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Lighting the Fire of Freedom: Women in the Civil Rights Movement, by Janet Dewart Bell.

February 21, 2018

Lighting the Fires of Freedom

Lighting the Fire of Freedom: Women in the Civil Rights Movement, by Janet Dewart Bell.  The New Press, 2018.


4 stars

A compelling collection of first-hand accounts by nine women who played supportive, under-recognized roles in the Civil Rights Movement.

The black women of the Deep South have become legendary for the on-the-ground work they did for the Civil Rights Movement, but little is known of their actual work and feeling.  We know even less about the women working for civil rights elsewhere in the country. Janet Dewart Bell brings us the stories of a surprising variety of such women in this collection.  Bell defines herself as a social justice activist working in organizational and management consulting.  She herself was part of the movement and is the wife of the late Derrick Bell, an African American leader and legal expert who taught at Harvard.  She earned her Ph.D. from Antioch University at the age of 64.  The accounts she has published in Lighting the Fire of Freedom were part of her dissertation research.  With these stories, Bell offers a new, broader sense of the work it actually took to gain the successes of the Movement.

The women whose accounts Bell has brought together reveal the diversity among the black women who worked for civil rights. Leah Chase ran a family restaurant in New Orleans where civil rights workers, black and white, could come together to make plans and eat gumbo.  June Jackson Christmas was a New York psychiatrist who offered her home and her professional expertise to those seeking respite from the front lines in the South.  Aileen Hernandez was involved in labor organizing.  Kathleen Clever held leadership of the Black Panther in San Francisco when her husband and other leaders were all in hiding or jailed.  Myrlie Evers recounts how she dealt with her husband’s assassination.  Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Gay McDougall, and Gloria Richardson each tell of the particular part of the Movement in which they were part.  All of the women’s oral histories are long and touch on a variety of issues in their lives, giving the book a sense of the depth and breadth of black life.

Bell provides a brief introduction for each woman identifying the basic facts of her life.  The stories themselves offer  new perspectives from which to think about black women’s lives.  I suspect that in her dissertation Bell explored those perspectives.  I wish that she had included more of such analysis in this book.

This is an important book. I recommend that it be widely read by students and teachers and by anyone simply interested in black women or in organizing.

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