During the civil-rights movement, African Americans led the fight to free this country from the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow. Though they all too often were—and remain—invisible to the public, African-American women played significant roles at all levels of the movement. Some led causes and organizations, such as Dorothy Height, the president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the National Council of Negro Women. Others did not have titles or official roles, including Georgia Gilmore, one of the cooks who organized to raise money to support the Montgomery bus boycott. These women didn’t stand on ceremony; they simply did the work that needed to be done, without expectation of personal gain. Often unnamed or underappreciated, African-American women helped to construct the cultural architecture for change.
African-American women leaders and activists addressed the most important and volatile issues of the times—segregation, lynching, education, and economic justice. Even before the civil-rights movement began, the crusading anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett tried to protect black women from sexual violence and the antebellum (and later Jim Crow) tradition that allowed white men to abuse and rape black women at will and without punishment. Rosa Parks, whose courageous refusal to surrender her seat to a white man sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, followed in Wells-Barnett’s footsteps.
In Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with nine women who were active at a range of levels in the movement about what ignited and fueled their activism, and I published their stories in their own words—with all their cadences, colloquialisms, and lyricism intact. These are real people, sharing real lives; some are now in their 90s, and have decades of untold stories to share. These women 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.
People who lived and worked in the heat of the civil-rights cauldron were the heart and soul of the movement. Their heroic actions often put themselves and their families in harm’s way. Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first Mississippi field officer, and a leader in her own right, always knew the dangers that she and her husband faced, but they persisted nevertheless. The young people of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, exemplified by Judy Richardson, who left Swarthmore College and forfeited her scholarship to join the SNCC staff, held voter-registration drives and organized other social-justice projects in hostile environments throughout the South. People who raised funds or provided housing and food to civil-rights workers put their own lives and livelihoods in jeopardy. Isolated and vulnerable sharecropper families in the rural South participated in the movement in this way. Restaurant owner Leah Chase, in defiance of Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws, provided more than food to civil-rights workers; she provided a safe haven for them to conduct meetings and make plans. Some other participants’ contributions were not as dramatic or fraught with danger, but they were still necessary to the freedom struggle. Dr. June Jackson Christmas recounted how she and her husband, Walter, opened up their home in New York City to provide respite for civil-rights workers from the South; she also provided counseling and fund-raising support.