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They Spoke Up

Women and Girls Who Fought for Civil Rights

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • June 12, 2020

Change rarely comes easily. As calls for justice and racial equity ring out around the world, we have been recalling some of our favorite stories of activists and civil rights heroes. The women and girls featured below took difficult stands that challenged the status quo. They had to fight to be heard. Here's hoping their powerful voices will never be forgotten.

I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other, saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat.—Claudette Colvin

In 1955, nine months before Rosa's notorious act of resistance, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In response, she was shunned by classmates and dismissed by community leaders. In Twice Toward Justice, Phillip Hoose presents an in-depth account of the largely unknown civil rights figure and her integral part in the Montgomery bus boycott. A great read for teens.

But courage was growing in me too. Little by little it was getting harder and harder for me not to speak out.—Anne Moody

Born to poor tenant farmers on a plantation in Mississippi, Anne Moody lived through some of the most dangerous days of the pre-civil rights era in the South. The week before she began high school, her life changed forever when she heard the news of Emmet Till's lynching. In that moment, she found the passion for freedom and justice that would change her life. Coming of Age in Mississippi is her autobiography.

Strong people don't need strong leaders.—Ella Baker

A gifted organizer, Ella Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of behind-the-scenes work that helped power the civil rights movement. From her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s, Baker set herself apart as a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview changed the playing field. In Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's commitment to empowering marginalized communities with group-centered, grassroots leadership.

Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility—these are needed today as never before...Freedom's gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.—Mary McLeod Bethune

Born in 1873 as the first free child in a family of former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune would become an adviser to American presidents, an important civil rights leader, and founder of what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. From Nancy Ann Zrinyi Long comes the engaging biography of an inspirational activist: Mary McLeod Bethune: Her Life & Legacy.

Anyone can make a difference. It doesn't matter how old or young you are. Find a problem, get some friends together, and go fix it. Remember, you don't have to change the world...just change your world.—Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

She Stood For Freedom by Loki Mulholland and Angela Fairwell tells the story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a white teenager in the South who fought on the front lines to abolish segregation and other racial inequities. She attended demonstrations and sit-ins and was one of the Freedom Riders who spent several months on death row in 1961. This picture book offers a child-friendly view of this tumultuous era.

No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his her own way is without enemies.—Daisy Bates

On September 25, 1957 Daisy Bates, a newspaper publisher and official of the NAACP in Arkansas, led nine children into the previously all-white Central High School school with the help of federal troops. This followed a 22-day standoff when the state's governor called for the National Guard to surround the school in a public challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court order to integrate schools. Bates documented the episode in her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock. Banned for decades throughout the South, the volume was reprinted in 1988 and went on to win an American Book Award.

You cannot be afraid if you want to accomplish anything. You got to have the willing, the spirit, and above all, you got to have the get-up.—Georgia Gilmore

Pies from Nowhere by Dee Romito offers a kid-friendly into the life of Georgia Gilmore, a hidden figure of history who played a critical role in the civil rights movement. When the bus boycotts broke out in Montgomery, Alabama, Georgia decided to help the best way she knew how. As the boycotters walked and walked, Georgia cooked and cooked, raising funds to support the effort. The engaging picture book even includes one of her delicious recipes for kids and parents to try out at home.

Nobody's free until everybody's free.—Fannie Lou Hamer

The youngest of twenty children in a sharecropper family, Fannie Lou Hamer dedicated her extraordinary life to fighting racial injustice. She cofounded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and ran for Congress in Mississippi. While her 1965 bid for office was ultimately unsuccessful, Hamer's legacy of political activism will never be forgotten. This Little Light of Mine by Kay Mills is a clear-eyed biography of the civil rights leader.

The bravery of the women and girls in these stories blows us away. Reading about their dedication to justice and equality has left us inspired to do more. How about you? Let us know if you have any heroes to add to this list.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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