The list of women behind the civil rights movement extends beyond the names most of us already know such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Activist Janet Dewart Bell shines a light on these forgotten heroes in Lighting the Fires of Freedom.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Bell’s oral history reflects on the contributions of some of the movement’s female leaders. Bell introduces each of the nine women, offering context for their lives and accomplishments. Throughout Bell’s interviews, many of these leaders refer to one another, an indication of how interconnected their contributions were. The nine histories intersect, but they are also easy to read as independent narratives.
Readers will meet Myrlie Evers, who was as passionate about women’s involvement as she was about the need for men and women to work together. She wouldn’t let Fannie Lou Hamer overlook the support of men who pursued equal rights, including Evers’ own husband. Readers will also meet Kathleen Cleaver, who is quick to humbly explain how she rose to leadership in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “I was there.”
The work wasn’t glamorous. They addressed infrastructure needs, as Gay McDougall discusses, and many used secretarial skills for the cause. Without their service, the civil rights movement could not have occurred.
McDougall says, “Most of the ground work turns out to be done by women—and women must learn to demand their recognition.” Thanks to Bell’s work and these women’s willingness to share their stories, they are gaining that attention—even five decades later.