When you think about those people who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, many women are left out of those conversations and barely receive much recognition even if they did most of the work.
In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, through one-on-one interviews, author Janet Dewart Bell praised women who you may or may not know, illustrating the remarkable journeys of nine strong, passionate women who committed their lives to fighting for civil rights to confront American racism with bold resolve, Bell says.
Telling their stories through their own words, it makes the reader feel a sense of personal connection to these women. And as a reader, I felt as if I was immersed in the conversation.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been highly interested in learning about our unsung sheroes who consistently fought to make the world a better place, so when I stumbled across this book, I had no choice but to read it.
During the Civil Rights Movement, black women were the backbone in various avenues – whether that was Georgia Gilmore, a cook who helped organized raising money in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or Elaine R. Jones becoming the first woman president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Each, Bell writes, “engaged in actions across a range of fields including law, education, and journalism,” bringing awareness to and fighting for the rights of Black people, making them leaders in their own right.
Each woman on whom Bell shines a light – Leah Chase, Dr. June Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers-Williams – possessed unique leadership skills, personalities and roles in the movement.
These nine women went above and beyond merely fulfilling their duties, which Bell outlines in this book.
For instance, Myrlie Evers-Williams was not just the widow of civil rights figure Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the couple’s driveway in Jackson in 1963. She served as a paid office secretary for the NAACP when Medgar became field secretary in Mississippi. Not only a mother to three children, she served as director of communications for the Atlantic Richfield Company, became the first black woman to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works and won chair of the NAACP, to name a few accomplishments.
Frightened by the movement and not fully understanding it at first, Chef Leah Chase, owner of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, didn’t initially feel that she and her contemporaries were supportive during the movement. But, her family’s restaurant was a safe haven for black people – activists could hold meetings while getting a meal of gumbo and fried chicken. Chase’s restaurant was able to bring white and black people together in a time where this was beyond defiant and illegal.
And Aileen Hernandez, she was the first woman and African American to be appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1964; she eventually resigned because the agency failed to adequately address the issue sexual harassment. She was also the first African American president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), but left because they elected all-white officers.
Bell, a social justice activist herself, chose nine women to focus on. What I loved the most was each women in the book named other women who were just as important as they were.
These women made important contributions politically, socially, and intellectually to this movement even knowing they would and could face danger, but despite this fact, they kept going because they knew they were fighting for the greater good.
And for that, everyone should know their names.
“They answered the call for freedom, showing courage, commitment, and passion. They were principled and steadfast. They lit the fire and showed the way,” Bell writes.
“All of these women continued to serve after the height of their civil rights involvement – not only the broader black community but the nation as a whole.”
Bell will appear on the panel, “National Civil Rights History,” at 1:30 p.m. in the state capitol room 113. Other panelists include Randall Pinkston and Anne Farris Rosen.