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The Civil Rights movement and popular culture are so closely intertwined in American memory that, even today, the soundtrack of counter-cultural opposition is what many still associate with the 1960s mainstream. What is less remembered today is how risky political activism was, on and off-stage, for black female entertainers who were simultaneously trying to gain mass popularity. Rather than looking at the women of the sit-ins and popular protests, Ruth Feldstein in this project considers the public careers and activism of popular entertainers-actress Lena Horne, vocalist Nina Simone, model-turned-singer Abbey Lincoln, folk singer Miriam Makeba, actress Diahann Carroll, and actress Cicely Tyson. She examines each woman's personal political commitments and connections, and the ways that they were used nationally and internationally as symbols of the African American and women's rights struggles, in order to highlight particular moments of change in politics, the entertainment industry, and notions of celebrity. Their cultural work, she argues, helped to constitute the climate in which dramatic political events and changes occurred, as well as how they and their work have been and remembered by the public.
Ruth Feldstein is Associate Professor of History, Harvard University. She is the author of Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965.