‘Lighting the Fires of Freedom’: Telling the Stories of African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

African American women played significant roles at all levels of the civil rights movement, yet too often they remain invisible to the larger public.

In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, Janet Dewart Bell—the latest winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize—shines a light on women’s all-too-often overlooked achievements in the civil rights movement. Through wide-ranging conversations with nine women, several now in their nineties with decades of untold stories, we hear what ignited and fueled their activism. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the book is an enduring testament to the vitality of women’s leadership during one of the most dramatic periods of American history. The following is an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

African American women played significant roles at all levels of the civil rights movement, yet too often they remain invisible to the larger public. While some African American women led causes and organizations—such as Dorothy Height, the president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the National Council of Negro Women, and Dovie Hudson, the NAACP president in Leake County, Mississippi—others did not have titles or official roles. Cooks such as Georgia Gilmore organized to raise money to support the Montgomery bus boycott.

They didn’t stand on ceremony; they simply did the work that needed to be done. They raised money and provided housing and solace—all without expectation of personal gain. These often unnamed women helped to construct the cultural architecture for change.

African American women led a wide range of efforts to desegregate public accommodations and to secure voting rights; they engaged in actions across a range of fields, including law, education and journalism. Women leaders, such as the crusading antilynching journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Rosa Parks, whose courageous refusal to surrender her seat to a white person sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, were also anti-rape activists, trying to protect Black women from the white Southern tradition of “droit de seigneur”—literally, the “right of the lord.”

In the antebellum and Jim Crow South, that meant Black women’s lives and bodies did not matter; white men abused and raped Black women at will and without punishment. African American women leaders addressed the most important and volatile issues of the times, from segregation to lynching, from education to economic justice. Every civil rights campaign included African American women who made important intellectual and political contributions.

Prior to the civil rights movement in the United States in the mid-20th century, African American women played significant roles in struggles for racial justice. Through activities in churches, schools, organizations and the Black women’s club movement, African American women were integral to their communities’ survival and advancement—developing social justice and social programs.

In particular, the Black women’s club movement, which started in the late 19th century through a concerted effort to combat lynching, developed organizational and leadership skills.

The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, founded in 1896, had the motto “lifting as we climb,” meaning that as African American women worked to climb the social and economic ladders, they intentionally and simultaneously lifted African American communities. This tradition of service and sacrifice laid an aspirational and practical foundation for women’s leadership during the civil rights movement, by recognizing social responsibility and community organizing.

Black women brought unique focus and perspectives to their work as leaders in the civil rights movement. With double consciousness—awareness of sex and race—and triple consciousness adding class, these women did work that was a pragmatic and necessary response to societal conditions.

There were many civil rights leaders throughout the country. People put their lives on the line through direct action, such as sit-ins, freedom rides and legal challenges including the children and parents of those first to integrate schools and other public facilities; they were dramatic catalysts for transformative change. People who lived and worked in the heat of the civil rights cauldron were without question the heart and soul of the movement. Their heroic actions—often putting themselves and their families in harm’s way—were without equal. Myrlie Evers always knew the dangers that she and her husband faced, but they persisted.

The young people of SNCC, exemplified by Judy Richardson, worked in hostile environments and faced direct assaults. People who raised funds or provided housing and food to civil rights workers put their own lives and livelihoods in jeopardy. In many instances, isolated and vulnerable sharecropper families in the rural South participated in the civil rights movement in this way.

Leah Chase, in defiance of Jim Crow laws, provided more than food to civil rights workers; she provided a safe haven. Some other participants’ contributions were not as dramatic or fraught with danger but necessary to the freedom struggle. June Jackson Christmas and her husband, Walter, opened their home in New York City to provide respite for civil rights workers from the South. She also provided counseling and fundraising support.

Beyond Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Dorothy Height, most Americans would find it difficult to name women civil rights leaders—though there were many. Lighting the Fires of Freedom presents interviews with nine women leaders in the civil rights movement, some well-known and some not. Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson and Myrlie Evers all have wonderful and complex stories. Their stories are in the tradition of earlier women engaged in freedom struggles such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Nannie Helen Burroughs. In their passionate and committed lives, these women confronted American racism with bold resolve.

Black women brought unique focus and perspectives to their work as leaders in the civil rights movement. With double consciousness—awareness of sex and race—and triple consciousness adding class, these women did work that was a pragmatic and necessary response to societal conditions. In Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice, Patricia Hill Collins describes Sojourner Truth’s “tradition of visionary pragmatism . . . informed by race, class and gender intersectionality, as well as pragmatic actions taken in search of freedom.” Collins’s description of Truth illuminates the tradition of African American women’s leadership. Black women’s leadership often embodies three modes: transformational leadership, servant leadership and adaptive leadership.

To achieve transformative change, African American women had to be creative and adapt nontraditional approaches for their particular circumstances. Eschewing top-down leadership, they encouraged people to develop their own approaches, then supported them to achieve their goals. This practice defines transformational leadership. For example, Diane Nash’s “diligence,” her insistence on reliability and consistency, helped develop an environment of trust so that people could focus on solutions as well as logistical details. Judy Richardson understood the vital significance of running the SNCC telephone service—literally a lifeline for civil rights workers. She listened to what activists needed and provided the service.

Respect is an important value of transformational leadership. Respect manifests in many forms, including being reliable, showing up when needed, being transparent about intentions and process and being inclusive. Enacting this value, Nash and Richardson motivated and inspired others. Transformational leadership changes social systems as well as individuals. It encourages maximum participation and the taking on of leadership roles to effect positive change.

Servant leaders are rooted in their desire first to serve their communities as opposed to gaining power for themselves. African American women embraced work without recognition, but they also realized that strategic recognition helped to foster the work. Servant does not mean servile. The ultimate servant leader was Jesus and African American women have used this model of leadership for generations.

Harriet Tubman was a remarkable servant leader. As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom and also worked as a Union scout and spy. After the Civil War, she moved to upstate New York and established a home for the aged. She never sought personal gain and continued to sacrifice to help others. She was generous and humble, defining traits of African American women social justice leaders.

Adaptive leadership ensures that leaders thrive in challenging environments and receive the support and sustenance necessary to continue their leadership work over a lifetime. African American women leaders developed confidence and a sense of self- worth through the civil rights movement and their contributions, which allowed them to continue lifelong development in their personal and professional lives. Early grounding in Black culture and recognition of their cultural heritage helped them develop effective coping mechanisms. Their individual growth and dedication to improving the lots of Black people were natural consequences of their personal circumstances and philosophy.

The courage these women manifested did not preclude fear. They grappled with known dangers and demonstrated remarkable courage in accepting the uncertain and sometimes dangerous consequences of their leadership. Myrlie Evers’s family home was firebombed and she lived with the threat of bombing and assassination. Diane Nash recounts that several freedom riders gave her sealed envelopes to be mailed in the event of their deaths. Kathleen Cleaver was targeted by the FBI. Judy Richardson and SNCC were constantly under attack and threat of attack.

Despite the danger, these women persevered.

African American women’s leadership is compassionate and loving. When Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of slain teenager Emmett Till, expressed sympathy and love for the children of those who killed her son, she spoke passionately and eloquently about the values of redemption, forgiveness and peace. Bradley’s choice to display the mutilated body of her son was a bold move of adaptive leadership. Forgiveness, as exemplified by Bradley—as well as by both Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King—is assertive and powerful. Those extending forgiveness exhibit moral authority and grace.

In The Bone and Sinew of the Race, Carole Marks writes of the “heroic sacrifice” of Black women household workers. Whether sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer or professionals like teacher Jo Ann Robinson, Black women have borne burdens, been committed activists and dreamed worlds where others might have opportunities that they themselves might not enjoy.

My mother was one of these women.

An extraordinarily intelligent, talented and beautiful woman, she spent much of her life—from the 1940s to the 1960s—working as a maid in households or motels. Her migration to Erie, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1940s—where I was born in 1946—had taken a circuitous path from a small town in Arkansas. Her formal education was cut short because the closest high school that Blacks could attend was in Little Rock, one hundred miles away.

Outside of her work life, my mother—like many other Black women of her era—was an elegant, refined person of great vision who was viewed as a leader in the community. She personified a “servant leader.” She was active in supporting neighbors in need and in our s chools—which our family essentially integrated. As a community leader, my mother created an informal network to assist our neighbors in obtaining food and other basic necessities, purchasing or bartering for food and then giving it to those in greater need than our immediate family.

She was not a part of any formal organization. Partly because we were poor, my mother was not invited to be part of women’s social clubs. She was not active in church either. My mother deemed church hypocritical and too formal. She also knew that there was something wrong with an institution that elevated men while the women did much of the work. Society was not yet using words such as “patriarchal” or “sexist,” but she clearly understood power dynamics between the sexes and did her best to change those dynamics or to work around them when change was not yet possible.

I withdrew from Howard University in my sophomore year and became involved in the civil rights movement in 1966, working primarily in Virginia and Tennessee, with some activities in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. My mother bought me a car to use, stretching far beyond her means to give me a better car than she had ever owned. She had to take on additional work to pay for that extraordinary gift. Although she disagreed with my decision to withdraw from Howard University—a monumental choice, given that I attended on a full academic scholarship and we both believed in the power of education to transform lives—she was still determined to help me and the Movement, in any way she could. She was committed to change and sacrificed to make it happen.

While working in Washington, D.C., I enrolled in Antioch College to complete my undergraduate degree. Earning that degree was the fulfillment of the unspoken sacred oath I made to my mother.

My book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, and my doctoral research grew out of my passion to honor the lives of African American women leaders as I have honored my mother, by presenting their stories of courage and purpose—in their own words. I am extraordinarily pleased that they allowed me to keep their lyricism, cadences and colloquialisms intact. These are real people, sharing real lives.

Like my mother, the women I profile in Lighting the Fires recognized and analyzed the role of race in American society and set out to make a difference. They did not seek fame or fortune—they sought a more just world for themselves and their families.

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Janet Dewart Bell is a social justice activist with a doctorate in leadership and change from Antioch University. She founded the Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society series at the New York University School of Law. An award-winning television and radio producer, she lives in New York City.