10 Unsung Champions of Civil Rights


Whether or not someone’s name is in a history book varies depending upon who is writing the history. All of the people on the list below championed civil rights in the United States. Not all of them are as well known as the people who were mentioned in the sidebars of our social studies textbooks, but all of them deserve to have their names on our lips and in our history books.

10. Bert Williams

In The Opportunity Agenda’s 2011 study, “Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys,” researchers determined that representations of Black men in the media influenced how Black men and their community members perceived Black men in the real world. Vaudeville performer Bert Williams was one of the few people of color working in his profession in the early 20th century, and he was the only one who achieved success as a solo artist. Williams performed onstage from 1893 until his death in 1922. He is most famous for his performances with George Walker, his performances with The Ziegfeld Follies — he was the revue’s first Black performer — and his comic portrayal of a competitive man who gradually realizes he is losing at a poker game. Because of the popularity of that sketch he earned a role in the 1916 film A Natural Born Gambler. In 1914, he became the first Black comedian to appear on film when he starred in Darktown Jubilee, an independent film with an all Black cast.

Like all of his contemporaries in vaudeville, Williams performed in blackface. Yet he was mindful of his reputation as a publicly visible person of color. None of his material featured characters who embodied negative stereotypes of Black men. Instead, he emphasized human foibles, such as the hubris of the poker player in his best known sketch. Williams had an acute understanding that his commanding stage presence did not bring him sociocultural or sociopolitical benefits in the real world. The 5,000 people who attended his funeral were thrilled to watch him perform onstage but, because he was a Black man, they expected him to enter and exit theaters through the back door.

He made his audience members laugh, but he was committed to taking the desires of his Black characters seriously, even if his audience wouldn’t. WC Fields said Williams was “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” Williams created a place in the spotlight for performers of color who refused to perform whites’ sociocultural stereotypes of blackness. In the musical Hamilton, for example, almost all of the performers are people of color, some of whom play US Founding Fathers.

9. Angela Davis

Unlike many of the people on this list, author, academic, and activist Angela Davis is still fighting for race and gender equality. Davis has authored 13 books, and as a scholar and as an activist, she argues for prison abolition and a reformation of what she terms America’s “racial capitalism,” a free market capitalist economic system that perpetuates racism by making people of color socioeconomically unequal to whites. Though she is a prolific writer, Davis isn’t most famous for her books. 

In 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson infiltrated a courtroom in Marin County, California. Jackson, who was armed, armed the defendants in the courtroom, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and Jonathan Jackson’s brother, George Jackson, all three of whom were accused of the murder of a prison guard in California’s Soledad Prison. Jonathan Jackson took the presiding judge, the Honorable Judge Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jury members hostage. He intended to use them as leverage to negotiate the release of the defendants on trial. Jackson’s “negotiation” was actually a gunfight. The judge, the three defendants, and Jonathan Jackson were killed. The guns Jackson used to take over the courtroom were registered to his brother George’s (sometimes) girlfriend, Angela Davis. Davis, who was then a member of the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party, was captured and charged with kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. In 1972, an all white jury acquitted Davis on all three charges.

Davis’ work is a testament to her commitment to civil rights, but her well publicized trial demonstrated that commitment to a captivated American public, When Davis spoke on her own behalf, she proclaimed her own innocence. As a Black woman sitting before a white jury, she addressed how her presence was symbolic of blacks’ struggle for social justice. She is perhaps best known for refusing to change her style of self-presentation to appeal to a white jury. Her choice to wear natural hair, in particular, is regarded as a declaration of solidarity with the civil rights movement. Davis says she “see[s herself] as witnessing this moment [of civil rights protests organized by Black Lives Matter in the aughts] for all of those who lost their lives in the struggle over the decades.”

8. Coretta Scott King

Though Coretta Scott King is best known as the widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., she too was a dedicated civil rights activist. She was beside her husband during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1965, when civil rights activists refused to ride Montgomery, Alabama’s public transportation system to protest segregated seating. The Kings worked to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a US law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. After her husband’s assassination in 1968, she led the march through Memphis, Tennessee that he had organized to demonstrate solidarity with sanitation workers who were on strike.

She was the founder, president, and chief executive officer for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change. She dedicated 15 years of her life to fighting for her husband’s birthday to be nationally recognized, and in 1983, US President Ronald Reagan made Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday. Coretta Scott King protested against apartheid in South Africa, and she consistently worked as a public liaison  for peace and justice organizations. Antioch College, a liberal arts college in Ohio where King earned a BA in music and education in 1951, established the Coretta Scott King Center to “facilitate learning, dialogue, and action to advance social justice.”

7. Mildred and Richard Loving

According to the US Census, 10.2% of American couples identified as interethnic or interracial in 2016. Although many interracial couples’courage has been essential to advancing sociocultural progress, Richard and Mildred Loving are the first interreacial couple in the United States to have their marriage — and, therefore, all subsequent interracial marriages in America — declared universally legal by the US Supreme Court.

In 1958, five weeks after their Washington DC wedding, Richard and Mildred Loving were sleeping in bed in their Virginia home when they were awoken by a police officer. When the officer asked Richard, a white man, why he was sleeping beside a woman of Black and Native American descent, the usually reticent Mildred replied, “I’m his wife.” In Washington, DC, the Lovings’ marriage was legal. In Virginia, where they lived, the Lovings’ marriage violated the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Both of the Lovings were arrested. Richard was released on a $1,000 bail after one night. Mildred, who was not allowed to post bail, was held for three nights. The judge who sentenced them both ordered them not to return for 25 years. The couple were officially exiled for nine years, though they secretly moved back to Virginia together in 1964.

That same year, Mildred wrote to the US Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, who advised her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. Two lawyers from that  nonprofit organization agreed to represent the Lovings. In 1967, after five years of legal battles, their case was brought before the US Supreme Court. In Loving v. Virginia, all nine Supreme Court justices declared that all state anti-miscegenation laws — laws banning interracial relationships — were violations of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, an 1868 amendment which forbade discrimination on the basis of race.  The Lovings’ hard-won marital happiness was short-lived. Eight years after their Supreme Court victory, the Lovings were hit by a drunk driver while driving home, and Richard was killed. Mildred never remarried. Loving, a movie celebrating the couple, was released in 2016, but Mildred herself never publicly acknowledged the court case that bore her married surname. On the 40th anniversary of that court case, she released a statement in support of marriage equality, saying that to deny a person the choice to marry based on his/her/their race, sex, or sexuality is to deny that person’s civil rights.   

6. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Poet, abolitionist, and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free in 1825. Her eloquent talks in favor of the abolition of slavery and voting rights for women illustrate the complexities of seeking to advocate for women and people of color without disadvantaging either minority group.  She supported the work of prominent white suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but she contested their racist perspectives when they did not advocate to extend suffrage to Black women.

Harper believed Black men were America’s most endangered minority group; between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 Blacks living in the United States were lynched. Harper declared that “justice is not fulfilled as long as woman is unequal before the law.” Nonetheless, she supported the passage of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution despite its not extending the right to vote to women. For Harper, securing the right of Black men to vote was more urgent. She believed women would prove their strength of character by privileging Black men’s needs over their own, and their steadfastness would improve public opinion about women’s suffrage.

5. Ruby Bridges

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the name collectively given to four US Supreme Court cases contesting the inherent inequalities in racially segregated schools. Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in the titular case, wanted to send his daughter, Linda, to an all white school in their district. In 1954, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregating schools was unconstitutional. Therefore, all public schools must be racially integrated.

Six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges was the first Black student to attend an all white school, William Franz Elementary School in Louisiana, after the Supreme Court’s ruling. State marshals escorted Bridges; Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With is a tribute to Bridges’ first walk to her new school. She spent her first day in the office, so staff members could safeguard her from irate white parents withdrawing their own children from the school in protest. For her first school year, she was taught in a classroom in which she was the only student. Apart from her teacher, her closest ally was a psychologist the school hired to monitor her psychological health, which was adversely affected by threats of violence against Bridges and her community’s ostracization of her family. In 1999, Bridges established the Ruby Bridges Foundation. The foundation’s official motto is, “Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.” Perhaps no one’s life embodies that truth better than Ruby Bridges’.

4. Fred Hampton

National Society for the Advancement of Colored People and Black Panther Party member Fed Hampton was a dynamic speaker and a dedicated civil rights activist. His ability to organize diverse coalitions was especially valuable to both organizations. Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition — a phrase coined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson — included the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the street gang the Blackstone Rangers, and the Puerto Rican organization, the National Young Lords. Hampton was so broadly respected that he publicly negotiated a truce between rival street gangs.

When Hampton was president of the Chicago, Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, the party was under surveillance by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation. On December 4, 1969, policemen raided 21-one-year-old Hampton’s house and shot him while he slept. Handheld cameras exposed the false claim, repeated by the local police, the FBI, and the US federal government that Hampton was armed and shooting at police officers when he died. According to Jeffrey Haas, an attorney who successfully represented survivors of the shooting, police officers fired 90 to 99 times.

Black Panther Party member Mark Clark fired once, most likely after he had received a fatal gunshot wound to the heart. Neither Hampton nor his surviving girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), fired any shots. Law enforcement has since admitted wrongdoing in Hampton’s death and December 4 is now known as Fred Hampton Day in Chicago. Though civil rights leaders still grieve Hampton’s loss and his squandered promise as an activist, the court case following his death was a seminal victory for those protesting police violence against people of color.

3. Ida B. Wells

Like Frances Harper, journalist, abolitionist, and suffragist Ida B. Wells was committed to promoting both race and gender equality in her fight for civil rights. She used her visibility as a journalist to publicly condemn the practice of lynching. Wells was more successful than Harper in resisting white activists’ attempts to assert her position as a woman of color. In 1913, Alice Paul, a white suffragist leader who had endured many arrests and forced feedings because of her protests for women’s voting rights, organized a march for women’s suffrage. Paul hoped the march would emphasize the historical accomplishments of women.

As a Quaker, Paul herself believed all human beings were equal. Unfortunately, she didn’t honor her ideals when planning the march. She forbade Wells to lead women of color in the march, because she believed Wells’ public support for women’s suffrage might make white men and women less sympathetic to the cause. Wells waited until the march started, then led her fellow suffragists of color in the section of the parade representing her state, Illinois.

2. Mamie Till

Mamie Till’s is not a household name. She never stood at a podium or marched in the streets. It is Emmett Till, Mamie’s 14-year-old son, whose name became familiar to Americans after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman who was working behind a shop counter. That night, two men, one of whom was the shopkeeper’s husband, dragged Till out of his uncle’s house to mutilate and murder him, before disposing of his body in a local river.

Unlike her son, Mamie Till lived to realize her promise. Her strict mother was determined to ensure her daughter’s opportunities would not be limited by America’s racist sociocultural and sociopolitical policies. Mamie Till was the first Black woman in her high school to make the honor roll and the fourth to graduate. Her resilience was revealed to the American public in 1955, when she allowed an open casket at her son’s funeral. Emmett Till‘s murderers were acquitted by an all white jury, but 50,000 mourners grieved with Mamie Till beside her son’s battered body. Her act of courage in showing Emmett Till’s assailants’ brutal acts to the American media galvanized the civil rights movement.

1. Medgar Evers

As the first Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers coordinated protests, organized boycotts, and registered voters. Evers first allied himself with the NAACP in 1954, when he and the organization sued the University of Mississippi for refusing to take Evers’ application to the law school. He lost the lawsuit, but that experience solidified his commitment to fighting for equal rights for people of color. He took the violent deaths of Black men seriously even when his country wouldn’t. He investigated the murder of Emmett Till, among others. Evers was assassinated at the age of 37 by a segregationist in 1963.

After two mistrials and a hung jury, Evers’ murderer was finally tried with new evidence and convicted in 1994. However sorrowful, Evers’ last moments aren’t his legacy. Like Emmett Till’s, Medgar Evers’ death galvanized the civil rights movement, inspiring public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers’ widow established the Medgar and Merlie Evers Institute, an organization founded to honor the couple’s commitment to creating social change. In 2016, Evers’ house was declared a national monument.

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