Newman Book Review

April 11, 2010
Zanne Newman’s Memphis Paper
Lynne Olson does an amazing job in Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung
Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830-1970 describing what she considers
the “true story “of the Civil Rights Movement. From the second I read the preface, to the
end of the book, I was outraged at the marginalization of all the women who worked so
hard at promoting the cause of abolition and civil rights but who got little or no credit. I
had tears of anger in my eyes many times at the thought of the women who gave so much
time and energy as well as risked their lives and jobs only to be overshadowed by their
male counterparts. I loved this book for exposing the underbelly of our culture’s male
hero worship; women doing the work and men getting all the credit! The preface sets the
stage well for the rest of the story when one reads, in reference to the historic March on
Washington in August of 1963:
“In later years, the march would be remembered as the most glorious moment of the civil
rights struggle, the culmination of years of blood-shed, arduous work, and incredible
hardship. Yet on that red-letter day, women, who had played such vital roles in
launching the modern movement and propelling it forward, were thrust into the
background. No woman marched down Constitution Avenue with Martin Luther King
Jr., and the rest of the civil rights leaders. No woman went to the White House afterward
to meet with President John F. Kennedy.” (Page 13, Olson, L. Freedom’s Daughters)
The book is scholarly and dense but well worth the work it takes to get through it.
It is a great social history of the time highlighting not just the movement but also many of
the less well-known players and behind the scenes stories. The author’s sense of injustice
becomes your own as you read the countless stories of oppression, brutality and racism.
Her entire book is peppered with quotes and her use of Oral History Collections allows us
to hear many first-person views of what actually transpired. It is a well-documented
book with 20 pages of endnotes and a five-page bibliography with over 300 sources. I
found that she talked in acronyms frequently since many of those she interviewed did too
and the extensive index helped me quickly find information. I doubt that this is the type
of book that somebody would just pick up to read for pleasure though once one begins
reading the material is so compelling that it really is a pleasure to read!
The book is a chronologically organized and the reader gets a great sense of many
of the lesser known events that foreshadowed similar famous civil rights events. One
such example is Pauli Miller’s ( a Howard University law student) leadership of a silent
sit-in demonstration at Thompson’s cafeteria in Washington D.C. in 1944. It was a
group organized and led solely by women and pre-dated the famous Woolworth sit-in in
Greensboro, North Carolina, which was carried out by men. I found myself fascinated by
all the earlier events led by women that I had never heard of in any of my reading about
the civil rights movement. Additionally, I was astounded to read about the important
contributions of so many women who never gained great fame for their part of the
movement. Everybody knows who Rosa Parks is but few have heard of Jo Ann Robinson
and Mary Fair Burks and the Women’s Political Council.
Jo Ann Robinson and Mary
Burks were professors at the all-black Alabama State College and were the president and
founder respectively of the council.
Both these women had been victims of
Montgomery’s racism and both were energized to do something about it. According to
Olson, in 1950 it was Jo Ann Robinson, then the new president of the WPC, who started
to work on the problem of abuse of blacks on city buses. (Olson, L. p.91) They worked
closely with the city’s two leading male black activists, Rufus Lewis and E.D. Nixon, the
president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Robinson continued to approach the mayor
about this issue and even threatened that there would be boycott as early as May of 1954.
This was easier said than done since so many blacks were afraid of the reprisals from
whites and the potential to lose their jobs. The culminating change took place when a 15
year-old girl, Claudette Colvin was arrested for violating the state segregation laws and
resisting arrest. They put her in jail which shocked and outraged Montgomery’s black
community. Finally there was a face for a test court case until it was discovered that
Colvin was pregnant. The wheels were set in motion to raise money for this case and to
get a boycott ready in 1955. According to Olson, “the black women of Montgomery
were ready to explode.” (Olson, page 95) Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP in
Montgomery and became the test case for a bus boycott when she wouldn’t give up a seat
to a white woman in December of 1955. Like a lot of this book, this story is all about all
that went into the planning of this event long before the famous moment when Rosa
Parks refused to give up her seat and what happened afterward. The author’s background
as a journalist helps the stories come out as good bits of investigative reporting.
details of who did what, when and how unfold clearly with evidence for all her reporting.
She lets us see the hard work that this bus boycott was for so many domestic workers
(women) who had to walk long distances to get to work without the buses. Some are
reported to have walked as far as 12 miles (page 117) to go apply for work. I have
studied this event many times and was unaware of so many of the famous women that
were responsible for the boycott’s success. Like so much of this period, women were the
foot soldiers of the battle. “The relationship between male and female leaders of the
Montgomery bus boycott would set a pattern that would continue into the civil rights
movements of the 1960s: Women would operate behind the scenes, acting as organizers,
strategists, fund-raisers and foot soldiers, while the men would be in the public eye,
dealing with the white power structure and the press.” (Page 125) I found myself
outraged when Martin Luther King, Jr., not the women and men who worked so hard and
gave up so much for this boycott, gained all the media attention and national prominence.
The women who actually suffered and struggled through this boycott were rarely
As the book progresses and the civil rights movement heats up, the author spends
a lot of time describing the feuds between various groups and how, though many of the
workers were female, the men increasingly were the figure heads and made all the
decisions. I think the author makes a great case for how short-changed women were
during this struggle when she tells the stories of these women’s lives and the risks that
they would take to keep the movement going. Girls and local women would join the
movement when SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers would
come to town. The older women were role models for those around them. “Those
women stood up to the system….they talked back and in the process, taught me how to
be a stronger woman.” (Page 204) I had no idea that many of these women took these
risks. They felt that though that it was dangerous for them, “many said that they were on
the front lines because it was too dangerous for the men to be there, that men would be
killed for doing what they were doing.”(204) Their heroics encouraged, and in many
cases got the male workers enthusiastic enough to re-join the struggle.
In this long, 400 plus page book, the story that upset me most was that of Septima
Clark, a woman who Olson clearly shows is essential to the civil rights movement all
over the South. She drove the voter registration campaign by the development of the
citizenship schools where she created materials and practices to teach basic literacy to
black voters so that they could understand politics and read well enough to register to
vote. She came up with a program to train teachers to train more adult students. “It was
like a chain letter, blacks form all over the South being taught that they had the power to
change their lives and then going back home and passing the word along.”(214)
Eventually, her program was put under the auspices of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC) headed by King. She was upset by the waste in the movement and
what she saw as so many men who were in the spotlight but not doing the “unglamorous
work of actually organizing the people.” She played a VERY important role in the
movement and was ultimately responsible for so many new black registered voters. By
1970 over one hundred thousand blacks were taught to read and write by the citizenship
school teachers (over ten thousand strong) that she and her colleagues had trained. (page
223) Even so, she had very little voice when it came to suggestions to the SCLC leaders.
She knew that her suggestions were ignored. “Those men didn’t have any faith in
women, none whatsoever,” Clark said. “They just thought that women were sex
symbols and had no contributions to make. Whenever I had anything to say, I would put
up my hand and say it. But I did know that they weren’t paying attention.”(page 222) I
was angry and frustrated to discover that she worked so hard for so long but was so
disillusioned at the end because of the movement’s sexism. She single-handedly created
citizenship schools, one of the most important contributions to the civil rights movement,
but got very little credit for all that she did because she was a woman.
Lynne Olson’s book is an ode to the many women whose sweat and hard work
were the backbone of this incredible movement in our history. The stories the Olson tells
of the sheer bravery and energy of these women makes for a great read, but more
importantly a wonderful historical lesson. Her carefully researched work feels balanced
and accurate but is never dull or dry. I “met” so many wonderful colorful figures through
this book and I would HIGHLY recommend it to others who are interested in learning
more about some “unsung heroines” themselves. Because this book has a more
journalistic rather than strictly historical feel it would appeal to a greater audience than
most historical works. It is immensely readable without feeling trite or embellished.
Those with a great knowledge of this period would benefit from learning about some of
the smaller “characters” who were part of America’s drama. Readers who want a great
overview of the period would do well to do some background reading first since so much
of this work is about the groups that drove the movement rather than the movement itself.
Though the index is good, if one does not know about all the groups and major events of
the civil rights movement, this book would be a bit fractionalized and confusing. It
would be a great book to read in tandem with an historical explanation of the period.