Funding the Civil Rights Movement
Social movements need money to reach their goals. In her latest book, Tanisha C. Ford introduces readers to Mollie Moon, a major fundraising force behind the civil rights movement.
Through her work, the award-winning historian and author Tanisha C. Ford RI ’19 looks to illuminate the past through the study of material culture. A professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she previously published Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). Her latest book is the biography Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement (Amistad, 2023). We talked with her about the remarkable woman at the center of the book—who raised millions for civil rights while leading a volunteer group associated with the National Urban League—and what she can tell us about the nature of social movements.
Radcliffe Magazine: How did you become interested in how the activities of the civil rights movement were being funded?
Tanisha C. Ford: When I was working on my dissertation, I came across the name Mollie Moon in a story from 1961. I realized that she was this major social figure in Harlem society in the 1960s, and that sent me on a quest to collect as many newspaper articles as I could, thinking that I was going to write a book about Mollie Moon, the hostess, and what we could understand about Black culture through parties and entertainment—a material culture deep dive.
During my Radcliffe year, I started to analyze those newspapers that I had collected—at that point, around a thousand clippings—and I realized that her parties were fundraisers, not just parties for parties’ sake. Mollie Moon was inviting people to venues like the Savoy and the Waldorf Astoria, or even her own home, to raise money for the civil rights movement. And I realized that, wow, this is a topic that’s understudied—something that even I, as a historian of the civil rights era, didn’t know. It sent me down a path of discovering the roots and routes that money took to support everything from voter registration drives to freedom rides, major marches like the March on Washington, and an assortment of other justice-related programming.
RM: Although she came from a modest Southern background and trained as a pharmacist, Mollie Moon was connected to the Black cultural elite early on. Can you say more about how this happened, and what it meant for her career aspirations and trajectory?
TCF: She grew up between the South and the Midwest, and I think she was deeply shaped by both spaces. Much of her education, or educational formation, happened in the South. It’s worth noting that she attended Rust College secondary school for high school, and then she went off to Meharry Medical College for her undergraduate training in pharmacy. There was a mandate that she would join the black bourgeoisie: that the point of this education was racial uplift, that she wouldn't have to struggle financially in the ways that her parents’ generation had. These were people who did not have a college education and, in some cases, had only finished eighth grade, which was very common for African Americans at that time.
She married into a black bourgeois family in New Orleans and quickly became disaffected with that way of life and with the restrictions placed on Black women, with having to adhere to notions of respectability in the ways that Creole society in New Orleans would have mandated. Like a lot of people who were fleeing those kinds of strictures, she decided to move to Harlem in the 1930s.
It’s there that she connected with people—like Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen—who are now luminary figures, who we think of when we talk about the Harlem Renaissance. These folks became her friends. A lot of these people, like Louise Thompson Patterson, had deep, left-leaning politics,. They traveled to Moscow, in 1932, to make a racial propaganda film that looked at the horrors of Jim Crow racism in the South and also labor exploitation. Growing up in the Midwest, Mollie’s family members worked in button factories and sawmills and steel mills, so she could relate to issues around labor exploitation. It was something that affirmed her own working-class background, in a way. She never fit in with Black bourgeois society.
So she left a career in pharmacy and moved into social work, which was an area that was common for African American men and women who wanted to create deep social change, to end mass poverty in black communities, and to support the influx of black migrants moving into urban spaces in the North. Mollie was doing that work while still espousing politics that were rooted in a Black radical left tradition. She and her peers were looking to Communism and Socialism and the potential radical change that could be an alternative to the capitalist system in the United States.
RM: It’s interesting that Moon had these radical roots, but later, in the 50s and 60s, she was considered part of the establishment and criticized for hobnobbing with the white upper class by younger activists. What does this tell us about her success?
TCF: You have this woman who has deep ties to the left. Even when she’s hosting balls and galas, the peers she’s organizing alongside are also Black and white members of the left wing.
When she is tapped to spearhead the National Urban League Guild—which is [an auxiliary fundraising and volunteer group of the National Urban League] her creation, founded just as the US was entering World War II—she’s now thrust into this larger spotlight. The National Urban League has the attention of local and state politicians; the headquarters are in New York City; they are securing funds from major philanthropic families, foundations, and corporations of the day. Now she’s required to work alongside political conservatives, religious conservatives, people that she never would have imagined brushing shoulders with—early in her life, she was very critical of interracial activism. In the late 1940s, even though the National Urban League Guild grows out of the political initiatives of the far left, you can see she’s having to—at least publicly—inch more toward a centrist political stance.
Now, I think in her own personal life she continues to be a political progressive: I never found where she publicly disavows Communism, for example, and she sends her daughter to a school attended by children of parents on the Hollywood blacklist, who were blackballed because of their perceived ties to the Communist party.
But the movement is shifting. Even though the NUL can’t participate in protests in the same way as the NAACP because of its tax status, it, too, is trying to engage in forms of militant organizing. So Mollie is something of a relic of the past by the time we get to the early 1960s because she doesn't align with this militance, even though she and her peers were doing a version of it in the 1930s.
By the mid-1960s, in the eyes of those who are two generations younger, Mollie Moon represents the establishment, the Old Guard who opted to try to work within the system—and that was a failure in their eyes. In the book, I wanted to chart not only Mollie Moon’s transition but also how the political landscape shifted around her.
RM: Mollie Moon raised a lot of money for the movement, but what would you say was her impact beyond that?
TCF: Her legacy definitely goes beyond the money that she raised. She was a very successful fundraiser in the Jim Crow era—and there is something real to be said about the power of doing this work as a Black woman—but she was also a strategist.
Fundraising is a crucial part of the Black organizing tradition, but so is institution building—and Mollie Moon was a major institution builder. She not only supported organizations like the Harlem Community Arts Center and youth-related programs that funded black journalists, but even Dapper Dan, the fashion designer, benefited from programs that Mollie Moon funded for the National Urban League. She was also a PR person—the skill set of the social worker translates well into the nonprofit and public relations spaces—and she chose to do that work within the Black community, to help black business entities fine-tune their messaging and branding to connect with consumers.
RM: Many of the names in this book—Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray, and Dorothy West among them—will be familiar to people who know the Schlesinger Library because their papers are housed there. What was it like to work with those collections?
TCF: The Schlesinger collections were just a godsend—or maybe I should say a Lorde-send: Audrey Lorde, right? They were a true gift because of the collections of Black women. Dorothy West and Mollie Moon were best friends in the 1930s, so there was correspondence. What I couldn’t find of Mollie’s voice in her own personal papers, I could find in Dorothy West’s papers, for example, and that way, I was able to piece together their early life: running around Harlem together, their time in Moscow, Mollie Moon’s time in Berlin. I would not have been able to do that work without the collections.
Also, the oral interviews—like Norma Boyd, for example, who was a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., that Mollie Moon was, and I’m also a member of. Had it not been for her oral interview, I would not have been able to piece together a lot of the early lobbying work that Alpha Kappa Alpha was doing on Capitol Hill related to issues of healthcare, voter registration, and voter rights. So that was an invaluable source. I also was able to use the oral interview of Margaret Cardozo Holmes, one of the founders of Cardozo Sisters Hairstylists, to piece together life in Washington, DC, in terms of both elite-society and working-class African Americans. I started doing that work while I was a Radcliffe fellow but continued it throughout the pandemic because so much of it was digitized. Thank goodness for that. I am deeply indebted to the Schlesinger and the work that the librarians and archivists do to make the materials available to researchers.
RM: Why have you been drawn to writing about social movements through such issues as fashion and money?
TCF: Material culture—clothing, money, those things—helps us understand something about material life. And the day-to-day reality of life, the quotidian, is a way for me to explain to readers the nature of social movements.
Oftentimes, when we think about social movements, we think about altruistic movements that are helmed by perfect people who had such a big vision for change and such a deep commitment. But when you take these people off an unnecessary pedestal and bring them back down to the human levels on which they operated, that becomes a way to bring the movement closer to people so they can understand the past more clearly. These activists were everyday people with the same everyday struggles that all of us have.
Thinking about clothing and money helps me get at that, so I see those things as a connective thread that unites all of my projects. And it allows people beyond the academy to engage with my work. I want the work to translate, and I want it to travel, and I want it to serve as a blueprint in ways that contemporary activists can find useful. And that really is the spirit of my work.
RM: And what’s next for your work?
TCF: Well, the Harlem Community Arts Center became an important chapter in Our Secret Society. It’s Mollie Moon’s first major fundraising initiative. She joins in 1940 and starts doing work for this organization, which is helmed by Augusta Savage and, later, by Gwendolyn Bennett. That center trained [the painters] Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, and they had teachers like Romare Bearden, Langston Hughes, Charles Alston, Selma Day, Selma Burke.
Before I knew it, I had two very long chapters on the center that felt like an institutional history, and my editor was like, “No, this does not flow. You have to trim some of this back.” But what I loved about those two chapters was that they told this rich history of Black community arts traditions, and how the Black arts are central to the long civil rights movement. I couldn’t place a lot of that material in this book, but it will be the basis of my next book project: an experimental biography of Augusta Savage.
I’m piecing together her life and her institution building to fill in the historiographical gaps between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. She will help fill in a missing piece of Black art history and institutional history that we so often overlook when we tell the history of Black arts in this country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ivelisse Estrada is the editor of Radcliffe Magazine.