Civil Rights Leaders
- Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 April 2021
While the movement traces its roots back to the early 1800’s, there were countless leaders in the civil rights movement throughout history. However, when talking about the modern day movement, this term refers to those leaders that began to emerge in the mid to late 1930s.
Noteworthy Examples of Civil Rights Leaders
With that in mind, there were many individuals that made noteworthy contributions as leaders in the civil rights movement; either through their actions and / or their words. The following paragraphs will detail some of the better known individuals that contributed to the movement’s success.
Born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, Thoroughgood (Thurgood) Marshall received his law degree from Howard University in 1933, and consequently set up practice in Baltimore, Maryland.
Thurgood later became involved in the NAACP, representing that organization in civil law cases. Marshall began his rise to prominence in 1936 during his very first civil case – Murray v. Maryland. In that case, Donald Murray, a black Amherst College graduate, was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of the “separate but equal” policies that existed in the 1930s.
Later, in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, a unanimous decision was reached concerning the “separate but equal” segregation of races. Thurgood Marshall once again represented the NAACP in this decision, where the Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. Thurgood was later named the Supreme Court’s first black justice.
Born February 4, 1913 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks is famous for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her arrest and trial for this act of civil disobedience resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 / 1956. This boycott was perhaps the most significant civil rights movement of that time, with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. playing a leading role in organizing the boycott.
In recognition of her contribution to the movement, and her role as a leader, the U.S. Congress declared Rosa the “Mother of the Modern day Civil Rights Movement.”
Born November 11, 1914, in Huttig, Arkansas, Daisy Bates is recognized as a civil rights leader for her efforts to desegregate Central High School of Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1952 Daisy Bates was elected president of the Arkansas State Conference of NAACP. Later, Daisy would guide nine students in their 1957 crusade to enroll in an all white school.
The students’ efforts were initially rebuffed, and the Governor of Arkansas called in the National Guard to stop the students at the door. Then President Eisenhower intervened, and the students were eventually admitted. Daisy continued to report schools that violated the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education Topeka. Her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, was nominated for, and won, a 1988 National Book Award.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Born January 15, 1929, Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, political activist, and perhaps the most famous leader of the civil rights movement. In 1955, Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott that started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in compliance with the Jim Crow law.
Dr. King also played a role in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, which is a group dedicated to harnessing the moral authority, and organizational capacity, of black churches to conduct non-violent protests on behalf of civil rights.
Dr. King also organized and led marches for the right to vote, desegregation, and labor rights in addition to basic civil rights. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are attributed, in part, to the works of Dr. King.
In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1965 the American Jewish Committee presented him with the American Liberties Medallion. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Books written by Dr. King include: Stride Toward Freedom, The Montgomery Story (1958), The Measure of a Man (1959), Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can’t Wait (1964) , Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968).
Born May 19, 1925, Malcolm Little was a black nationalist, and the founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Also known as Malcolm X, he was a longtime spokesperson for the Nation of Islam.
During his short life, Malcolm X went from being a street-wise Boston ruffian to one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in the United States. As a leader, he advocated black pride, economic self-reliance, and identity politics.
Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City on February 21, 1965, on the first day of National Brotherhood Week.
Born March 17, 1933, Myrlie Evers-Williams was an African American civil rights leader. As the first full-time chairman of the NAACP to take office in 1995, she served in that capacity until 1998. Myrlie is credited with restoring the Association to its status as the premier civil rights organization in America.
In 1987, Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first African-American woman appointed to serve as commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. She is also the distinguished author of For Us, the Living (1967), and Watch Me Fly: What I Learned On the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be (1999).
Born October 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, Jesse Louis Jackson is a political leader, clergyman, as well as a civil rights leader. Jesse Jackson attended the Chicago Theological Seminary, and was ordained a minister in 1968. Active in the civil rights movement, he was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jesse Jackson served as executive director of Operation Breadbasket, a program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that addressed the economic problems of African Americans in northern cities. Later in 1971, he founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), an organization aimed at combating racism.
In 1986, he became president of the National Rainbow Coalition, an independent political organization charged with uniting racial minorities, the poor, peace activists, and environmentalists. In 1984, and again in 1988, Reverend Jackson campaigned for the Democratic nomination for President, becoming the first African American to seriously contend for that political office.
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