Janet Dewart Bell’s mother, Willie Mae Neal, worked as a maid from the 1940s to the 1960s, which was not unusual for a black woman. Off the job, Neal was “an elegant, refined person of great vision who was viewed as a leader in the community,” Bell writes. And she forged her own style of leadership. She believed that the church hierarchy was hypocritical and asserted that “there was something wrong with an institution that elevated men, while the women did much of the work.” Clearly, Neal’s feminist sensibility, evident long before the word”feminist” or “womanist” was used, shaped her daughter’s career and her written work.
With her mom as her inspiration, Bell has given us a book that shines a light on nine women of the civil rights movement: Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson and Myrlie Evers. Bell provides brief introductions to the women, then lets each one speak in her own voice from interviews she conducted. The nine women, born between 1923 and 1947, may not all be well-known by the general public, but they are familiar to those who have been active in the movement or who have studied it. Too often male civil rights leaders capture the the majority of attention, but now, thanks to Bell and other historians, women’s contributions are emerging from the shadows.
While I have eaten dozens of times at the famous New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase, and have had the chance to speak to its proprietor Leah Chase, I never knew until I read Bell’s work that Chase had a meaningful civil rights history, and that she not only often fed civil rights workers but also provided them with a place to meet. While I’ve always admired the art on the walls at Dooky Chase, I never knew that Leah Chase was the first African-American on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art. I smiled while reading Chase’s interview, soaking up her warmth and wisdom, which were as comforting as a sweet beignet and some chicory coffee.
The book is absorbing but uneven. Most of the interviews are about 25 pages, though June Jackson Chrstmas’s runs more than 30 pages. In contrast, Diane Nash, a stalwart of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, gets a scant 10 pages. Gay McDougall’s section is equally short, which is unfortunate because she has been deeply involved in international affairs as a lawyer in the Free South Africa Movement and as the first American to lead the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. How did this daughter of the South, who was the first black student to attend Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, pivot to focus her work on Africa, especially South Africa? What would she say to young women considering international law? She describes herself as someone who “always swam upstream” and offers blunt observations about sexism in the movement. I would have enjoyed reading more about McDougall’s life, activism and work.
This book also would have benefited from a more substantial introduction. To be sure, Bell explains her motivation for the book, writing movingly about her mom, and about issues of gender and leadership, but she does not fully develop those themes or knit the stories of the nine women into an overarching narrative about gender relations in the movement.
The women demonstrate the interconnection among female civil rights activists. Many mention their admiration for one another and for pioneers Dorothy Irene Height (1912-2010) and Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), and for other women of the movement.
Judy Richardson, who left Swarthmore College to join SNCC, co-founded Washington’s Drum and Spear Bookstore and Drum and Spear Press, which were instrumental in promoting and publishing black literature. She went on to work on the “Eyes on the Prize” series on the civil rights movement. She amusingly recalls how Stokely Carmichael came to mind after she had knee replacement surgery. “Stokely could dance,” she remembered. “When I got my new knee … the best thing for me was when I could do the boogaloo.”
Gloria Richardson was a doted-upon grandchild in a relatively privileged black family in Cambridge, Maryland, and became a leader in the Cambridge civil rights movement. While she says she didn’t experience sexism in her family, she explicitly addresses class and gender issues in her interview, and wonders whether she was bumped from the March on Washington program because she was a woman or because civil rights issues in Cambridge were “so toxic.”
Bell doesn’t explain why she chose these nine women. She also doesn’t explain their order in the book, but she concludes appropriately with Myrlie Evers. Evers, perhaps the best known of the women, is the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and former chair of the board of the NAACP. Evers doesn’t hold back when she talks about gender in the movement. As much as she loved and respected her husband, she is also clear about the extra burdens she shouldered while simultaneously juggling roles as an NAACP office manager and organizer; a spouse providing meals, lodging and entertainment for visitors; and a mother of three children. While she doesn’t complain, she makes it clear that gender is an issue that must be dealt with in the movement.
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. In many ways, I wanted more from this book. At the same time, this is just enough to encourage each of us to celebrate the women of the civil rights movement and to learn more about them.
Malveaux is a Washington-based economist, author and former president of Bennett College. Her latest book is “Are We Better Off: Race, Obama and Public Policy.”