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An Overview of Top Civil Rights Leaders

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The civil rights movement would not have been a success without the contributions of a number of activists. It’s easy to forget this given that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remains the most identifiable leader of the movement. While King’s activism continues to inspire the masses, he did not act alone. Women such as Ella Baker and Jo Ann Robinson played crucial roles in the civil rights struggles as did men such as Whitney Young and Malcolm X, who sought to partner with civil rights activists before his assassination.

Martin Luther King Roundup

U.S. Embassy New Delhi/Flickr.com
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of the most beloved figures in U.S. history. So admired is he that some argue that King’s admirers have lost sight of whom he really was. While King want white children and black children to be playmates and classmates and fiercely supported Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, King was radical in many ways. One of his trusted advisors was a gay man named Bayard Rustin. King criticized the U.S. government’s role in the Vietnam War and wanted the government to take action to uplift the poor and working class Americans. This roundup of King’s life and speeches as well as the holiday and memorial in his honor sheds light on what he really stood for as an activist and as a man.

Malcolm X

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Roughly six decades after his death, Malcolm X remains one of the most misunderstood and controversial figures in U.S. history. At first a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X extolled the virtues of the group’s leader Elijah Muhammad while advocating for African-American rights and encouraging black empowerment. Unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm X supported self-defense rather than nonviolence, which ruffled the feathers of the mainstream American public. It didn’t help matters that Malcolm X referred to whites as “devils” in his speeches, but given that many of the whites he’d encountered had been virulent and violent racists, his viewpoint was not surprising. After making a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, however, Malcolm X embraced traditional Islam and saw that men from all backgrounds could live harmoniously. Towards the end of his life, he sought to partner with civil rights leader to effect lasting social change in the U.S. an abroad.

Women in Civil Rights

Wikimedia Commons
With the exception of Rosa Parks, the contributions that women made to the civil rights movement are routinely ignored. While Parks made headlines for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, Ala., played a key role in organizing the roughly year-long boycott that followed and making it a success. Women such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer also left their mark on the civil rights movement. Baker organized college students to participate in the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., to protest segregated accommodations. Hamer fought for voting rights for blacks in Mississippi. African Americans there were routinely discouraged from voting by whites who harassed, threatened and assaulted them. Hamer eventually founded political group the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, since the Democratic Party in the South was racially segregated.

Whitney Young Bio

Library of Congress
Whitney Young Jr. is remembered as one of the most successful directors of the National Urban League. Head of the organization during the 1960s, Young increased the group’s budget and influenced powerful corporations such as Ford to hire more African Americans. Young also petitioned the federal government to send money to cities where African Americans disproportionately faced social ills. President Lyndon Johnson incorporated Young’s strategy in the War on Poverty program. Young not only served as an advisor to Johnson but to Kennedy and Nixon as well.
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