Harnessing Celebrities to a Civil Rights Cause

Ruth Feldstein has written a very important new book titled “How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement.” This book takes a look at the lesser-known role that black entertainers, especially women, had in the civil rights movement. Some of the black entertainers in this book are Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll. All of these women were popular at the climax of the global struggle for black freedom from around 1959 to the 1970s.

How it Feels to Be Free
How it Feels to Be Free

Ms. Feldstein is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark. In her new book, she talks about the importance of popular art to the work of social change. Feldstein says that, “culture was a key battleground in the civil rights movement.”

Areas in New York, especially Harlem and Greenwich Village allowed artistic and political opportunities for each of these women. Having open access to the folk and jazz clubs allowed these women to have meetings and fundraisers in a space with sophisticated and discerning audiences.

The city was home to a bunch of left-leaning artists and intellectuals. Some of those people were Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. Each of these figures brought the intense views of the political culture of the 1940’s with them into the next two decades. They also openly got behind the women highlighted in Ms. Feldstein’s book. These artists also helped to shape the female artists ideas of themselves to help them to engage in the international struggle against white supremacy.

These women in the book conceived themselves as more than sex symbols or entertainment commodities. Their performance strategies and and images animated their struggles for social change.