Lighting the Fires of Freedom

African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Nominated for a 2019 NAACP Image Award, a groundbreaking collection of profiles of African American women leaders in the twentieth-century fight for civil rights

A long-overdue homage to the Black women who worked behind the scenes to make the marches successful and create many of the most significant moments of the Civil Rights Movement. —Patrik Henry Bass, Essence magazine

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.

Kirkus Reviews described Lighting the Fires of Freedom as “candid testimony from impressive and influential women,” and Publishers Weekly called it “a valuable and enlightening companion to other accounts of the movement.” Through wide-ranging conversations with nine women, including Myrlie Evers, Leah Chase, and June Jackson Christmas—several now in their nineties with decades of previously untold stories—we hear what ignited and fueled their activism. 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 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
“Another important and critical contribution to the historical and present day story of #BlackGirlMagic.”
—Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change
“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
“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

News and Reviews

New York Times Book Review

A “New and Noteworthy” pick

Kirkus Reviews

Candid testimony from impressive and influential women.

Publishers Weekly

Bell deploys impressive interviewing skills in this valuable collection of oral histories of nine female civil rights activists. . . This is a valuable and enlightening companion to other accounts of the movement.

Shelf Awareness

Bell reminds readers that one story is never enough to truly explain a movement.


Books by Janet Dewart Bell

Blackbirds Singing
Inspiring Black Women’s Speeches from the Civil War to the Twenty-first Century

Janet Dewart Bell

Race, Rights, and Redemption
The Derrick Bell Lectures on the Law and Critical Race Theory

Janet Dewart Bell, Vincent M. Southerland

Goodreads Reviews