal woman, who converted from Catholicism partly because they allow women to be priests, and as someone concerned about women’s rights, I do have some understanding of the grief of a mother who has to bury a son lost to senseless violence.
I was at Frances Beal’s 75th birthday party this year, and became inspired to write about her activism, after photographs of her life were screened. The best writing venue of which I could think was Street Spirit, for which I had written before.
It is a privilege and an honor to be able to write about a woman of such courage and wit. Frances M. Beal is the daughter of an African-American father and a Jewish mother, born in Binghamton, New York, on Jan. 13, 1940.
She developed a political conscience early in life, in part because of society’s anti-Semitism and racism, and spent her life as an activist, organizing and writing in the movements for civil rights, racial justice, peace and women’s rights.
As a young woman, she went to France and studied at the Sorbonne, and became aware of the international dimensions of the struggle for justice through meeting students involved in working to end the colonial domination of Algeria.
When she returned to the U.S., she began working with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the early 1960s. In 1968, Beal became a founding member of the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee, which evolved into the Third World Women’s Alliance.
She became nationally known due to her important 1970 study of the intersection of race, class and gender oppression, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.”
Frances Beal is a living link to the era of radical social change when civil rights activists also were protesting the war in Vietnam, and began organizing on issues of women’s rights and economic injustice. Beal describes it as “the triple oppression of race, class and gender.”
Beal worked for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1987 to 2005. She was elected the national secretary of the Black Radical Congress. She also has been a lifelong peace activist, and her antiwar commitment stretches from protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s all the way to her recent opposition to the war in Iraq and the Middle East.
I think of the boar symbolism in the movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” about a six-year-old black girl and her father in Mississippi. The boars, protecting and companioning black and white children, were for me symbols of wit and courage, and of a God beyond gender, as in former pagan times they had godlike qualities. They are related, for me, to the stamina of Francis M. Beal.
Beal’s life also seems related to Oakland artist Charles Curtis Blackwell’s religious poetry concerning biblical women and modern women he personally knew. In his books, Is the Color of Mississippi Mud and Redemption in Blindness, he definitely expresses belief in women’s rights, supporting and strengthening her stance.
While I was preparing the Street Spirit interview, I saw the new documentary, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” at her suggestion, which featured Beal as she spoke out on women’s rights. I was extremely impressed with her sincerity and conviction. The film is a documentary history of the early years of the modern women’s movement, from 1966 to 1971.
In this important and very well-reviewed new film,“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” Frances Beal is featured several times speaking for women’s rights.
In the Village Voice review of the film, Alan Scherstuhl called it“one of the year’s best films.” He added, “That defiant sisterhood changed the workplace, our sexual politics, our language. ‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’ is the best filmed account of how that happened you could ever expect to see.”
Ms. Magazine reviewer Kitty Lindsay wrote, “A feminist film masterpiece. Offers an inspiring account of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s.”
Frances M. Beal is meaningful to me because she is a woman willing to struggle for the rights of the vulnerable, especially for women’s rights, lesbian rights, and for economic justice and equal job opportunities for low-income people. That is why I was inspired to interview her for Street Spirit.
The Street Spirit Interview with Frances Beal
Maureen Hartmann: Can you describe your family and upbringing? And how did this affect your later work for human rights?
Frances M. Beal: I come from a working-class family. My father was a truck driver. My mother was a housewife — her job during those days. My mother came from an immigrant Jewish family. My grandfather was very involved in politics.
My mother was the first child born in America. They entered the United States in the early 1900s. The two older siblings were born in Denmark, because that was the country that was taking refugee Jews at the time. My father was born in 1904, so they were about ten years apart.
Having an African-American father and a Jewish mother in a town that was very reactionary was difficult for the children. All children want to belong, and I had a great need in that direction. I fortunately took it out in a positive way, by trying to be the best of everything: the best reader, the best mathematician, the best in trying out for sports, the best in trying out for music.
My mother didn’t make things easier. Aside from being Jewish in an anti-Semitic town, she also was a member of the Communist Party involved in labor organizing. My mother protested in front of “Birth of a Nation,” which was a very racist film that was produced at the time. I can remember as a child being embarrassed. Why does my mother have to do this?
My father was no less a conscious person as a black man. He was part Native American. By that time he was a labor organizer, and it was kind of rough there too. My father told of the bosses coming around with thugs. The gangsters were the truck-owners in the life within which I grew up.
Even though on a superficial level, you don’t want your parents to be different from everybody else; on another level, you’re learning about injustice. My mother had a lot of educational material for us kids. I remember one book (at home), The Pictorial History of the Negro People in America by Langston Hughes.
Black history had, of course, not even begun to be thought about in terms of transformation of the educational system.
I’ll give you an example of what my mother was like. The teacher was teaching about slavery as a benign system for giving food, for giving clothing. The slaves had all these things given to them, unlike other people. Mom made sure we kids confronted this view in the classroom and insist slavery was a system where people got beaten, they could not go where they wanted to go and families got split up.
African-Americans did not sit there and take it: there were all kinds of resistance. For inequities, you have a personal and political and social responsibility to do something about it.
My mother, because she was a communist, was concerned about class and racial issues, but also gender issues. She was also interested in the struggle for peace. Growing up in a small town with progressive parents — that was my background.
Hartmann: When did you get married and start your own family?
Beal: I went abroad to France in my junior year. My husband had been in the Navy. He was on a ship that went around the Mediterranean. Racial relations in the mid-’50s in the United States were not pretty. One of the murders that affected me then was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, suspected of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi.
Both my daughters were born in France. We stayed for six years. I attended the Sorbonne. There I started to raise a family. The marriage was not on the best of grounds. There was a lot of passion and I knew my husband since I was 15 years old. We began having a good time living in Paris. But once the kids came it was a little different. The other problem — he was an alcoholic. He would go out and drink. He came from a family that was a series of alcoholics. They did not just take a drink too much now and then; they were clinical alcoholics.
After the kids came, we grew apart, so we decided to come home to dissolve the marriage, where we have family. When I asked him for child support for the kids, however, he would see it as asking for money for me.
Hartmann: How did you begin working for civil rights and social change?
Beal: The good thing that happened, my ex hooked up with a woman from Denmark who was very fond of the girls and encouraged him to pay child support. My mother and my brothers provided moral support and helped me with child rearing.
I went to work to support my family and was lucky to land a job at the National Council of Negro Women. I had concerns and involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement, and felt I could get a position there.
This was during the period of the Vietnam War. All of us were protesting. It was a question of a war which was not justified, and in which the U.S. was an aggressor. It was a new concept for America.
Blacks had a history of struggling for peace. There was a 1935 demonstration of 50,000 people in Harlem, protesting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. We have our African American spokespersons like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson.
Finally, I connected with the Civil Rights movement. I started to work with the International Affairs Commission of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). While I was in France, I got a sense of the anti-colonial struggle on a world-wide basis. I was in some café discussions with some Africans. I also came across an old copy of Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
When I came back here, it was mostly to civil rights contacts. I spoke French, and I had already an international contact with SNCC.
Hartmann: How did you become involved with the Women’s Movement?
Beal: How I became involved in the Woman’s Movement was very interesting. I was working with an entity of SNCC, called the National Black Antiwar Antidraft Union. The purpose was to discourage young blacks from going off to war. Most of the staff was female.
What really angered us was that James Forman, a SNCC leader, was pushing for a political alliance with the Panthers. We were concerned about how women were treated and how they were oppressed within that organization. He came back with a book by Eldridge Cleaver, called Soul on Ice. We came to the conclusion that Eldridge Cleaver was a thug who raped black women to work himself up to raping white women. We wrote a response to that book, called Soul on Fire.
Other female issues began to concern us. We found many black women had been sterilized without their knowledge. That convinced us of the need for good, safe, birth-control methods. The abortion issue was one that the right-wing made the focus. It was not just an assault on women’s abortion rights: it was an assault on women’s right to birth control. That is how I became an active voice for black women’s liberation.
Hartmann: What originally sparked your determination to become so involved in the struggle for civil rights?
Beal: I was living in France at the time and I did some writing explaining the Civil Rights movement. In France, we saw the news of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Eisenhower sending troops in. The U.S. was in the so-called Cold War, the fight for democracy against the Soviet Union. Yet here the U.S. was oppressing its own people, Negroes as we called ourselves.
[Editor: In 1957, after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling in an all-white high school in Little Rock, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to allow the students to attend the formerly segregated school.]
Hartmann: When you returned to the United States, how did your involvement in civil rights organizing lead you on to peace activism and women’s rights?
Beal: I participated in some of the civil rights demonstrations as well as local struggles for welfare rights and the fight to legalize abortion in New York. During the March on Washington in 1963, I was 8-1/2 months pregnant at the time with my second daughter, Lisa. SNNC was pulling people together and organizing for the March which brought 250,000 people to the nation’s capital, the largest mass demonstration ever at that time.
As the Third World Women’s Alliance, we participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. We were involved in civil rights and gender rights struggles, and there was the moral question of dropping bombs that would eliminate large numbers of people. There was the idea that the end of the world could have taken place, if some idiot had pressed the red button.
During that period, a lot of the focus was on Vietnam. It had been raised in Congress that nuclear weapons be used against the Vietnamese people.
In the late sixties and early seventies, the beginning stages of the women’s movement took place. Some women were beginning to feel like second-class citizens within the anti-war movement, as well as working in the anti-racist movement. That was the birth of the modern-day women right’s movement.
Women of all classes and races participated in what became known as the women’s liberation movement. That’s what the new film, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” tries to document.
We were no longer prepared to accept a lot of anti-female attitudes, all the way from abortion to equality on the job to equality within social justice movements. SNCC had women doing things they had never done before, running meetings and creating agendas.
Hartmann: Do you believe we have we progressed in inter-racial relations since 1963?
Beal: There has been some progress since then, but we have a long way to go. We have to realize that interracial justice also involves Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans. We see a child of more than one race, and we are not as shocked as in 1963. People still say, it is all right for you, but think of the children, their identity questions, how other people perceive them.
There has been some progress. We have mixed-race people on a massive level. We still have people who talk about that as a bad thing. We have moved beyond the raw racism of the 1960s, but race is still a defining issue so far as educational and economic opportunities are concerned. And as the Trevor Martin case shows, a white man can gun down a black male child and an all-white jury will set him free. Yes, race still matters.
Hartmann: What do you think happened with racial relations as a result of Martin Luther King’s assassination?
Beal: I think there was an immediate response. “Martin Luther King was one of the bravest black men we have lost in this struggle,” as Ossie Davis said at his funeral. Amongst blacks, some of my students did not know who he was just five years later. He was a person calling for racial justice. A lot of people took up the struggle. What united them was that he and Malcolm X were both proposing racial justice in America. Both were murdered. When you look around today, and you see the assaults on young black men, and white men getting away with it, you realize we have not advanced very far. Black lives matter.
Massive incarceration of young black people in this country has become a goal, a tool, for controlling the black population. It’s also denying people the right to vote. In many states, you lose your right to vote for life, or in California, you lose for the length of your furlough. I worked with Michelle Alexander in the ACLU on racial profiling issues. Her book documents the mass incarceration of African Americans and calls it the new civil rights issue.