Review: Strategic Sisterhood

David E. Dixon

David E. Dixon is Professor and Chair of Political Science at California State University Domingez Hills.

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David E. Dixon, "Review: Strategic Sisterhood," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Rebecca Tuuri.  Strategic Sisterhood:  The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 313pp. 978-1-4696-3890-4

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Rebecca Tuuri’s Strategic Sisterhood is a thorough study of the evolving activist roles of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) from 1935 to the present day. Tuuri states her purpose on the opening page of the volume, “Black middle-class women, such as those who belonged to the NCNW, have been largely overlooked in favor of more visible, outspoken, and radical activists” (1).  The author offers a clear case that the council was an important contributor to the civil rights movement and makes the tacit distinction of working behind the scenes (e.g., National Council of Negro Women and its subsidiary organizations) versus taking to the streets (e.g., CORE, COFO, NAACP, MDFP, SCLC and SNCC).  It will help the reader to make frequent use of the well-placed acronym table (xi-xii)

Chapter one focuses on the early years, emphasizing especially the roles of Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height (4; 12-36).  Chapters two through four document the organization’s shift from social auxiliary to civic action in the wake of the March on Washington (5; 37-102).  This section concludes with lovely inset photos.  Chapters five and six detail the shift to grassroots anti-poverty activism made possible in large part when the NCNW was granted tax exempt status in 1966 (7; 103-148).    Chapters seven and eight show the NCNW’s broadening scope of activity to national and international issues (9; 149-202).  The conclusion details the organization’s transition from public funding to dependence on private donors (203-209).

Tuuri’s research is impressive.  The acknowledgements and bibliography list at least four dozen interviews (277-281).  She consulted archival materials at National Archives for Black Women’s History, Jackson State University, University of Virginia, Tulane University, University of Mississippi, Millsaps College, Mississippi State Archives, University of Southern Mississippi, Smith College, Howard University, University of North Carolina, and the Library of Congress (212). The project was funded by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the LBJ Presidential Library, University of Southern Mississippi, Smith College, and Rutgers University (211).

This careful scholarship makes at least a twofold contribution.  First, readers from many humanities and social science disciplines will appreciate the effort to give credit where due to under-studied movement stalwarts such as Dorothy Height, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Ferebee, Vivian Mason, Edith Sampson, Billie Hetzel, Flaxie Pinkett, Margaret Roach, Justine Randers-Pehrson, Flossie Dedmond, Fannie Lou Hamer, Polly Cowan, Christabel Zondo, Lenora Moragne, Ruth Minor, Kay Fits, Victoria Mojekwu, Diana Opondo, Elizabeth Nkomeshya, Maida Spring Kemp, Mae King, Anne Turpeau, Nancy Moatlhodi, Dovey Davis, Emma Agyepong, Nellie Okello, Salimatu Diallo, and others (inset following 102).  Second, the narrative thrusts readers into a fascinating and perplexing conceptual world, showing how cross-cutting organizational loyalties tugged at the ideological core of all these women as NCNW, CORE, SCLC, SNCC, and other organizations competed in the realm of political voluntarism.  Tuuri’s welcome volume is important for undergraduate audiences and required for graduate and postdoctoral studies.