10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

10 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Peter Baxter - July 11, 2018

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