23 Lesser-Known Civil Rights Figures You Need to Know About
You may not know their names, but you should.
The Civil Rights Movement may have started more than 64 years ago, but its mission to provide dignity in the form of equal rights to all American citizens is just as relevant today as it was half a century ago. While icons at the forefront of the movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are household names today, there are countless others who doggedly fought for their rights and the rights of others.
Brush up on your history by learning about these lesser-known civil rights heroes and the ways in which they shaped the course of history. And for more on Black History Month, here’s Why We Celebrate Black History Month in February.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Mississippi-born Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and women’s rights activist who worked to abolish racially-biased voting requirements. Hamer also served as the Vice Chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, worked alongside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and played an integral role in the fight for equal education for African-Americans. For more trivia, check out the 30 Crazy Facts that will Change Your View of History.
An early organizer in the Journey of Reconciliation, Bayard Rustin was an integral member of the Civil Rights Movement, promoting non-violence and advocating for the rights of the LGBT community as well as African-Americans.
One of the leaders behind the March on Washington, activist Dorothy Height fought tirelessly for the rights of the black community, as well as women, until her death in 2010. Here are 20 Timeless One-Liners from History’s Most Extraordinary Women.
Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. This Civil Rights Movement icon was arrested for the same act of civil disobedience—refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger—nine months before Parks did the same. Colvin also served as a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional. Up your knowledge even more with the 20 U.S. Civic Studies Lessons You Totally Forgot.
After breaking ground as the first black female Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray earned a law degree and became California’s first black deputy attorney general. Murray was one of the early proponents of intersectional feminism, bringing to light the disproportionate effect racial discrimination had on women of color.
Charles Hamilton Houston
While Charles Hamilton Houston’s death preceded the widely-accepted start of the Civil Rights Movement by four years, his influence on the movement was undeniable. The Harvard-educated lawyer was integral in bringing about the end of the Jim Crow laws, adopting a particular focus on ending segregated housing and schools.
Frank Smith, Jr.
Frank Smith Jr. was just a teenager when he began his involvement with SNCC while still a student at Morehouse College. Smith eventually left school to further the cause of the Civil Rights Movement, notably working to register African-Americans to vote and organizing protests throughout the Freedom Summer.
In addition to facing off against members of the American Nazi party during a sit-in protest of segregated lunch counters in Arlington, Virginia, Dion Diamond was an early counter-protester, bringing his own anti-segregation sign to an anti-integration protest at an American amusement park.
Jo Ann Robinson
Jo Ann Robinson was a major player in the Montgomery bus boycotts, as well as being an early member of the Women’s Political Council. Whether you want to become more politically active or just get a new perspective on your life, you’ll want to check out the 100 Life-Changing Quotes to Inspire Your Days.
Asa Phillip Randolph
A major organizer of anti-discrimination and anti-segregation protests, labor rights organizer Randolph also served as the leader of American’s first primarily-black labor union.
An anti-segregation activist, Ella Baker was a founding member of SNCC, a major player in the NAACP and SCLC, and remained a fervent advocate for equal rights until her death in 1986.
Long before the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam in the 1950s, Hiram Revels was laying the groundwork for what was to come. Revels, a minister, became the first black man elected to the United States Senate, following which he became the first president of historically-black Agricultural and Mechanical College. And when you want to find inspiration to change your life, turn to the 50 Inspirational Success Quotes That Will Energize Your Days!
Amelia Boynton Robinson
Martin Luther King Medal of Freedom winner and activist Amelia Boynton Robinson was the first female Democrat and the first black woman to vie for a seat in Alabama’s Congress. She was subsequently involved in Bloody Sunday in 1965, sustaining severe injuries while protesting.
Septima Poinsette Clark
Known as The Mother of the Movement, civil rights activist Septima Clark was a major player in education reform in the South, working with the NAACP to increase opportunities for both black teachers and students throughout the United States.
A major promoter of non-violent resistance, activist Diane Brown organized both lunch counter and school sit-ins, as well as playing an integral role in the Freedom Rides.
Whitney M. Young, Jr.
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Whitney M. Young, Jr. served as the Executive Director of the National Urban League, the president of the National Association of Social Workers, and a dedicated anti-poverty and pro-education crusader until his death in 1971.
New York State Assembly member Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to Congress in the United States, as well as the first major-party black candidate to run for the U.S. Presidency.
Baseball player-turned-sports executive Branch Rickey was a pioneer in baseball, signing Jackie Robinson, breaking the MLB color barrier and making it possible for black players to join the major leagues.
Mississippi native Luvaghn Brown served as a major force in the movement to integrate the South, participating in anti-segregation sit-ins before joining SNCC.
Arkansas-born organizer and journalist Daisy Bates, who led the NAACP’s branch in her home state, played an integral role in spreading news of desegregation ruling violations and served as a central anti-segregation figure in the Little Rock Crisis.
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Once denied a teaching job in Washington D.C. for being “too dark” (the district told her they preferred lighter-complexioned teachers), Nannie Helen Burroughs went on to found the National Training School for Women and Girls, a trade school for black high school and college-aged girls, in 1909. The school integrated themes of racial pride and community activism into its curriculums. It was renamed in her honor in 1964 after her death in 1961. Learn the other 33 Famous People Who Used to Be Teachers.
Anna Arnold Hedgeman
As the first African American woman to be appointed to the cabinet of a New York City mayor, Anna Arnold Hedgeman spent more than six decades as an advocate for civil rights. She was instrumental in planning the March on Washington and broke ground as the executive director of Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign.
At just six years old, Ruby Bridges became the first black student to desegregate a public school in the South in 1960. During her first year at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Bridges and her mother were escorted by federal marshals every day. Just one teacher at the school would teach Ruby, and she was taught in a class of one. And for more essential history, brush up on the truth behind the 28 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
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