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The Combahee River Collective

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face. -- Combahee River Collective

Two earlier organizations formed in the early 70s were the the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and Black Women Organized for Action (BWAO).  Both clearly reflected the goals put forth in the Combahee River Collective Statement. (Although the statement had not yet been written at the time of their inception, the ideas and dialogue which influenced the statement were being created during that time.). The membership of these organizations included black women from all class levels; well-educated, middle-class women who worked together with poorly-educated women on welfare to address issues that pertained to all of them.  Because all of the women were affected by sexism as well as racism in their various fields of employment, these issues were specifically addressed by these organizations.

Concerned about the rising tide in Black male sexism and chauvinism, many African-American women active in political and social movements spoke out. Some African-American women were drawn to small radical feminist groups such as the Redstockings and WITCH. However, during the early to mid-1970's most Black feminists avoided the predominantly white women's movement. They found their white counterparts unaware of the importance of race and racism, and some really resented the way white women equated their plight with Black people. When white women appealed to sisterhood, African-American women were quick to point out that historically their relations with one another had been as domestic servants or in some capacity as an employee. More importantly, most Black women activists did not separate their fight for women's rights from issues affecting the entire Black community. The majority of Black feminists did not believe, as many of their white counterparts did, that all men were the enemy. In January 1973, fifteen African-American women active in San Francisco and Oakland, California, founded Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA). By the end of the year approximately 400 African-American women gathered in New York City to attend the first conference of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). It became clear from the speeches that the NBFO's emphasis would be on combating sexist and racist discrimination
against Black women and struggling for greater involvement in the political process. Many journalists and activists took special note of the diversity of participants. Black women from all walks of life, from lawyers to domestic workers, welfare rights
organizers to polished elected officials.

Although the different backgrounds of these women enriched the discussion from the floor, it also created tensions. After its first year, Black women active in the welfare rights movements felt the NBFO side-stepped the problems of poor women, and many African-American lesbians criticized the NBFO for ignoring homophobia (fear of, and discrimination against, homosexuals) and for speaking only to issues affecting heterosexual women.

In 1974, The lesbian community though, having fought very hard to build an inclusive Black woman's movement that considered the needs of all - irrespective of class or sexual orientation, felt the NBFO abandoned the movement's initial goals. Partly in response to the NBFO's shortcomings, and partly in response to a series of unsolved murders of African-American women in Boston during the early 1970's, a group of Black feminists in Massachusetts formed the Combahee River Collective. They split from the NBFO and developed a radically different political philosophy. For the Combahee River Collective, Black women could not be completely liberated until racism and homophobia are annihilated, and unless capitalism is replaced by socialism. Equality with men under the current economic arrangements was not enough, they argued.

Formed in 1974 in Boston and cofounded by Barbara Smith, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) took its name from the South Carolina river that was the site of a military action led by Harriet Tubman that freed hundreds of slaves.  As stated by the CRC, they were "a Black feminist group in Boston whose name came from the guerrilla action conceptualized and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. This action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman." This influential statement succinctly analyzed the divergences and convergences between the Black Arts Movement and the Black feminist movement.  Combahee River Collective was founded to work on African-American women's issues.  During its six years of existence, this group worked on issues including violence against women, racism, sexism and heterosexism and reproductive rights.  In their statement, they described themselves as:

...actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression...our particular task [is] the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.

Unlike the lesbian movement led by white women, participants in this movement advocated complete analysis of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist oppression. This movement was significantly influenced by the black women's movement as black lesbians found problems with the ideology of both straight black women and queer white women.  There is very little documentation of black lesbian organizing in the black women's movement, however it is reasonable to suspect that homophobia and heterosexism within this movement led to the dissatisfaction of many black lesbians. The most obvious institutional link between the two movements was The National Black Feminist Organization. Founded in 1963 in an effort to link the theory of the feminist movement to the racial and class issues that were vital to the lives of black women, this organization was one of the most significant contributors to the black feminist movement and was the incubator for one of the most significant organizations in black lesbian history. The CRC, a group of black lesbians that separated from the National Black Feminist Organization in 1974, articulated the goals of the black lesbian feminist movement when they wrote A Black Feminist Statement in 1977.

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) penned, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (CRC, 1982, p. 278). In that same treatise, the CRC wrote, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community . . .” (p. 275).

The CRC's self-definition is a defining break with the Black Power, and hence the Black Arts Movement, formulation of Black womanhood. "We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough." (Combahee 275) Moreover, there was a clear call for both unity and struggle.

Even as many lesbian separatists demanded its members purify themselves of Patriarchal influences through cutting off ties first to men, and then to straight women, bisexual women, sex workers, S/M practitioners, and anyone else who were viewed as being manipulated by the Patriarchy into having false consciousness. In doing so, lesbian separatism. The CRC criticized this kind of Puritanism and wrote:

"Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand... We reject the stance of lesbian separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us."

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism. (Combahee 275)

Combahee River Collective members Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier march in a memorial to eleven women of color murdered in the Boston area (1979). A coalition which included the Combahee River collective, a Boston black feminist group, staged marches, held rallies, and organized to bring attention to the indifference of police and the media to violence against women of color. Photo: Tia Cross


Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States (

Traitorous Blacks, Unnatural Women, and Invisible Queers: [Word Doc]  or for HTML click here

Some Thoughts On The BRC, The "Post-Civil Rights Era", And The
History Of Black Radicalism
-- By Robin D. G. Kelley

Books:  Combahee River Collective (1977/1982). The Combahee River Collective statement. In B. Smith (Ed.), HOMEGIRLS: A Black feminist anthology (pp. 272-82). New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.




The Combahee River Collective Member

Barbara Smith



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