Throughout history, civil rights activists have been at the forefront of the fight for equality and justice. Whether engaging in peaceful protests or taking direct action against unjust laws and practices, they have played an invaluable role in moving society forward.
Their actions not only improved the lives of countless individuals, but also shaped our understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a free and democratic society. Their efforts showed us we could fight the insidious effects of systemic discrimination.
Nonetheless, we often take for granted the many advances brought about by the civil rights movement, until we’re reminded of the fragility of the rights they’ve won for us, as we are today. None of the freedoms we must fight to protect today could have been brought about without the sacrifices made by both famous and lesser-known civil rights activists who stood up for what they believed was right.
Indeed, as we look back on their work and accomplishments, we are reminded of one essential truth: To build a more just world, each one of us must have the courage to speak up and fight for what is right. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most prominent figures from all walks of life, who led by example and shaped the modern civil rights movement:
Martin Luther King Jr.
As one of the most influential voices in the civil rights movement, Dr. King was instrumental in advancing the cause of equal rights for Black people and other underprivileged groups. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement activists of his participated in many landmark battles against racism and oppression.
Born in 1929 in Atlanta, GA, King grew up at a time when Black people were second-class citizens in law as well as practice. Against unfavorable odds, he went on to earn a Doctorate degree in theology from Boston University. In 1955, he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was here that he began his civil rights work, leading a successful boycott of the city's public buses together with Rosa Parks, the mother of the freedom movement, who was ordered to give up her seat to white riders.
With other influential civil rights activists, King continued to fight for equal rights for all Black Americans throughout his career. He also gave a monumental speech, known as “I Have a Dream,” during the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward achieving racial equality and ending segregation.
King's actions were instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial segregation in public places. King was assassinated in 1968, but his legacy lives on. Unfortunately, his dream of an America where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, is still very far from reality; still, we can look to his example to continue fighting the good fight.
A leader among female civil rights activists, Rosa Parks shaped the civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th century. Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, AL, she grew up in a time when open discrimination against Black people was entirely legal.
She rose to fame in Montgomery, AL, in 1955; Parks was riding on a city bus when the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she refused, she was arrested for violating the city's segregation laws.
Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which Black people refused to ride public transportation for over a year. Seeing as how they represented 85% of the bus riders in the town, this was very damaging to the bus company’s bottom line.
Parks later moved to Detroit, where she continued her activism as a member of the NAACP and fought for civil rights. As one of many distinguished black female civil rights activists, she has won numerous awards, including the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal.
One of her most famous quotes is: "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Malcolm X was one of the most important and controversial civil rights activists who promoted black pride, Islam, and human rights. Born Malcolm Little, he changed his name to X to signify the unknown African surname of his slave ancestors. A former street hustler and convict, he was radicalized during his time in prison and became a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam.
He advocated for Black separatism and was a fierce critic of the mainstream civil rights movement, which he saw as too passive in the face of white violence. Instead of their nonviolent protest policy, he promoted self-defense and armed resistance.
However, he grew disillusioned with the Nation of Islam’s rigidity and founded two separate organizations, one religious (Muslim Mosque, Inc.) and one secular (Organization of Afro-American Unity), with other black civil rights activists. In the same period, he met MLK for the first and only time, although they hardly spoke.
Finally, he undertook a voyage to Mecca, and had a life-changing experience, which somewhat tempered his views on racial separation, seeing as he encountered Muslims of all races living as equals.
However, before he could adopt a more moderate approach or officially work with MLK in the civil rights movement, he was assassinated in 1965. His widow Betty Shabazz continued to advocate on his behalf for civil rights and against racial oppression. His legacy continues to be debated today and inspires modern-day civil rights activists.
With the same aim but different fighting methods, Thurgood Marshall worked tirelessly for Black civil rights through his law practice. From his tireless work as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP and as the first Black Supreme Court Justice, to his unwavering commitment to civil rights and social justice, Marshall dedicated his life to fighting against discrimination and inequality.
In 1967, he became the first Black person to be appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served for 24 years. Throughout his career as a famous civil rights activist, Marshall fought tirelessly to end racial discrimination and oppression in America. He was a key figure in many landmark civil rights cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools.
Marshall also worked on several other important cases, such as Shelley v. Kraemer and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which helped end racist restrictions in property trading and de facto segregation in schools. In addition to his work as a lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, Marshall also taught at several law schools and served as the Chief Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
W.E.B Du Bois
The next on our list of civil rights activists is W.E.B Du Bois, a groundbreaking intellectual, activist, and author who made considerable contributions to Black liberation, empowerment, and culture. Du Bois was a sociologist and historian, and the first Black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard. He opposed the “separate but equal” doctrine in the US, and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
His two most famous works are 1903’s “The Souls of Black Folk,” 1935’s “Black Reconstruction in America,” and his autobiography and treatise “Dusk of Dawn,” from 1940. The central theme of his first book and most of his work is encompassed in the following statement: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” He was a civil rights movement activist with a socialist worldview, finding the root of racism in capitalism.
Over the course of several decades, Du Bois fought tirelessly for African American equality and justice, participating in research projects to document race relations and writing eloquent essays that challenged systemic racism. He died a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but his contribution to its passage is universally recognized as invaluable.
Dorothy Height was a women’s and civil rights activist in the United States. She dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of black women, and played a significant role in the civil rights movement of the 20th century.
Height was born in Richmond, VA, in 1912. She became interested in civil rights activism in high school, speaking out against lynchings. She was denied a rightfully earned position at Barnard due to exceeding the University’s unofficial two-Black-students-per-year policy. Instead, she enrolled at New York University.
After graduating, she joined the National Council of Negro Women. Height played a crucial role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, having worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement.
After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, Height continued to fight for equality, serving as National President of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1998, when she became President Emerita.
As one of the famous female civil rights activists, Height received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the NAACP Spingarn Medal.
Height passed away in 2010, but her legacy lives on through the work of groups like the National Council of Negro Women and the Civil Rights Act.
Jackie Robinson is best known as the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and opened the doors for Black people across professional sports. His impact went far beyond the world of sports, however: He was active in raising money for the NAACP, wrote columns for the New York Post, and fought alongside Luther King.
Jackie was one of the famous civil rights activists born in Georgia. His middle name was Roosevelt, in honor of the US president who had died 25 days before Jackie’s birth in 1919.
In 1947, he became the first Black person to play in Major League Baseball. But he didn't just stop there; he went on to become one of the most successful players in the game.
Aside from his groundbreaking work in baseball and ending sports segregation, he used his platform to speak out against discrimination and racism, urging others to stand up for their rights. He was also part of the March on Washington and was praised by MLK and other civil rights movement leaders.
John Lewis’s activism started early: As the founder and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was a key figure in the organization and execution of many protests during the 1960s. This popular civil rights activist organized students’ marches and sit-ins at segregated public institutions and inspired Black students to stand up for their rights.
His leadership played a critical role in dismantling Jim Crow laws and barriers, ultimately paving the way for true equality for people of color in America. Best known for being a leader of the Selma to Montgomery march, Lewis went on to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, a group of Black and white activists who rode buses together throughout the South to protest imposed segregated seating. Two years later, he was one of the main organizers of the historic 1963 March on Washington.
Finally, John Lewis served in the US government from 1977 to his death in 2020. In his tenure in the US House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, he was re-elected 18 times. In his time, he advocated for gay rights, and national health insurance, among other issues.