Lesser-known heroes of the civil rights movement

Share

We’ve all heard the timeworn speeches eulogizing the 16th president of our great nation for his iconoclastic measures to end slavery and admired his stone beard gracing the face of Mount Rushmore. We’ve celebrated Martin Luther King’s “dream” and allowed it to inspire our own. We’ve applauded and lauded Rosa Parks’s refusal to let her race dictate where and when she could sit on the bus. However, we may not have adequately appreciated the accomplishments of some other civil rights activists who drastically changed race relations in American history. Here are some of them:

Hiram Revels was the first African American congressmen, appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1870. As Senator Charles Sumner said, “‘all men are created equal’ says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests this verity [sic.] and [makes] the Declaration a reality.” Before his political career, he carried out religious work and educated free and enslaved African Americans. In his words, he “preach[ed] the Gospel to [slaves,] and improve their moral and spiritual condition [so] even slaveholders were tolerant of [him].” His work made him popular with his fellow legislators, and his moderate and eloquent speech endeared him to both black and white voters. His position in the Senate as a self-proclaimed “representative of the State, irrespective of color” was a crippling blow to the Color Line, paving the way for equal racial representation in the American government.

Branch Rickey agonized his entire life about racial inequality in America, despite being raised in the deep South. Unlike other sympathizers, though, he did something about it. Acknowledging that human nature prevents us from publicly admitting that we and our ancestors were wrong for decades of oppression and injustice, Rickey looked to change America from the inside-out. So, he brought America Jackie Robinson. His endorsement of Robinson forced the other Brooklyn Dodgers players to become comfortable with Robinson or face being dropped from the roster. Proximity and exposure breeds acceptance and affection; it’s a psychological fact. Rickey’s refusal to drop Robinson, regardless of protests from other Baseball managers and his own players, allowed America to understand that black people are human beings, too. His unerring support of Jackie Robinson revolutionized America just as much as, if not more than, Robinson himself did.

Whitney Young spent his entire lifetime struggling to create social equality for African Americans. He redefined the role of a social worker and labored to further civil rights for all people. He realized, too, that America couldn’t be changed overnight, and so he fought smaller battles for civil rights that would eventually culminate in his position as executive director of the National Urban League. By the age of 33, Young had successfully desegregated the Atlantic public library. Six years later, Young became executive director of the National Urban League and revolutionized its inner workings to allow the league to have stronger social influence and therefore greater ability for change. In 1968, Young’s fervent advocacy of the Marshall Plan, a ten-point proposal to help bridge the social and economic gap between the races, became a major influence on President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” For this, Young was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest possible civilian honor.

Thurgood Marshall was a revolutionary lawyer, civil rights activist, and judge, but his most notable accomplishment was his title as the first ever African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court. His career was marked by major civil rights advancements, such as his victories in Sweatt v. Painter, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, which forced integration in schools, and Chambers v. Florida, which gave African Americans equal defense from illegal mental or physical torture as any white American. Marshall was the key attorney in the renowned Brown v. Board of Education that essentially eradicated the entire legal basis for segregation in America. For six years, Marshall served as a circuit judge, and for 24 years, he served on the Supreme Court, always working to further racial equality.

The Greensboro Four–Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond–entered a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina, ordered food and waited patiently at the whites-only lunch counter, only to be denied service. The police arrived, but couldn’t arrest the four, due to a lack of provocation. The sit-in quickly gained traction, tens of students sitting and protesting with the Greensboro Four. Within five days, 300 students were protesting at Woolworth’s, and the movement had spread to other countries. Just one day later, 1,000 protesters ssat in at Woolworth’s. Though it still took Woolworth’s almost five months more to integrate its lunch counter, the movement had already taken root in many other cities across the nation to keep the civil rights movement strong.

Hafsa Mansoor Hafsa Mansoor (45 Posts)

Hafsa has BAs from Webster University in International Human Rights and Political Science. She is studying public interest law at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey and hopes to use her education to empower survivors of domestic violence and dismantle institutionalized racism by restoring dignity to the marginalized.


  • Abby Mitchell

    This is a great, condensed list of activists, when we start looking at the civil rights movement we obviously go toward the big names, the people collected the most fame (and often were in the most danger because of this). But there were thousands of people working behind the scenes, and this article reaffirms this. Your list makes others come to mind, for instance, Bayard Rustin who was an activist who worked closely with Dr. King but has been overlooked by history because he was gay, or Medgar Evers, who died for the cause. There are thousands of these overlooked names, men and women who dedicated their lives, in fact, there are people working on the front lines today who don’t enjoy the media coverage of yore.