10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Peter Baxter - July 11, 2018

The American Civil Rights Movement was a movement of social reform in the United States that began soon after Reconstruction, and ended, at least in its first phase, in 1964. It was in that year that the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed into law. The main thrust of the protest was equality in society and government for blacks, discriminated against for the centuries of slavery, and then again in the aftermath of abolition. The Civil Rights Act certainly outlawed discrimination in principle, but removing it from the fabric of society would prove much more difficult, and for many, the Civil Rights Movement remains an ongoing struggle.

The Movement, however, was much more than simply the struggle for black emancipation in America. It represents the efforts of any disadvantaged minority, or even majority, to gain equality in life and labor, no matter who or where. Likewise, activism did not always follow the established pattern pioneered by the likes of Doctor Martin Luther King, but took many forms. In this list, we will spread the definition of ‘Civil Rights Movement’ a little bit beyond the orthodox, and examine a view unsung personalities that you might not have guessed were civil rights activists.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a fearless activist at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. YouTube

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

Quite often, iconography is more powerful than law. An image can change the world, and the mugshot of an attractive, homely young white women; dressed in a gingham blouse with a flower pinned to the collar; wearing a look of mild amusement, and filled with confidence is certainly one such image. As one of the ‘Freedom Riders’, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was arrested in Jackson Mississippi in the summer of 1961, and it was there that this iconic mugshot was taken.

The image is powerful on many levels, displaying on the one hand contempt and defiance in the face of injustice, and on the other the courage of white privilege to make a stand alongside the oppressed minorities. In fact, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland represented a strong corps of affluent, white Civil Rights activists who were very much engaged in the struggle. These were men and women who often suffered not only the cuts and bruises of the front-line, but also being ostracized in their own society, and intense pressures from friends and family.

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland’s activism began when she was a student Duke University in North Carolina, organizing and participating in the sit-ins organized to protest the school color barrier. She was one of only a handful of white activists who were willing to join hands on the front-line, and under pressure from the Dean of Duke Women’s Studies to quit the protests, she instead dropped out and devoted herself entirely to activism. For the most part, this activism took the form of sit-ins, protests, pickets and demonstrations, but also the activities of the ‘Freedom Riders’. The Freedom Riders rode the busses and trains of the South regardless of the rules of segregation, and in fact it was this that ended in her arrest, and a two-month prison sentence.

Then John Trumpauer Mulholland made a powerfully symbolic move, and as black students were enrolling for the first time at Georgia University, she enrolled at the black Tougaloo Southern Christian College in Mississippi. Along with her fellow students at Tougaloo, she participated in the famous Woolworth sit-in. The episode turned violent, and Joan was brutally manhandled in full view of police and FBI. She stayed on the front line, however, and is still on the front-line today.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Susan B Anthony, women’s rights and abolition, an early Civil Rights activist. Pininterest

Susan B. Anthony

‘A true republic: men, their rights, nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.’

Susan B. Anthony entered the pantheon of American Civil Rights heroes in an era long before the fist-shaking and noisy demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s. Her period of activism included the abolition movement prior to emancipation, and the early reconstruction phase when many of the Jim Crow laws came into effect. She is, however, far better appreciated as a feminist, and certainly she was at the vanguard of the women’s suffrage movement towards the end of the 19th century.

Suffrage was in fact central to the movement for black emancipation, and it was in reaction to growing black access to the vote in many southern states that prompted the introduction of discriminatory laws. In 1863, Anthony was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Loyal League to support the government of Abraham Lincoln, in particular his abolitionist agenda. After emancipation, it was she and another early feminist by the name of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who founded the ‘American Equal Rights Association’, dedicated to the achievement of universal suffrage. Part of the mandate of the organization, apart from promoting women’s suffrage, was to help create a mood of participation among emancipated blacks, and to motivate them to vote.

Nonetheless, Susan B. Anthony remains primarily associated with the struggle for women’s suffrage, and while she did not live to see the 1920 passing of 19th Amendment, which prohibited the states from denying citizens the vote on the basis of sex, but her spirit certainly hung heavy over the event.

Susan B. Anthony, a women of privilege who place principal above all else, certainly stands proud in any list of Civil Rights heroes.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Muhammad Ali, put his career on the line. Variety

Muhammad Ali

It is easy in an age when civil rights are a virtual fashion accessory for a celebrity to champion equality, but far less so when doing so might mean the end of a good career. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942, in Louisville Kentucky, and as we all know, he became one of the most recognizable names in professional sport. His most high profile protest was his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army, as a consequence of his opposition to the Vietnam War. For this he was handed down a three-year ban by the boxing authorities, and a five-year prison sentence, which he successfully appealed.

This incident gives us all a clear insight into Ali’s moral position, but his activities on behalf of the organized Civil Rights Movement in the United States are perhaps less well known. In 1960, having just won the Olympic boxing gold, Cassius Clay, as he was known then, was refused entry into a whites-only diner in his hometown of Louisville. He claimed then to have thrown his Olympic medal into the river. Two years later, he joined the black civil rights organization the ‘Nation of Islam’, converting to Islam and changing his ‘slave name’ to his adopted name Muhammad Ali.

This was an extremely potent gesture that generated no small amount of controversy, but Ali was by then a globally recognized figure, and the symbolism of what he did was there for all to see. The Nation of Islam, however, and its controversial leader Elijah Muhammad, was not endorsed by the mainstream black leadership of the time, and it was not welcome on the main stage. Despite this, Muhammad Ali remained a friend and fellow activist to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. At a rally in Louisville Kentucky, Ali appeared on stage with Doctor King, proclaiming: ‘In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you.’

In 1984, three years after retiring from professional sport, Ali revealed that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and he turned his attention to full-time philanthropy. He either founded or was active in numerous charitable foundations, and in 1998 he was appointed a United Nations Ambassador of Peace.

‘Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements.’ Ali once remarked. ‘I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.’

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Cesar Chavek, who brought Hispanics into the Civil Rights Movement.Br. David Darst Center

Cesar Chavez

‘The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being but it is also the most true to our nature.’

The Cesar Chavez story begins at time when California shops and restaurants frequently posted signs in their windows stating ‘No blacks, no dogs and no Mexicans.’ The year was 1965, and in the fields around Delano California, agricultural workers were picketing, led by the Mexican-American farm workers rights activist, Cesar Chavez. Chavez was a man of modest education and very humble means, but he developed a style of passive resistance protest that would prove impossible for the establishment to ignore.

The inspiration for this came with a debate speech delivered by presidential aspirant John F Kennedy in his first clash with incumbent Richard Nixon. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, he said, like blacks, were being denied their constitutional rights as Americans. ‘We can do better’

This was the first time that Latino Americans heard their name mentioned in the context of civil rights, and in this shifting social climate, Chavez, Delores Huerta and others founded the Mexican American Farmworkers Association, later allying with other farmworker associations to form the United Farm Workers. In 1965, the Delano Grape Strike took this platform to a national level. The strike began on September 8 1965, and lasted for a full five years, and thanks in large part to a sympathetic public response, and the boycott of non-union grapes joined by an estimated 14 million Americans, grower in the end capitulated. United Farm Workers secured new contracts and improved pay and working conditions.

This, of course, was a major achievement in itself, but the success of La Causa, had wider ramifications. It infused a degree of pride and solidarity into America-Latino society, and broadened the concept of ‘civil rights’ to include not only blacks and women, but Latinos too, and potentially any group laboring under discriminatory laws or practices. Another personality to emerge from the Delano grape affair was Philip Vera Cruz, a Pilipino farm worker who was behind the formation of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Yet another was Delores Huerta, one of Chavez’s key organizers, who would go on to become a major name in the union organization of farm labor.

It certainly was a seminal moment in the wider Civil Rights Movement, and Cesar Chavez has since been acknowledged as one of the key activists of the movement.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
The Mississippi Burning Murders, one of the most iconic moments in Civil Rights history. NPR

Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner

Here we find ourselves in the very thick of the movement, 1964, and the ‘Mississippi Burning’ murders. Those readers who are familiar with this incident will no doubt take note here that we have omitted a third victim of those murders, James Chaney, of Meridian Mississippi, and we have. This is because our story here is not so much about the murders themselves, as about Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and Goodman and Schwerner are certainly the poster children of this.

The basic story of Mississippi Burning was the abduction and murder of the three men as they were touring the state urging blacks to register to vote. All three were associated with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and its member organization the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Having address congregation members at a black denomination church in Longdale Mississippi, the three were leaving town when their car was run off the road, and they were abducted and shot before being buried in the banks of an earthen dam. During the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department were implicated in the incident. The outrage generated over this incident was one of the main factors helping the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to gain passage.

Both the white victims were Jews, and from direct activism, to finance and law, the American Jewish community was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Representing just one per cent of the white population of the South, Jews, on the whole, were spared the worst of the race antagonism, regarded usually as honorary white protestants. As ‘Brown versus the Board of Education’ set in motion the collapse of all segregationist legislation in the South, the Jews found themselves caught between loyalty of the white community and demands of black emancipation. In the end, very few opted to side with the former.

In general, Jewish/black relations in the south were cordial, and when the protests became national in the late 1950s, Jewish money flooded in. Edith Stern, for example, daughter Julius Rosenwald, Chairman of Sears Roebuck, contributed vast sums from the Stern Family Fund to civil rights activities in the South. Offering open support, however, could be tricky. ‘The money dried up at the banks and loans were called in,’ one Jewish storekeeper recalled, ‘If you had a restaurant, linen was not picked up. If you owned a store, the local police could play havoc with you on the fire laws.’

However, on the other hand, almost every civil rights lawyer in Mississippi at that time was Jewish. The individual sacrifice of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, however, reflected a critical mass of young Jewish activists, many of whom were Ivy League students, who pushed forward the agenda of black emancipation with a highly visible white presence. One particular rabbis, Arthur Lelyveld, was beaten severely in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Physician Edward Sachar, who volunteered his medical services to the freedom marchers, narrowly escaped death as his automobile was forced off a Mississippi back road by local Klan members.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Paul Robeson, artist and activist. Famous People

Paul Robeson

One of the often quoted paradox of the pre-Civil Rights era was the willingness of white audiences to celebrate the brilliance of black musical and theatrical talent, while at the same time refusing them equal access to the clubs and theaters where they performed. During the Harlem Renaissance, white New Yorkers routine flocked to the black Jazz clubs of Harlem, but few black jazz artists were ever invited back.

There are numerous examples of this, from Billie Holliday to Louis Armstrong, but probably one of the most respected, and distinctive voices of post-WWII black theater was that of Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson was a bass-baritone, a lawyer and an alumni of Rutgers University. He was acknowledged as a world-class athlete, playing both football and baseball. He is generally regarded as one of great artists of the Harlem Renaissance, but he began his career in law, and entered the theater only because extant racism in New York made it impossible for him to practice. In December 1924, he landed the lead role of ‘Jim’ in Eugene O’Neill’s production of ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’. This was the commencement of a celebrated stage career, with regular appearances on Broadway, and numerous overseas tours. He played Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona in 1930, and later took the role to Broadway, where it ran for over 300 performances.

By the outbreak of WWII, Robeson had developed an international following, but it was then too that his political activism began to compromise his popularity. He made several visits to the Soviet Union, which raised questions, in particular during the McCarthy era. Returning home from Europe, critics extolled him as an ‘artistic and social genius, gifted by the gods as musician and actor.’ However, he was also that most dangerous of creatures, a black communist, and he was soon blacklisted from domestic concert venues, theatres and recording studios, and his passport was withdrawn, making it impossible for him to perform abroad.

Robeson’s activism and political involvement was diverse, and his interests were not by any means centered solely on black emancipation. The Civil Rights Movement was also by no means a unified movement, and internal squabbles were common. Robeson was not universally acknowledged and accepted by the black civil rights leadership, and this was because he was too closely associated through his theatrical work with the white establishment. Nonetheless, from issues as diverse as the anti-fascist movement of the Spanish Civil War, anti-imperialism and improving working conditions for Welsh coal miners, he was a potent figure on the stage of black American politics and activism. In the early 1960s, he retired and lived the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Miriam Makeba

As it was true for Paul Robeson, the stage has been the political platform of a great many artists. South Africa produced no small number of these, and certainly parallel to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States ran the South African Anti-apartheid Movement.

Until the period after WWII, South Africa was a British colony, with reasonably liberal race policies. After WWII, however, as the Empire went into decline, a far-right white resurgence set the tone for the later legalization of racism, and the advent of Apartheid. Born into this environment was a young Xhosa woman by the name of Miriam Makeba.

Miriam Makeba’s story could hardly be more apt as an African revolutionary, and an international liberation icon. She was born in Johannesburg in 1932, but the first six months of her life were spent in prison, as her mother served a sentence for the illegal sale of beer. As a young adult she achieved some success as a singer, but it was not until her exile to London, and her marriage to Harry Belafonte that she achieved widespread recognition in Europe and the United States.

There was always a strong political flavor to her recordings and stage performances, and in 1962 she performed at US President John F Kennedy’s birthday celebration in Madison Square Gardens. Her testimony before a United Nations committee included a damning indictment of South African race policy, for which her passport and rights of South African citizenship were revoked. She became, in effect, an international exile.

It was her 1968 marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael that put her in the American Civil Rights frame, and as such she was something of a crossover activist, linking the American race struggle with the South African. The couple was soon afterwards exiled from the United States, and they lived for fifteen years in Guinea.

Miriam Makeba’s activism was unique insofar as it remained aggressively at the forefront of all of her recordings and stage performances, and it was accompanied by such superb artistry that even the most irreconciled racists were moved. While exiled from South Africa, she remained an icon, and through her work, she carried the message of the South African liberation struggle to the theatres and living rooms of Europe and America.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Frantz Fanon, one of the great black intellectuals. ICA Miami

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon is described by Wikipedia as a ‘Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory, and Marxism.’

Indeed, if one had the opportunity to examine the book collections of revolutionaries as diverse as Malcolm X and Steve Biko, Bobby Sands and Eldridge Cleaver, in every one Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth would be found.

Frantz Fanon is a name widely associated with the African liberation movement, and although only thirty-six when he died, his influence was, and remains profound in the annals of black emancipation. His contribution, however, was almost entirely academic, and perhaps more than anything, it was his sheer intellectual virtuosity that shatter the glass ceiling of perceived black inferiority. The front line of his particular war was French colonization, and the process of decolonization. His published works – he wrote four books, Black Skin, White Mask (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959), The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Toward the African Revolution (1964) – have become central texts to African liberation philosophy and the ideals of anti-colonialism. He rejected black assimilation into a white-supremacist mainstream culture, but also the reactionary assertions of black superiority. His position was uncompromising, Afrocentric and progressive.

His biography in a nutshell is that he was born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 1925, into a family described as the ‘black bourgeoisie’. As such he enjoyed access to a French metropolitan education, where he studied psychiatry and medicine at the University of Lyon. His later work as a psychiatric doctor in Algiers placed him central to the defining war in that territory against French occupation. Here, some of his most seminal ideas were incubated.

Frantz Fanon died of leukemia in Bethesda, Maryland, on 6 December 1961, just as the American Civil Rights Movement was being steered towards its great legislative victory. While his work was influencing the likes of Che Guevara and Steve Biko, it was also at this time that his intellectualization of the black struggle began to influence the ideology of the Black Panther movement, in particular his unwillingness to reject violence, and his presentation of the concept of the ‘new man’.

Frantz Fanon’s work remains seminal in current and ongoing liberation struggles in Palestine, in Sri Lankan Tamil separatism, but more than anything, it remains embedded in both the African and American black consciousness.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
Thurgood Marshall, took Justice to the Supreme Court. Pininterest

Thurgood Marshall

We are going to shine the light now on an establishment figure, the first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It was baseball legend Carlton Fisk who once remarked that it is not what you achieve that counts, but what you overcome to achieve it. In this regard, the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court marks a moment as vital to US race history as the election of Barack Obama to the White House forty years later.

Thurgood Marshall’s Civil Rights credentials were earned in the trenches, however, as legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, during which time he argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, more than anyone else in history, and in twenty-nine of these representations, he prevailed.

Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908, and was educated in the city’s segregated public education system. He graduated from Lincoln University, and earned his law degree at Howard University. There he came under the influence of Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of the Law School, and a pioneer in the concept of litigation as a tool of social reform.

Between 1934 and 1961, he served as lead attorney for the NAACP, winning the moniker ‘Mr. Civil Rights’. Among his signature litigation during this period was Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated the practice of the ‘white primary’ where blacks from the Democratic party were banned from any primary election in a state where that party controlled state government. Another was Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which prohibited the enforcement of racially restrictive real estate covenants by state courts, and the seminal Brown v. Board of Education, which brought an end to state-enforced racial segregation in the public school system.

From there, Thurgood Marshall began his journey through the process of political appointments, first, in 1961, to the US Court of Appeals, then the office of Solicitor General, another black first, and finally his appointment by President Lyndon B Johnson to the Supreme Court. It was, President Johnson remarked, ‘the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.’

Justice Marshall distinguished himself as an outspoken liberal in a Court dominated at the time by conservatives. In his twenty-four year tenure on the Supreme Court, he voted to uphold gender and racial affirmative action policies in every case in which they were challenged. In every case in which the Supreme Court failed to overturn a death sentence he dissented, and he opposed all efforts to limit or burden the right of women to access abortion.

Thurgood Marshall broke no laws, and challenged no conventions other than the right of a black man to serve the institutions of his nations, and use that service to promoted equality and freedom. He certainly was a doyen of the Civil Rights Movement.

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
James Baldwin, a gay black man in the Civil Rights Movement. PROVOKR

James Baldwin

Our final unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement was a man who not only challenged the racial stereotypes of the Jim Crow era, but also sexual stereotypes. We have touched on a few luminaries of the wider movement who use the arts to influence opinion and inspire action, and in this regard James Baldwin was one of the most influential writers of the Civil Rights era. His first book, Go Tell it on the Mountain, dealt with themes of entrenched racism in the United States, but his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, deals more intimately with questions of homosexuality, centered on the experiences of a white homosexual living in Paris.

While he was unable at the time draw any close analogies with himself, he was, at the age of twenty-four, driven to relocate to Paris, where a number of black American activists, musicians and performers found sanctuary to live and create in an environment of racial tolerance.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, however, James Baldwin made the journey back to the United States, as much to involve himself as to report on events in the South for the intellectual Parisian Review. This offered him the opportunity, not only to mingle with the likes of Doctor Martin Luther King, but also to write a number of essays that would prove important in bringing the black version of events to a wider readership. His essays were eventually taken up by Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Mademoiselle. He later joined the Congress of Racial Equality, for which he traveled across the American South, writing and lecturing on racial inequality. He eventually became so identified with the Civil Rights Movement that he was featured on the cover of the May, 1963 edition of Time Magazine.

The other aspect of Baldwins advocacy was for the rights of a gay black man in an environment where homosexuality was as reviled in mainstream black society as white, and it was a matter that he pursued with great caution. This he tended to do from the relative safety of his literary work, and his life as a gay man was not lived in the United States, but in France, and there he found, in a generally tolerant environment, the opportunity to live and write freely.

James Baldwin died of stomach cancer in late 1987, at the age of 63. he passed away at his modest home in Saint Paul de Vence, France, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript dealing with his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The manuscript forms the basis for Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. James Baldwin is buried in Westchester County, New York.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Joan Trumpauer-Mulholland.” Moral Heroes. J. Kile, March 2012

“How Muhammad Ali influenced the Civil Rights Movement.” Al Jazeera. Michael Ezra, June 2016

“Cesar Chavez: Creating Justice.’ Medium. Sean McCollum

“Jews in the Civil Rights Movement.’ My Jewish Learning. Howard Sachar

“Paul Robeson.’ Biography. February 2018

“Miriam Makeba: South African singer and civil rights activist.” Original People. November 2012