- Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle by Rebecca Tuuri
Founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) has worked for more than eighty years to improve the lives of black women in the United States. Bethune sought to "unite black women's sororities, professional organizations, and auxiliaries to act as a clearinghouse to augment the political and professional power of black women" (p. 2). For its first twenty-five years, the NCNW was a bourgeois philanthropic organization, sponsoring cotillions, high teas, and scholarships for young black women. By 1960, facing falling attendance at its social events, the NCNW began to shift its focus to more direct civil rights work, though, as Rebecca Tuuri argues in Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, it did so always with an eye toward moderation, accommodation, and interracial cooperation. At the height of its membership and influence, the NCNW served as a pass-through organization for federal grants, corporate philanthropy, and foundation funds to support War on Poverty programs in the Mississippi Delta and community development projects in southern Africa. By the early 1980s, as Ronald Reagan–era austerity led to fewer federal dollars for social welfare programs, the NCNW embraced neoliberal corporate sponsorships and celebrity foundation money, shifting its [End Page 732] focus back to middle- and upper-class concerns of respectability, credentialing programs, and professionalization workshops.
Tuuri traces the NCNW from Bethune's first meeting in Harlem in December 1935 through the death of Dorothy Height (the NCNW's longest-serving president) and her eulogy by President Barack Obama in 2010. The majority of the text centers on the NCNW's work in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the Mississippi Delta and the partnerships the NCNW was able to broker with grassroots activists, including Fannie Lou Hamer and Unita Blackwell. Tuuri also explores the NCNW's international work in southern Africa and its ability to secure funding from the United States Agency for International Development.
Strategic Sisterhood is as much a biography of Height as it is an institutional history of the NCNW. Height's political pragmatism and networking skills allowed the NCNW to adapt to changing social and economic realities throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Her willingness to take risks—allowing grassroots and local organizers to run the Wednesdays in Mississippi programs in the 1960s and 1970s; employing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Council of Federated Organizations, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party alumni, even as the NCNW eschewed some of their freedom movement tactics; and speaking at the Million Man March at the request of Louis Farrakhan—kept the NCNW an influential organization in national politics.
Tuuri uses an impressive collection of personal papers, oral histories, and government documents to build her argument. She situates her text within the established civil rights and Black Power historiography, though, at times, the argument relies too much on the supposed erasure of NCNW's middle-class activism in the popular understanding of the mid-twentieth-century freedom movement. Tuuri also misses an opportunity to fully analyze the consequences of some of the NCNW's decisions, especially the turn toward corporate and private donor money in the 1980s. Tuuri mostly consigns a limited engagement with Height's acceptance of money and support from Bill and Camille Cosby to a single discursive footnote. Moreover, because Tuuri's argument is focused on the moderate approaches of the NCNW, there is little exploration of critiques or criticisms of the NCNW or the organization's tactics.
Strategic Sisterhood adds to the expanding narrative of mid- and late-twentieth-century struggles to fight racism, sexism, and poverty. The National Council of Negro Women's institutional history and, especially, Dorothy Height's ability to work behind the scenes to create change highlight the ways individuals and organizations worked together...