16 Black Civil Rights Champions Beyond MLK
Martin Luther King Jr. is one the most well-known civil rights leaders of recent history, but there are so many others. Let’s celebrate them too — not just on MLK Day, but always.
1. Daisy Bates
When she was just three years old, Daisy Bates’ mother was raped and murdered by three white men, and Daisy had her heart set on vengeance. But then her father told her something that would stick with her: “Hate can destroy you, Daisy. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman.”
She and her husband launched the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper which focused on the need for improvements for black residents of the state. A member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Daisy was an important figure in the integration of schools. She continued to be an advocate throughout her lifetime.
2. Rosa Parks
Often referred to as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” Rosa Parks is best known for her quiet protest against giving up her bus seat to a white man; the Montgomery Bus Boycott began just a few days later, eventually leading to the desegregation of public transportation. But her fight for equal rights didn’t begin with her arrest on the bus — she had been in the NAACP for almost 13 years prior, serving as her chapter’s secretary.
3. Ella Baker
The granddaughter of a slave, Ella Baker graduated as valedictorian of her class at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though she helped make massive strides in racial equality, her work was largely done behind the scenes, and she preferred it that way. Ella organized the inner workings of groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), putting her skills to work to launch many successful campaigns for social change. Though Ella worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and other well-known activists, her name never got the same time in the spotlight.
4. Ruby Bridges
Ruby Bridges is an icon of the civil rights movement, and it all started with her brave walk into an all-white school at just six years old. There was so much protest that she had to be escorted inside by U.S. Marshals while people hurled threats and insults at her. But at that moment, she would become the face of hope.
Ruby Bridges isn’t the only Ruby to be worthy of a mention here — Ruby Hurley spent four decades as a pivotal part of the NAACP and an investigator in racially-motivated crimes; Ruby Doris Smith Robinson was jailed multiple times for peaceful protests and sit-ins, and organized five chapters of the SNCC throughout the South.
Mamie Till-Mobley’s activism began at the funeral of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, murdered for being accused of flirting with a white woman, when she insisted that the casket be left open because “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” This traumatic event sparked a fire within Mamie, and she toured the country on behalf of the NAACP, relaying the events of her son’s death — which would become the most successful fundraising campaign the organization had ever had. Her activism extended to helping children living in poverty, and establishing an out-of-the-classroom group called “The Emmett Till Players,” which is still around to this day.
6. Lena Horne
You may know Lena Horne as a glamorous actress of the 1940s — and you’d be right, because she defied the racial discrimination running rampant in the entertainment industry and went on to become one of the most sought-after actresses of her time (and the first black performer ever to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio). But she also used her platform of fame to fight in the battle for racial equality, filing lawsuits against a number of restaurants and theater venues for discrimination, campaigning for anti-lynching legislation, and performing tirelessly at rallies for civil rights.
A champion for both civil and women’s rights, Dorothy Height devoted her life to creating better circumstances and opportunities for black women. For six decades, she played key roles in organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), helping expand voter education and registration to black communities and developing scholarship programs for student civil rights workers, among many other things.
Although she’s best known as the wife (and widow) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King was a champion for equality in her own right. She worked closely alongside her husband, but continued the efforts after his assassination. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, serving as its President and CEO, and later published a syndicated column — and became a regular television commentator — on social issues. She also rallied for 15 years to have her husband’s birthday recognized as a national holiday, which is why we collectively celebrate MLK Day.
Working with his regional chapter of The Urban League, an organization dedicated to putting black workers in previously white-only positions, Whitney Young, Jr. proved to be so capable that he was made the organization’s executive secretary. He accepted a position as Dean of Atlanta University’s School of Social Work, and during that time was active in the NAACP. But it was his work with The Urban League that garnered the most attention, and he was appointed executive director of the National Urban League — not just his local chapter — which went on to co-sponsor, at Whitney’s insistence, the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
10. Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin was a key organizer and strategist in many civil (and human) rights protests. A follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, he advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. Bayard was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington, the peaceful protest where Dr. King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Throughout the rest of his career, his writings about civil rights issues were published in multiple books, and he continued to be an outspoken champion for not only civil rights, but social rights for the LGBTQ community as well.
11. Julian Bond
As an Atlanta college student in the early 1960s, he helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Later, he went on to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, serving as its President for nearly ten years. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had opened voter registration to African Americans, he became one of 11 black members of the Georgia House of Representatives. He also served as chairman of the NAACP, and was the first black man to have his name entered into nomination as a major-party candidate for Vice President of the United States, though he declined the nod.
Civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall was a pioneer at the forefront of civil rights activism, arguing 32 cases (and winning 29) in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP; among those were landmark decisions regarding the desegregation of schools and voting rights. In 1967, he became the first-ever black Supreme Court Justice, a position he held for 24 years.
Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington’s family was emancipated sometime around his ninth birthday — but they struggled, as there were very few jobs available as the South still reeled from the Civil War. He valued education, learning to read and write (while simultaneously holding down a job in a salt mine), and when he was 16 years old, he traveled — largely on foot — 500 miles to The Hampton Institute, a college for black students. He took on a job as the school janitor to help pay his way. Upon his graduation, he taught there, and his reputation as a great teacher led to his recruitment as the founder of a new school called The Tuskegee Institute. He spent his life growing it from literally nothing (zero buildings or school supplies!) into a thriving university. He traveled around the South speaking about civil rights and recruiting for his school, and was the first black man invited to the White House.
A. Philip Randolph founded one of the first employment agencies to specifically organize black workers. At the start of WW1, he co-founded a magazine that called for more positions for blacks in both the military and the war industry. In 1925, he founded the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, which was the first successful black trade union. He next set his sights on championing for black employment within the federal government, which led to the government creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee — and founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation post WW2, which led to the desegregation of the entire military.
15. Hosea Williams
After suffering a near-fatal beating by a group of white men when he tried to get a drink of water from a “whites-only” canteen in a segregated bus station, Hosea Williams was motivated to join the NAACP. He was active in the organization, and within a few years, helped lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). A member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle, he traveled throughout the South, recruiting, organizing, teaching nonviolent protest techniques, and leading marches. He was at the literal forefront of many civil rights demonstrations, such as the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, where protesters were brutally attacked and tear gassed.
A slave who was taught to read and write, Frederick Douglass taught other slaves to read and write at a weekly church service. He escaped slavery and eventually settled as a free man, after which he became a regular anti-slavery lecturer. He started multiple abolitionist newspapers — The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era. Well known by the time of the Civil War, he used his status to confer with U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and, later, Andrew Johnson on the subjects of the treatment of black soldiers and black voting rights. In 1872, he became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket (not to be confused with the earlier-mentioned nomination of Julian Bond, whose nomination was first through a major party). Though Douglass didn’t want the position and never campaigned, it was a landmark moment: the first time that an African American had ever appeared on a presidential ballot.
MLK Day is a chance for us to recognize the legacy of not only Martin Luther King, but the civil rights pioneers who paved the way for him and the champions who still carry the torch. Let’s carry the power behind these leaders — not just today, but every day.
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