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Soul Sisters

FREEDOM'S DAUGHTERS The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 By Lynne Olson; Scribner: 460 pp., $30

DEEP IN OUR HEARTS Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement By Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams and Casey Hayden; The University of Georgia Press: 400 pp., $29.95

CARRY ME HOME Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution By Diane McWhorter; Simon & Schuster: 702 pp., $35

March 25, 2001|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen teaches history at UC Davis and is an editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She is the author of "The World Split Open: How The Modern Women's Movement Changed America."

A few years ago, I stood at the front of a cavernous lecture hall that, at the University of California passes for a classroom. I was describing legal segregation in the South and the impact of Jim Crow laws.

A young woman politely raised her hand and asked when Jim Crow had lived and where he had been active in the South. I looked out at the sea of young faces and decided I needed a reality check. I asked if anyone knew the name of any civil rights activist other than Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Eyes glazed over. "Has anyone ever heard of Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Jo Ann Robinson, Andy Young, Bob Moses, or Fanny Lou Hamer?" Silence. "Does anyone know the name of any white activist who played a major role in the civil rights movement?" More silence.

That is when I put away the rest of my lectures for a course on 20th-century American history and decided to spend the next few weeks introducing my students to the mid-20th century movement that desegregated the South, inspired all the other social movements of the 1960s and irrevocably transformed American culture and society.

It's not lack of information that has caused such ignorance of this glorious movement. Bookshelves groan with the weight of biographies and historical monographs that have documented the moral clarity of the civil rights movement that turned many young people into crusaders and stirred the nation's conscience.

It is a question of what we choose to remember. America has canonized Martin Luther King Jr., but we have forgotten the most important truth of all-that it took a movement of millions, not just one great leader who happened to be a brilliant orator, to challenge America's legacy of slavery and racism. Historical amnesia cramps the collective memory of Americans in a singular way; we like to pay homage to individuals rather than to movements, to one man rather than many.

And what about the women whose leadership has been ignored but who, in effect, sustained the movement? Or the white segregationists who fought what they viewed as the last battle of the Civil War? Theirs are among the many other voices and perspectives that remain hidden when our collective memory collapses a movement into one heroic figure.

During the last decade, a number of journalists and historians have begun to excavate the hidden history of women in the civil rights movement. Biographies of Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamer and Jo Ann Robinson have started to fill in some of the gaps. But the task is far from complete.

Now, three new books bring back some of the distinctive voices that belong to this history. That women have always played a central role in civil rights movements is convincingly argued and vividly portrayed in Lynne Olson's "Freedom's Daughters," a comprehensive history (1830-1970) of the "unsung heroines" of the civil rights movement. Building on the scholarship of historians, as well as on her own new research, Olson provides vibrant portraits of the many women who have devoted their lives to racial equality.

Here are riveting stories of black and white women who worked together-sometimes in harmony, often in tension-to challenge race relations in America: Ida B. Wells, who launched a national anti-lynching crusade; Pauli Murray, who launched the first sit-in at a lunch counter; Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, who led the community challenge to end bus segregation in Montgomery; Ella Baker, who mobilized thousands of young students into Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists; and Fanny Lou Hamer, who forged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's challenge at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in the summer of 1964.

Why don't we know about these women and their leadership in organizing some of the most widely publicized events of the civil rights movement? Part of the answer lies with the way the media covered the original events.

To be sure, historians habitually exclude the voices and perspectives of women. But Olson also grasps that it was the media that anointed the movement's leaders and that their decisions have affected historical scholarship and memory.

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