We were all taught about the civil rights movement in history class, but this fight is an ongoing battle that is still happening in our day-to-day lives. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the week-long celebrations here on campus, I have compiled a list, in no particular order, of the 10 civil rights leaders that I find most inspiring.
1. Septima Poinsette Clark
Often referred to as the grandmother or queen mother of the civil rights movement, Clark’s name, like those of so many other women, was sadly absent from my history books growing up. An advocate of nonviolence, Clark’s main tool was education, as she continued to teach those around her despite being fired from her traditional teaching job for refusing to withdraw her membership from the NAACP. She, like many others on this list, continued her activism tirelessly well into her 80s.
2. César Chávez
Chávez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, now called the United Farm Workers, a group formed in 1962 to organize farm workers and demand that their rights be recognized. A man with a staunch insistence on nonviolence, Chávez successfully protested injustices with public fasts and boycotts.
3. Harvey Milk
One of the first openly gay elected officials in U.S. history, Milk served on the San Francisco board of supervisors in the late ‘70s. While in office, Milk supported many civil rights issues, including a gay rights ordinance, not unlike the one that was struck down here in Manhattan, which called for the end of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sadly, like others on this list, Milk was assassinated in 1978 after only serving his community for a short time.
4. Malcolm X
Perhaps the most famous name on this list, Malcolm X emphasized a separatist take on civil rights, setting him apart from Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders who pushed integration. Founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he encouraged self-determination and unity within his followers. Like Milk, Malcolm X was assassinated at a young age, but he left a lasting legacy.
5. W.E.B. DuBois
One of the founders of the NAACP, DuBois may be most famous for his talent with pen and paper. Author of multiple written works, his most famous was probably “The Souls of Black Folk,” a piece which encouraged a fight for education, voting rights and civil equality among African-Americans. Although labeled a “radical” by many at the time, and living his final years in Ghana as an expatriate to the U.S., DuBois is nevertheless one of the most famous and well-respected men of the civil rights movement.
6. Alice Paul
A founder of the National Women’s Party, Paul was an advocate for women’s suffrage, pushing for change at the national level. She is perhaps most famous for picketing the White House with other members of the NWP. Paul and her fellow suffragists were arrested for “obstructing traffic,” arrests which eventually led to hunger strikes to protest the conditions in the prison where they were held. Even through tortuous force-feedings and a move to declare her legally insane, Paul stood by her beliefs and refused to back down.
Although this is a group and not an individual, they were all leaders in their own right. These women were some of the first to outwardly address discrimination against lesbians and fight back against the general heterosexism within the women’s movement. At the Second Congress to Unite Women, the group read “The Woman-Identified Woman,” one of the first steps for pushing lesbian rights within the movement.
8. Dolores Huerta
Huerta is best known, along with Chávez, as the co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association. In addition to founding the organization, Huerta also fought against gender discrimination both within and outside of the organization. Still alive today, the 81-year-old travels the country speaking about issues of social justice.
9. Clyde Bellecourt
As one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, Bellecourt has been a part of many campaigns to educate and work for improved conditions for Native Americans. Bellecourt was a part of numerous movements, including The Trail of Broken Treaties, which resulted in a takeover of the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the presentation of a 20-point solution to the president. Today Bellecourt is, among other things, an organizer for the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.
10. Yuri Kochiyama
One of the thousands of Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II, Kochiyama used this experience as a launching pad for a civil rights career that is still ongoing. A close colleague of Malcom X, she has been active in multiple movements, from freeing political prisoners to the Puerto Rican Independence movement. Like so many other female civil rights activists, Kochiyama’s name is not often mentioned, but her work, and those of her fellow women, has led to great changes in our history.