You Gotta Know These African-American Civil Rights Leaders
- Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998) was a leader of the Pan-African movement and the Black Power movement, who popularized the use of the term “Black Power.” He replaced John Lewis as chair of SNCC; under his leadership, SNCC shifted from a policy of nonviolence to a more militant approach. He served as “honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party, but later distanced himself from that movement because he didn’t believe that white activists should be allowed to participate. He ended up changing his name to Kwame Ture (in honor of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Touré) and moving to Guinea.
- Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was a Democratic politician from New York who achieved a number of firsts. In 1968, she was the first black woman elected to Congress. In 1972, she became both the first black major-party presidential candidate and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. (Margaret Chase Smith had run for the Republican nomination in 1964.) In 1970, Chisholm gave an acclaimed speech in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
- Medgar Evers (1925–1963) was the NAACP’s field secretary for Mississippi, in which capacity he planned boycotts and grassroots civil rights organizations. He advocated ending segregation at the University of Mississippi; after Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, he applied to law school there, but was rejected because he was black. In 1963, he was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the white supremacist network White Citizens’ Councils.
- Jesse Jackson Sr. (1941–) is a civil rights activist and politician who began as a protégé of Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped organize Operation Breadbasket, a department of the SCLC focused on economic issues. Jackson also worked on the Poor People’s Campaign after King’s assassination, but he clashed with King’s appointed successor, Ralph Abernathy. He founded the civil rights organizations Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the National Rainbow Coalition, which later merged to form the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. His son Jesse Jackson Jr. was a congressman from Chicago before serving prison time for financial corruption.
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister and the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. He delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. As leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he joined with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. His leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign was cut short in 1968 when James Earl Ray assassinated him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
- James Meredith (1933–) became the first African-American person admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Two people died in the riots sparked by his enrollment. In 1966, Meredith began the March Against Fear, planning to walk from Memphis to Jackson. On the second day, he was wounded by a sniper; thereafter, thousands of other civil rights activists completed the march in his name.
- Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, disobeying driver James F. Blake’s order to move to the “colored section” of the bus. She collaborated with Edgar Nixon and other leaders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted from December 1955 (four days after her arrest) until December 1956.
- Al Sharpton (1954–) is a Baptist minister and community leader from New York City. He is also a perennial political candidate who has run for the U.S. Senate, mayor of New York City, and president of the U.S. Sharpton began his activism career working under Jesse Jackson as part of Operation Breadbasket. He has been at the center of many controversies. In 1987, he helped handle publicity for Tawana Brawley, who falsely accused four white men of having raped her. Sharpton was also accused of making anti-Semitic remarks during the 1991 Crown Heights riot, a racial riot in which Jews were attacked after two children were injured by the motorcade of the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
- Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) was an early investigative journalist and civil rights leader who helped found the NAACP. In the 1890s she investigated lynching, arguing that it was a form of controlling black communities rather than retribution for criminal acts. She documented the results of her research in pamphlets such as Southern Horrors and The Red Record. She accused Frances Willard, the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, of turning a blind eye to lynching.
- Malcolm X (1925–1965) was a black Muslim civil rights activist who changed his name from Malcolm Little upon converting to the Nation of Islam. He later repudiated the Nation of Islam and became a mainstream Sunni Muslim, completing the hajj in 1964. He was known for rejecting nonviolent activism, arguing in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” that violence might be necessary if the government continued to suppress the rights of African Americans. In 1965, he was assassinated while preparing to give a speech at the Audubon Ballroom.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Will Nediger.