A celebration of largely forgotten players in the African-American struggle for civil rights.
Freelance journalist Olson, coauthor of The Murrow Boys (1996), profiles a score or so of the women who spearheaded major advances in the civil-rights movement. They include Pauli Murray, whose 1944 sit-in at a lunch counter in Washington, D.C., inspired many other such demonstrations during the next two decades; Mary Church Terrell, whose determined activism over many years finally led, in 1953, to the collapse of segregation in the nation’s capital; and Jo Ann Robinson, who organized the 1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Some of Olson’s heroines are better known than these, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Pauli Murray credited with bringing the civil-rights movement to the attention of not only her husband but also subsequent presidents, especially Kennedy. Olson connects these biographical sketches by tracing commonalities and recurrent themes, observing that the two major episodes in the struggle for black freedom and equality, one launched in the early 1800s and the other in the early 1960s, gave rise to parallel movements for women’s rights. African-American women, she adds, sometimes found themselves torn between supporting a civil-rights movement in which their contributions were consistently overlooked and throwing themselves wholly into feminism. Olson notes that these women’s stories were sometimes distorted by male civil-rights leaders; Martin Luther King Jr., for example, carefully portrayed Rosa Parks as an uncomplaining woman prompted by one injustice too many to refuse to move to the back of an Alabama bus, when she had in fact “been a committed civil rights activist in the 1940s, a staunch member of the NAACP with a history of rebellion against the casual cruelties of white bus drivers.”
Giving credit where it is long overdue, Olson makes a welcome addition to civil-rights literature.