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.
With little money, no standing, and the law itself against them, African-American women had to be creative, resourceful, and able to adapt. Eschewing top-down leadership, they encouraged people to develop their own approaches—espousing what we now identify as the ethical foundation and visionary approach of transformational leadership, which built on mutual respect, creative problem-solving, and an understanding of the need for systemic change. Nashville student leader Diane Nash’s insistence on reliability and consistency helped to foster an environment of trust so that people could focus on solutions as well as logistical details. Richardson understood the vital significance of running the SNCC telephone service—literally a lifeline for activists who might be in physical danger. As servant leaders, African-American women were rooted in their desire to serve communities rather than gain power for themselves. But they were not servile. Courageous and determined, these women accepted the uncertain and dangerous consequences of their leadership. Myrlie Evers lived with the threat of bombing and assassination. Nash recalls that several Freedom Riders gave her sealed envelopes to be mailed in the event of their deaths. Kathleen Cleaver, who was the first woman to serve on the central committee of the Black Panther Party, was targeted by the FBI. Richardson and the SNCC were constantly under attack and threat of attack. And these women’s leadership was shaped by compassion, such as that of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of slain teenager Emmett Till, who expressed sympathy and love for the children of those who killed her son. She spoke eloquently about the value of forgiveness, redemption, and peace. Mobley’s decision to display the mutilated body of her son was bold and powerful, exhibiting moral authority and grace. Whether they were sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer or professionals like Jo Ann Robinson, a professor, black women have dreamed of worlds where others might have the opportunities that they themselves never enjoyed.
In the 1993 article “The Bone and Sinew of the Race,” sociologist Carole Marks wrote of the “heroic sacrifice” of black female household workers. My mother was one of these women. Intelligent, talented, and beautiful, she spent much of her life working as a maid in households or motels. Her migration in the mid-1940s to Erie, Pennsylvania, 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, 100 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 was active in helping neighbors in need, and she was active in our schools—which our family essentially integrated. To support my activities in the movement, she bought me a car that was better than any she had ever owned, taking on additional work to pay for that extraordinary gift.
The women leaders of the civil-rights movement knew that their individual successes did not separate them from the shared fate of the black community; that no matter how good they were, American society did not view them as the equals of whites. Their stories speak to their persistent and courageous fight for freedom. Myrlie Evers’s is one such story.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1933, Myrlie Beasley was raised by her aunt and grandmother. When she was 17 and a student at Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Mississippi, she met her future husband, Medgar Evers. They married when she was 18.
When Medgar was appointed the first NAACP field secretary in the state of Mississippi in 1954, he negotiated a paid position for Myrlie as the office’s secretary. Together, they basically were the office, working as partners in the fight to end segregation and to improve the lot of black people. Medgar did the outside work of community organizing: rallies, speeches, voter registration, and the investigation of racial incidents. In addition to all the typical inside work of the office—typing correspondence and maintaining records—Myrlie did research, helped write speeches, and organized events, from celebrations to memorials. She organized the visits of civil-rights leaders and other dignitaries, often feeding and hosting them in the Everses’ modest home. It is important to remember that this was a perilous time; what might seem like mundane work had special meaning and was fraught with danger. The Everses’ home was firebombed in May 1963. One month later, Medgar was assassinated in their driveway. Widowed with three small children, Myrlie stayed in the house for a year; the driveway remained a daily reminder of her husband’s death. In the summer of 1964, she addressed the NAACP convention at a time when the civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were missing and not yet discovered murdered.
She later moved to California. At the age of 31, she went back to school, working part-time, and graduated from Pomona College in 1968 with a degree in sociology. Myrlie vigilantly pursued justice for the murder of her husband, a three-decade commitment that ended when the killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted in 1994.
I interviewed Myrlie Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in the fall of 2013. She remains beautiful, gracious, grateful, and propelled by an invisible life force—a mixture of compassion, curiosity, and righteous anger. Her candor and openness might shock someone expecting a martyr or a saint. She is, defiantly, a whole person—and for African Americans, preserving personhood is itself an accomplishment. These are her words:
“I was very fortunate to be surrounded by people who loved me dearly. My grandmother and my aunt told me I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to do, as long as I stayed within the boundaries of what society had set for me.
“Medgar came along and said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, but keep those boundaries out of the way. You never stop dreaming for something higher and better.’
“Medgar was a veteran of World War II, as was my father. When Medgar returned to Mississippi, he decided to confront the rampant prejudice and racism. I came along and learned as we moved forward in the work—in the Mississippi Delta, and then later in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Medgar and I moved to the Mississippi Delta, a town called Mound Bayou—formed by former slaves.
“Medgar was [one of the] first known African Americans to apply for admission to the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss law school. He went to visit with Dr. E.J. Stringer, president of the Mississippi NAACP, to talk about the NAACP supporting him in a suit for admittance. Instead, they talked him into taking the position as the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi and opening an office in Jackson. A very, very interesting time. It was not only typing, organizing events or celebrations, or even the sad things to acknowledge: people who had been hurt, who had been killed. I did research for his speeches. I even wrote some of them.
“We were behind the ‘cotton curtain’—you could not get information out to the wire services that you could in any other part of the country. It meant being concise with what you reported and sending that information to the NAACP office in New York City, and you did it by telegram.
“I was a welcoming committee to people who came in. Everyone visited. Our house was so small, but we always found a place. I think of Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley. Attorney Derrick Bell. What a terrible time I had trying to balance a budget of $25 every two weeks feeding and housing people, but it was our home. Many of us bonded. There are a few of us still around. We have been there.
“It was an exciting but frightening time. You stared at death every day, and you walked and death walked along with you. But there was always hope, and there were always people who surrounded you to give you a sense of purpose.
“You try to prepare. You do a little role-playing. I personally would put myself in a position mentally where I had just lost my husband.
“I knew it was coming. I recall a conversation with Medgar not too long before his assassination. I said to him, ‘I can’t live without you. I can’t make it without you.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re much stronger than you think you are. You will be OK. You must believe it.’
“Today when I visit my former home, I can still see the blood. We needed to get away from that place. Our oldest son, Darrell Kenyatta, reached a point where he refused to eat, he would not study, he would not talk. My daughter would go to bed with her dad’s picture, holding it every night. The youngest one, Van, who was 3, would go to bed with this little rifle. I knew that we could no longer live in that house.
“[I was] a woman who was lonely and afraid, but one who was determined to make it. Everything that I did was based on what I thought Medgar would have wanted, and the promises that I made to him the night before he was killed. My grandmother said to me, ‘You run as far away from Mississippi as you could get without going into the ocean.’ California became home, and until this day it still is.”
The women in Lighting the Fires of Freedom represent many others. They answered the call for freedom with commitment and passion. They were principled and steadfast, displaying an unwavering sense of decency, common sense, and courage. They lit the fires and showed the way.
All of these women continued to be active in social-justice movements and activities after the height of the civil-rights movement. Their stories serve as inspiration, motivation, and instruction for the work that must still be done to make real the ideals of our nation.