The Civil Rights Secret Weapon Black Women Hid In Plain Sight

sculpture of rosa parks in dallas
Briona Lamback
April 1, 2024

Understanding that purses helped paint them as respectable, Black women secretly used their handbags as toolkits for protest and self-defense during the civil rights movement. 

They carried and hid critical items for protection during sit-ins, voting, and on public transportation. This powerful strategy, though, wasn’t entirely new.

During enslavement, women wore oversized clothing without pockets, so they repurposed cotton, tobacco, and flour sacks to create secret pockets underneath their clothing.

Over a decade before Rosa Parks became the face of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, she was using her purse to protest. After a racist driver ordered her off his bus, Parks deliberately dropped her purse into the white-only section, then sat in one of the seats to pick it up.

When it came to self-defense, purses were the perfect accessory. Our women in the movement were locked, loaded, and ready to defend themselves. Many women carried weapons, but they also used their purses as shields against physical assaults.

Finding creative ways to outsmart the system has been our M.O. for generations, and we shouldn’t stop now. What other every day staples can we turn into tools for liberation?