“Makes a major contribution to civil rights history by documenting the extensive political education work of the Black women-led Citizenship Education Program, an organization that promoted voter registration throughout the South. This book clearly shows that women were not only organizers but were the movement’s leaders, and their impact was tremendous.”—Rebecca Tuuri, author of Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

“Gillespie convincingly presents Black women as political strategists and visionaries who understood the importance of local people in social action campaigns. A wonderful addition to civil rights historiography.”—Crystal R. Sanders, author of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle

The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture details how African American women used lessons in basic literacy to crack the foundation of white supremacy and sow seeds for collective action during the civil rights movement. Deanna Gillespie traces the history of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), a grassroots initiative that taught people to read and write in preparation for literacy tests required for voter registration—a profoundly powerful objective in the Jim Crow South.

Born in 1957 as a result of discussions between community activist Esau Jenkins, schoolteacher Septima Clark, and Highlander Folk School director Myles Horton, the CEP became a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961. The teachers, mostly Black women, gathered friends and neighbors in living rooms, churches, beauty salons, and community centers. Through the work of the CEP, literate Black men and women were able to gather their own information, determine fair compensation for a day’s work, and register formal complaints.

Drawing on teachers’ reports and correspondence, oral history interviews, and papers from a variety of civil rights organizations, Gillespie follows the growth of the CEP from its beginnings in the South Carolina Sea Islands to southeastern Georgia, the Mississippi Delta, and Alabama’s Black Belt. This book retells the story of the civil rights movement from the vantage point of activists who have often been overlooked and makeshift classrooms where local people discussed, organized, and demanded change.  

Deanna M. Gillespie is professor of history at the University of North Georgia.

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