Cover image for Lighting the fires of freedom : African American women in the civil rights movement
Lighting the fires of freedom : African American women in the civil rights movement
Physical Description:
224 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Publisher Annotation: A groundbreaking collection based on oral histories that brilliantly plumb the leadership of African American women in the twentieth-century fight for civil rights—many nearly lost to history. 240pp., 10K


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 323.1196 BEL 1 1

On Order



During the Civil Rights Movement, African American women were generally not in the headlines; they simply did the work that needed to be done. Yet despite their significant contributions at all levels of the movement, they remain mostly invisible to the larger public. Beyond Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Dorothy Height, most Americans, black and white alike, would be hard-pressed to name other leaders at the community, local, and national levels. In Lighting the Fires of Freedom Janet Dewart Bell shines a light on women's all-too-often overlooked achievements in the Movement.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Social justice advocate and television and radio producer Bell deploys impressive interviewing skills in this valuable collection of oral histories of nine female civil rights activists. They played important roles in the movement, yet, as Bell observes, "too often they remain invisible to the larger public." Her goal, which she mostly achieves, is to restore their visibility. The book does not, however, give sufficient historical context about the movement or their lives to make clear to an uninitiated reader the circumstances within which the women operated. Fortunately, the interviews are gems, full of passion and commitment ("I was shy. [But] I felt that the people in the Second Ward... spoke through me, and that allowed me to take action"). Some names might spark recognition, including Aileen Hernandez, the first African-American woman appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Kathleen Cleaver, who sat on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party. The lesser-known women are equally fascinating, and their experiences attest to the wide-ranging projects of the civil rights movement: Dr. June Christmas fought housing discrimination in New York City in the 1950s; Judy Richardson gave up a four-year scholarship at Swarthmore to work in a Freedom School in Mississippi in 1964. This is a valuable and enlightening companion to other accounts of the movement. Photos. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

African-American women contributed significantly to the campaign for racial justice.An Emmy-winning TV and radio producer, social justice activist Bell makes her literary debut with a revealing collection of oral histories by nine African-American women prominent in the civil rights movement. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the book follows the careers of New Orleans chef and restaurant owner Leah Chase; psychiatrist June Jackson Christmas; Aileen Hernandez, the first African-American president of the National Organization of Women; Diane Nash, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Judy Richardson, co-founder of Drum and Spear bookstore and Drum and Spear Press, devoted to publishing and promoting African-American literature; Kathleen Cleaver, the first woman to serve on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party; Gay McDougall, an international human rights activist who focused on ending apartheid in South Africa; Gloria Richardson, whom Ebony magazine called "the Lady General of Civil Rights"; and Myrlie Evers, widow of slain activist Medgar Evers, who later served as chair of the NAACP. Common to all were a spirit of determination and unflagging resilience as they struggled against racism and sexism. Christmas, for example, faced prejudice growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she discovered that a Girl Scout camp and the YWCA both had racial prohibitions. At Vassar, as one of two African-American girls, she was advised that it would "be best for you if you don't have a roommate." Later, she was one of seven women in her medical school class and, again, one of two African-Americans. She was denied a residency at New York Hospital, told that "men would be very disturbed by you and stimulated by you." Most, like McDougall, were raised in a family "where caring and addressing a situation was important." They were expected to pursue an education, and many ended up at prestigious schoolsSwarthmore, Barnard, Yale, Bennington, Howardwhere classes and extracurricular activities fueled their motivation.Candid testimony from impressive and influential women. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Bell, an activist with a doctorate in leadership and social change, an award-winning producer, and the widow of the famed Harvard law professor, Derrick Bell (Silent Covenants, 2004), provides a fresh and revealing oral history of the civil rights movement as told by nine African American women. Each subject describes her personal experiences and what her participation meant to her, her family, and her community. The reader is drawn deeply into the lives of these courageous women, some of whom are well-known, such as Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar Evers; former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver; and Diane Nash of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The others, less-familiar but no less compelling activists Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Judy Richardson, Gay McDougall, and Gloria Richardson tell striking and fascinating stories that greatly enrich our appreciation of the crucial roles women of diverse backgrounds played in the pivotal fight for civil rights.--Jackson-Brown, Grace Copyright 2018 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Social justice advocate Bell offers the stories of nine African American women involved in the civil rights movement. These women, many of whom are now in their nineties, discuss their upbringing, schooling, and influences. Leah Chase, proprietor of the restaurant Dooky Chase's in New Orleans, a popular meeting place for civil rights leaders, offers valuable insight into the importance of education. Myrlie Evers and Kathleen Cleaver, whose husbands were at the forefront of civil rights, took on active leadership roles in their own right. Bell also interviews Dr. June Jackson Christmas, who became a major figure in psychiatry, and Gay McDougall, who campaigned for human rights and antiapartheid activism. What these brave women all have in common is humility and a belief that through working together, African American life can be improved and changed for the better. VERDICT Through the words of these women, Bell suggests that all of us can make a difference in our communities. An important book that should be read in all schools and wherever discussion of social issues takes place.-Amy Lewontin, Northeastern Univ. Lib., Boston © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Leah Chasep. 11
2 Dr. June Jackson Christmasp. 35
3 Aileen Hernandezp. 69
4 Diane Nashp. 95
5 Judy Richardsonp. 105
6 Kathleen Cleaverp. 131
7 Gay McDougallp. 159
8 Gloria Richardsonp. 169
9 Myrlie Eversp. 193
Acknowledgmentsp. 213
Indexp. 217