Who were the key figures of the civil rights movement?
We look at a selection of the men and women at the vanguard of the US civil rights movement
Via establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organised education projects and voter-registration drives, his influence grew. In 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, a soaring demand for equality, to around 250,000 people. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite simmering tensions in the wider Civil Rights Movement over King’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, he remained active until his assassination, in April 1968, by gunman James Earl Ray, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “I’ve seen the promised land,” he told a crowd the night before he died. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Rosa Parks (1913–2005)
On 1 December 1955, after spending the day at work, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery. Public transport in Alabama’s capital was segregated and Parks took a seat in the first row of the “colored” section. Gradually, the bus filled up, which, in the era of segregation, was a cue for driver James Blake to set aside more seats for white people and demand that black passengers move.
Although she knew she faced arrest, Parks refused to comply, an action that has sometimes been portrayed as being down to tiredness. Which isn’t how Parks, a longtime activist, saw things. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she later wrote.
While she was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat – people such as Claudette Colvin (b1939) had done the same a few months earlier – Parks’ defiance inspired the Montgomery bus boycott. On her death, she was the first woman to lie in honor beneath the dome in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington DC.
Mamie Till (1921–2003)
The death of 14-year-old, Chicago-born Emmett Till (1941–1955) while visiting cousins in Mississippi was cruel and brutal. Accused of offending a white woman, 21-year-old grocery store proprietor Carolyn Bryant, by whistling at her, the teenager was abducted, tortured and murdered. An all-white jury acquitted killers Roy Bryant and JW Milam, who later confessed to the crime, knowing they were protected by the rule of double jeopardy.
Despite the brutal violence of Emmett’s death, his mother, Mamie, insisted his casket be left open. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. As tens of thousands of mourners viewed Emmett’s mutilated body and photographs circulated, the murder became emblematic of the injustices faced by black Americans. Till became a hugely effective spokeswoman and fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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Later, Till focused on her career in education, teaching for more than 20 years in the Chicago school system and advocating on behalf of children living in poverty.
Mahalia Jackson (1911–72)
Watch archive footage of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech at the end of the March on Washington and there’s a moment when the trajectory of what he’s saying suddenly changes. King the social campaigner becomes King the preacher as he departs from his notes and improvises. His words take flight after there’s a call from off-stage: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
It was encouragement uttered by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang that day in Washington. She was King’s friend and one of his most loyal supporters, an activist who performed often at fundraisers. In 1968, at King’s funeral, a heartbroken Jackson sang his favourite song, ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin performed the same song at Jackson’s funeral, a reflection of Jackson’s own status because, although she refused to record secular music, she was a huge star. Her fans included John F Kennedy, who, in 1961, invited her to perform the national anthem at his inaugural ball.
Jo Ann Robinson (1912–92)
Following Rosa Parks’ arrest, Robinson stayed up all night to help mimeograph 35,000 leaflets calling for a bus boycott she herself helped organise. A teacher by profession, she was active in Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, an important organisation in the Civil Rights Movement.
Earl Warren (1891–1974)
As Chief Justice of the United States, Warren oversaw cases crucial to the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, for example, he wrote the unanimous opinion in the case of Loving vs Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage.
Joseph McNeil (b1942)
In February 1960, student Joseph McNeil and other members of the ‘Greensboro Four’, sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworth store. There, they remained all day after being refused service. A wave of similar protests followed and helped inspire the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
James Meredith (b1933)
In 1962, after being inspired by John F Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi. Meredith’s presence sparked the 1962 Ole Miss riot, but he held his nerve to graduate with a degree in political science.
James Lawson (b1928)
University professor Lawson was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s leading intellectuals, who developed ideas and tactics around nonviolent protest. For his troubles, he was expelled from Nashville’s prestigious Vanderbilt University, but later received an apology and, in 2006, he returned to teach at the institution as a distinguished professor.
Walter Reuther (1907–70)
Leader of the United Automobile Workers union, Reuther was a progressive who saw his role as being far more than securing better pay and conditions for his members. In 1963, he organised bail for Martin Luther King Jr and 800 others imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama.
Andrew Goodman (1943–64)
One of a trio of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) workers murdered during the 1964 voting rights push known as the ‘Freedom Summer’, there’s evidence Goodman was buried alive. The death of a white activist in such brutal circumstances backfired on those fighting change as it attracted national headlines.
Coretta Scott King (1927–2006)
Martin Luther King Jr’s wife, Coretta Scott King was important in her own right as a figurehead and activist. A supportive telephone call from John F Kennedy when her husband was in jail was widely reported and is said to have helped mobilise black voters during the 1960 presidential campaign.
Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
The publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, the first in a series of seven books that blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, made Angelou a literary star. Arguably the greatest writer to be actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)
After taking the World Heavyweight Championship with a surprise victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali transcended boxing. Loud, proud and politically sophisticated, he refused to fight in Vietnam and became a leading figure in the civil rights movement.
Malcolm X (1925–65)
In 1946, following a troubled adolescence, Malcolm Little landed in jail on a 10-year sentence for burglary. By his own account, it was behind bars that Malcolm, a charismatic, complex and contradictory figure, became “truly free” as, with time to read, think and write, he embraced the teachings of the Nation of Islam, a quasi-religious movement that advocated black separatism. From 1950, he signed himself Malcolm X rather than use a “slavemaster” surname.
Paroled in 1952, Malcolm became a leading spokesman for the Nation, a controversial position that saw him accused of preaching violence and racism.
Malcolm latterly broke with the Nation. His attitude towards civil rights leaders he had previously called out as “stooges” of the white establishment softened. A 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, where he saw “all colours” interacting as equals made him see Islam as a vehicle for overcoming racial tensions. His thinking would certainly have evolved further, but in 1965 Malcolm was murdered by former colleagues within the Nation of Islam.
Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)
The story of the Civil Rights Movement is often told through its most famous public figures, yet its success was ultimately down to the diligent day-to-day work of activists. For evidence, consider the life of Septima Poinsette Clark, dubbed ‘The Mother of the Movement’ by Martin Luther King Jr.
Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, when William McKinley was president. Her father was a former slave. Her family was relatively poor. Nevertheless, she became a teacher in 1916 and, inspired by Depression-era reformers in the 1930s, pursued activism through education.
In the 1950s, Clark began working at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education centre devoted to social justice. Here, she developed citizen workshops. Latterly, believing literacy and political empowerment to be inextricably linked, she pioneered Citizenship Schools that reached out to often poorly educated people in the South – after all, how can you fill out a voter registration form if you can’t read and write?
Lyndon B Johnson (1908–73)
On 22 November 1963, following the assassination of John F Kennedy, Democrat Lyndon B Johnson became the 36th president of the United States. When he left office in 1969, having secured his own mandate in 1964 in a landslide, his country was a very different place.
Johnson’s politics in the middle of the 1960s revolved around the ‘Great Society’, a hugely ambitious series of domestic programmes that aimed to do nothing less than eliminate poverty and racial injustice. This meant Johnson, a canny political operator with the ability to cajole, badger, charm, manoeuvre and, sometimes, bully people into doing what he wanted, often found himself aligned with the Civil Rights Movement.
With Johnson in charge, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 all reached the statute books – the legacy of a Texan who, ironically, was chosen as Kennedy’s running mate because it was thought he would appeal to conservative white voters in the South.
Hosea Williams (1926–2000)
One of the reasons nonviolent protest is effective is that, when it’s met by violence, it can amplify the weaknesses of your opponent’s position. This is precisely what happened on 7 March 1965, dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ by black Americans.
This was the day when the first of three protest marches set out from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery. Led by, among others, Hosea Williams, the marches were designed, at a time of voter suppression, to highlight the demands of African-Americans to exercise their constitutional rights. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama police set upon the approximately 600 protesters, delivering brutal beatings. The violence helped give Lyndon B Johnson the space to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Martin Luther King Jr regarded military veteran Williams as his field lieutenant, a man he called “a bull in a china shop”. You could also say that Williams – variously a minister, politician, scientist and the founder of a non-profit, Hosea Helps – was the movement’s renaissance man.
Ella Baker (1903–86)
According to a biography written by historian Professor Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker was “one of the most important African-American leaders of the 20th century and perhaps the most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement”. If this isn’t better known, it’s because Baker’s main gifts were as an organiser, somebody who worked tirelessly behind the scenes.
One of her core beliefs was that grassroots activists were crucial to the success of organisations, an insight she brought first to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In 1960, she founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which built on sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters. The SNCC was active in Mississippi and helped coordinate the 1961 ‘Freedom Rides’. Crucially, the SNCC was also a training ground for new activists, taught by Baker to be wary of “leader-centred orientation”. Like Septima Poinsette Clark, Baker had plenty to say, too, on how women’s voices weren’t sufficiently heard within the Civil Rights Movement.
Sam Cooke (1931–64)
In October 1963, while travelling to the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, singer Sam Cooke called ahead to book rooms at a Holiday Inn. On arrival, he was told there were no vacancies. Livid, Cooke demanded to see the manager, but was eventually persuaded to leave.
With insults being shouted and car horns blaring, Cooke and his fellow travellers, including his wife and brother, headed for the black guest-accepting Castle Motel – where the police were waiting to detain them for disturbing the peace.
The incident helped inspire soul legend Cooke, who was himself active in the Civil Rights Movement, to write one of its defining anthems, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, a song that’s melancholic yet also righteously angry – and, it’s said, was also written partly because Cooke was so impressed by Bob Dylan’s protest song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Cooke, shot by a motel manager, never lived to see his most famous composition accorded the honour of being selected for preservation in the Library of Congress.
This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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