Friday, May 11, 2018

Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Fifty years ago the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed into law.

Most know the name, legacy, and speeches of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

And most have heard of his wife Coretta Scott King and activist Rosa Parks. But what about the countless other women involved with the Civil Rights Movement? Those who did the grunt work, who put their lives on the line, who strove to achieve what the culture said they could not do?

Getting Personal

When I made my quilt I Will Lift My Voice Like a Trumpet I was inspired by the Abolitionists and Civil Rights who I encountered in reading Freedom's Daughters by Lynne Olson. My embroidered quilt includes an image and quote from women who made a difference but are not well known. The quilt appeared in several American Quilt Society juried shows.
I Will Lift My Voice Like a Trumpet at the Grand Rapids AQS show
When I saw Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women and the Civil Rights Movement by Janet Dewart Bell on NetGalley I quickly requested it. I was interested in meeting more of these courageous, but lesser-known women.

Going Deeper

The author interviewed and collected oral histories of nine women for this book:
  • Leah Chase, whose restaurant was a meeting place for organizers, was a collector of African American art and was commemorated by Pope Benedict XVI for her service.
  • Dr. June Jackson Christmas broke race barriers to gain admittance to Vassar, spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, was the only black female student in her medical school class, and fought housing discrimination to change New York City Law. 
  • Aileen Hernandez became an activist at Howard University in the 1940s, was the first female and black to serve on the EEOC in 1964, and was the first African American president of NOW.
  • Diane Nash chaired the Nashville Sit-In Movement and coordinated important Freedom Rides. 
  • Judy Richardson joined the Students for a Democratic Society at Swarthmore College before leaving to join SNCC. She founded a bookstore and press for publishing and promoting black literature and was an associate producer for the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize.
  • Kathleen Cleaver was active in SNCC, the Black Power Movement, the Black Panthers, and the Revolutionary People's Communication Network.
  • Gay McDougall was the first to integrate Agnes Scott College; she worked for international human rights and was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
  • Gloria Richardson was an older adult during the movement, with a militant edge; Ebony magazine called her the Lady General of Civil Rights.
  • Myrlie Evers's husband Medgar was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. She was officially a secretary, but she 'did everything' and later championed gender equality.
Diane Nash. "Problems lie not as much in our action as in our inaction."
I was familiar with Diane Nash, who appears on my quilt. I only knew Myrlie Evers-Williams by association to her martyred husband Medgar.

For me, Evers' statement was most moving, revealing more about her emotional life and feelings. Her husband Medgar, a war veteran, was the first African American to apply to Ole Miss when he was recruited to work for the NAACP.

Myrlie organized events, researched for speeches, and even wrote some speeches while raising their family and welcoming visitors such as Thurgood Marshall to her home for dinner. It was a lot for a young woman. She is quoted as saying,
"It was an exciting but frightening time, because you stared at death every day...But there was always hope, and there were always people who surrounded you to give you a sense of purpose."

Medgar knew he was a target and encouraged her to believe in her strength.

After her husband was murdered in front of their own home, the NAACP would call on her to rally support and raise money, with no compensation. Meanwhile, she felt anger and outrage at what had happened. Medgar had dreamt about relocating to California some day, so Myrlie and her children moved.

Thinking back on the movement, Myrlie recognizes the struggle women had to be recognized for their work. And she bristles at being pigeonholed as Medgar's widow instead of being recognized for her accomplishments. It is wonderful that Myrlie was asked to deliver the prayer before President Obama's inaugural address.

Faith and trust and believe she ends, possibilities await. Be open. Be adventurous. Have a little fun.

That is good advice to us all. But coming from a woman whose husband made the ultimate sacrifice, it is an affirmation of great importance.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement
by Janet Dewart Bell
The New Press
Pub Date 08 May 2018
ISBN 9781620973356
PRICE $33.99 (CAD)

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