Feminista Jones, 39 , Author and Activist
I learned about Ora Lee Malone when she died. In 2012, I was just reading through the newspaper and I found the obituary and I was like, “Who is this?” I just went digging. I ended up writing a Women's History Month post about her. Everyone that was reading it was like, "I've never heard of her."
And that’s the problem, for women especially. Whenever we hear about things that seem anonymous, or about [histories] we didn’t know, it's probably because it was a woman that did it. That’s unfortunate.
I definitely think it’s because of what she was doing.
She was born in 1918 in the South. She became one of the nation’s most prominent labor organizers and a lot of people don’t know her story. She was a textile worker, and she was advocating for women and for Black people.
She was really focused on doing both work at the same time, which was rare, because Black women were often forced to choose, and she was like, “No, I’m not going to choose. I am going to do both.”
She was involved in women’s organizations and the NAACP. Malone pushed for unionizing Black workers at textile places and she found that most of the employees were African-American. She was just like, “We need to be one voice,” and because of her groundwork activism, people trusted her and they came behind her. She was the first Black woman to create a textile labor union.
She fought to get the Voting Rights Act passed. When the United States was shipping in cheap materials that were harming people, she was the lead advocate to pass legislation that forced us to check products when they came in, because of the work that she was doing.
She became a go-to person for all expertise related to labor work. We don’t hear her story and she was a Black woman. She did all of this until she died at 93, in 2012. I recommend everyone go look up her story. I wrote about her many years ago just because I didn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of her.
You don’t get to hear these stories. She was just brilliant.
She’s inspired me a lot, because she didn’t compromise on choosing gender over race. She understood the intersection of both and what it meant to be a Black woman. And a woman who is Black in America. She devoted herself to both causes and would find the ways in which she could push both at the same time, which is super important. It's what I do. It's what so many of us do.
She was born during the Great Depression. Her family struggled a lot. They were in Mississippi. She was a dark-skinned woman. She lived through Jim Crow; she lived through the Civil Rights Movement. Her work expanded to South Africa. They were inspired by her to create labor unions. She was huge in advocating for Nelson Mandela’s release. She really had tremendous impact and she made a lot of history. She was the first Black person to do this, first woman to do this, first Black woman to do this. She’s got a lot of those kind of titles. And she was a textile worker. She was sorting items, materials and said, “No, we deserve better treatment. It’s just not right.”
And so she got to creating labor organizations and unionizing in the United States. The unions were always dominated by immigrant white men. A lot of Italian and Polish men and they ran those things unions in collusion with the police. We’re talking about an industry that is dominated by white men and descendants of immigrants who were fighting for their own rights to be recognized as laborers, but yet would also put Black people down and would put women down. Here she comes as a Black woman who was like, “No, we also have a right to unionize and also have a right to be at the table.” And so she was able to do so much of that. You’re talking decades of work.
Her story got suppressed. Again, when it comes to Black history, when it comes to the things that we do, there’s a demand that we not know about them, because it’s empowering.
It empowers us and makes us feel like, “Wow! If these people did it, I can do it, too.” So the more of those stories that they suppress and silence, the less inspiration we have, and that’s why it’s super important for us to make sure that we are getting those stories out, so that children like my son can read that and be inspired and say, “Wow! I can do it, too.”
I know that I am in a public space right now, but I kind of want to retreat. I want to be in the background, supporting folks and I don’t need the glory. I don’t need all the glamor. I really just want to make sure we’re doing the best that we can to make progress towards liberation. That’s what she did. I’ve committed my whole life and she committed her whole life to it. We have a lot of similarities in that regard. Just a passion and a commitment to uplifting women, uplifting Black people, moving us forward. She really inspired, especially on the labor side, the workers. We can be all intellectual and academic all we want, but most of us are out there as workers and laborers who need that support. Especially in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s when those were the only jobs we could really get. So I think about that and my anti-poverty work. I’ve always worked with the people who seem to be forgotten and the least respected, so those parallels were there. I was just really, really inspired by her lifelong commitment to it.
It's really about leaving people flowers while they’re still alive. That’s what it really is and it’s really important for me, especially in my book [Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets], to document history as it’s happening right now and make sure that all these women that I know have their names written somewhere.
Feminista’s Revolutionary Picks:
“She became one of the nation’s most prominent labor organizers and a lot of people don’t know her story. She was a textile worker, and she was advocating for women and for Black people.She was really focused on doing both work at the same time, which was rare, because Black women were often forced to choose, and she was like, “No, I’m not going to choose. I am going to do both.”