Lighting the Fires of Freedom: A Conversation with Janet Dewart Bell

Who comes to mind when you think of leaders of the Civil Rights movement? Martin Luther King, Jr.? W.E.B. Du Bois? A. Philip Randolph?

What about June Jackson Christmas, a psychiatrist who opened her home to civil rights workers for respite, raised funds, and provided free counseling? Or Georgia Gilmore, a cook who helped raise funds to help sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Perhaps Mamie Till Mobley, mother of murdered teenager Emmett Till, who espoused forgiveness and redemption; frequently evincing love for the children of her son’s killers? Throughout the Civil Rights era (and throughout American history) Black women activists have consistently fought for freedoms and rights that they had never known, and perhaps wouldn’t see in their lifetimes.

The Black women who have long been confronting and working to end the most critical civil and human rights issues facing our nation are often left out of the history books. In her new book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, social justice activist and communications strategist(and SCHR board member) Janet Dewart Bell profiles nine Black women who led – with little or no recognition– on many levels of the Civil Rights movement. Though these women aren’t household names, their contributions and sacrifices continue to be felt today. SCHR Communications Manager Hannah Riley spoke with Bell about her new book, the ongoing fight for equal rights, and what lessons we can learn from their fight.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom

Featured in the book are Aileen Hernandez, the first Black president of the National Organization of Women; New Orleans chef and restaurant owner Leah Chase; psychiatrist Dr. June Jackson Christmas; Diane Nash, a leader of the Nashville student movement and a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Gay McDougall, who was the first African American admitted into Agnes Scott College and later became a human rights leader who focused on ending apartheid in South Africa; Judy Richardson, SNCC activist and co-founder of Drum and Spear Press, devoted to publishing Black literature and associate producer of the landmark television series, Eyes on the Prize; Kathleen Cleaver, the first woman to serve on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party; Gloria Richardson, known  as “the Lady General of Civil Rights”; and Myrlie Evers, wife of Medgar Evers, who later served as chair of the NAACP.

These women joined the movement not to seek fame or recognition, but a more just world. Despite their impact on the civil rights movement, they remain relatively unknown. With this book, Bell hopes to change that.

“The book grew out of research for my dissertation, during which I found a lot of women that I could have written about and interviewed,” says Bell. “These nine women represented a wide range of activity, and at different levels of these movements. They are iconic on their own, of course, but they also represent different groups that lead at all levels . This all grew out of my theory of leadership, and my respect and love for African American women leaders and for The Movement itself.”

“In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, we start with a chef and restaurant owner, Leah Chase, and her contribution to the movement. She hosted interracial groups of civil rights workers and gave them a place to meet – which was against the law at the time. New Orleans had perhaps a more genteel Jim Crow, but it was still there. For most, it was separate and  unequal. I also spoke with Dr. June Jackson Christmas, who was a psychiatrist. She and her husband opened their town house in New York City as a respite to civil rights workers. She hosted unknown activists and big names, she raised funds; she provided counseling to civil rights workers who just needed a break (this was before people talked about PTSD.)”

Bell speaks to various audiences about her book often, and has been asked what lessons might be taken away from the interviews conducted in the book.  “A young person at one of my talks told me that she feels discouraged, and feels that it’s difficult for her and her friends to know what to do,” she says. “And I said, you know, the advantage we had – even though we had segregation – was that we knew what the problem was; we weren’t being bombarded with the falsity of “post racialism.” The other part is that we believed in a future, even if we couldn’t make it better for ourselves, that would be better for those who follow. The unleashing of the bold racism under Trump has made it much harder. We have unarmed people being shot and killed without remorse or government action — encouraged by the policies and pronouncements of Trump and his allies.The instruction I think we get from all of this is we must do what the Southern Center has always done. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That’s what these Black women believe.”

These women had very little money, no societal clout, and no laws on their side. Despite these setbacks – or perhaps because of them – they developed creative approaches to building transformational leadership.

“They provided leadership that was just not acknowledged, and it was certainly underappreciated,” Bell says. “Take the Montgomery bus boycott: this wasn’t successful based on the oratory–although providing a narrative is extremely important — it was successful based on organizing. The organizing that went on behind the scenes was critically important. Someone had the vision to come up with alternate forms of transportation,  for folks not taking the bus any longer. Money had to be raised to support the boycotts. Take Georgia Gilmore, a cook, who started a the “Club from Nowhere  to fundraise for the boycotts. She, and other cooks and service workers many of whom lost their jobs as a result, did a lot to support the boycotts and the movement.”

What, if any, is the common thread among these women? “All these women,” Bell says, “were totally grounded in Black culture and community. They had a familiarity and a comfort with it. Their upbringing was one of being positive, not only about themselves and this country, amid Jim Crow, but being positive about themselves. My late husband and I said this to each other – and others – often: there is joy in the midst of struggle. You must find your center and hold onto it. These women in my book are real people leading real lives. They are whole people; for black people, preserving personhood is itself an accomplishment. That’s what these women did – and do – and that’s what I tell young people. Be grounded in the culture and don’t be distracted by the false notion of ‘post racialism’; don’t internalize the oppression. Call it for what it is, and get rid of it.”

Read Bell’s essay on transformational Black women activists in The Nation. More on Lighting the Fires of Freedom here.