Lighting the Fires of Freedom

African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

A groundbreaking collection based on oral histories that plumbs the leadership of African American women in the twentieth-century fight for civil rights—many nearly lost to history—from the latest winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize

“Women have such endurance. We see far beyond what an ordinary view of life would be, and we never give up on living, and we never give up on positive change. And that’s part of the responsibility that all of us have.” —Myrlie Evers

During the Civil Rights Movement, African American women did not stand on ceremony; they simply did the work that needed to be done. Yet despite their significant contributions at all levels of the movement, they remain mostly invisible to the larger public. Beyond Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name other leaders at the community, local, and national levels.

In Lighting the Fires of Freedom Janet Dewart Bell shines a light on women’s all-too-often overlooked achievements in the Movement. Through wide-ranging conversations with nine women, several now in their nineties with decades of untold stories, we hear what ignited and fueled their activism, as Bell vividly captures their inspiring voices. Lighting the Fires of Freedom offers these deeply personal and intimate accounts of extraordinary struggles for justice that resulted in profound social change, stories that are vital and relevant today.

A vital document for understanding the Civil Rights Movement, Lighting the Fires of Freedom is an enduring testament to the vitality of women’s leadership during one of the most dramatic periods of American history.


“All Americans need to know the stories of the brave women so beautifully profiled in Janet Dewart Bell’s important new book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom. Today’s generation of activists fighting for racial justice will be inspired and strengthened by reading her book and learning about the leadership and courage of these incredible women who were ‘woke’ before anyone ever used that word.”
—Roger Hickey, co-director, Campaign for America’s Future
“Janet Dewart Bell’s compelling oral history, Lighting the Fires of Freedom, captures the unique voices of nine intrepid women who, each in her own way, contributed grit, love, strength, strategy, spirit, and a formidable personal commitment to the struggle for racial rights and dignity that have yet to be fully realized (and are now regressing by the minute). Today’s activists have much to learn from these amazing women. You’ll wish you’d marched side by side with every one of them.”
—Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founding editor of Ms. magazine and author of Growing Up Free and Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America
“A must-read for anyone interested in race, gender, class, American political development, the Civil Rights Movement, and the power of social change.”
—Christina M. Greer, PhD, associate professor of political science at Fordham University
“Bell reminds readers that one story is never enough to truly explain a movement.”
Shelf Awareness
“Another important and critical contribution to the historical and present day story of #BlackGirlMagic.”
—Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change
“A primer and an inspiration for anyone looking to make their mark during these times of change and uncertainty.”
—Juhu Thukral, human rights lawyer and inaugural speaker, Anita Hill Lecture Series
“Polls and election results confirm that black women lead in supporting racial and gender equality. Lighting the Fires of Freedom helps to complete history, explain the present, and guide us to the future—through the voices and wisdom of some of the black women who co-created the Civil Rights Movement.”
—Gloria Steinem
“There is a memoir or autobiography in each of these women. But they are perhaps too modest to lift themselves up, which is why Bell’s book is so valuable.”
The Washington Post

News and Reviews

The Nation

An excerpt from Lighting the Fires of Freedom


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