While Dr. King was one of the greatest advocates for peace we had ever seen, behind him were dozens, hundreds, and thousands of unsung individuals – men and women – who helped to shape him and the movement. We encourage everyone to know their names and acknowledge their contribution to the struggle. Below is a list of just a few of the unsung heroes/sheroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Click on their names to learn more.
A. Philip Randolph was a labor activist who led the first predominantly black labor union. He led the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the original March on Washington movement of the 1940s. He was largely responsible for desegregating the United States Military before the Civil Rights Movement. Read books about Randolph here.
Andrew Young was a key leader in SCLC, serving for a time as their Executive Director. He was also president of the National Council of Churches and went on to have a career in politics, serving as mayor of Atlanta, a congressman for Georgia, and an ambassador to the United Nations. He authored and was featured in several books.
Bayard Rustin was active in many Civil Rights organizations, including FOR, CORE, SNCC, SCLC and others. An early participant in the movement, he was a leader in the early Freedom Rides (known as the Journey of Reconciliation) that took place in 1947, years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. An openly gay activist, he was at times ostracized from the Movement. Rustin was the Executive Director of the March on Washington, and played a key role in convincing Dr. King to not own a gun. Check out some of the books that have been written about him, as well as a documentary film about his life.
Bernard LaFayette was a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and an early organizer of the Selma movement. He would later go on to be the National Coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign, and played a role in negotiating the peace settlement between the American Indian Movement and the FBI during the Wounded Knee stand-off. A co-founder of SNCC, Dr. LaFayette is also the co-author of the Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation training curriculum. He currently serves as the Chairman of SCLC. Dr. LaFayette recently authored a memoir about his work in Selma.
Bob Moses was an activist with SNCC, and would later go on to start the Algebra Project. As a field secretary with SNCC, he was the director of the Mississippi project, and was the main organizer of Freedom Summer, an attempt to register black voters in MS in 1964. Moses was also a key figure in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Moses has written a couple of books, and was also featured in these two books.
Claudette Colvin, at age 15, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, nine months before the arrest of Rosa Parks. Claudette was one of the plaintiffs in the Browder vs Gayle case that would eventually go on to desegregate the Montgomery bus systems. Read this book that was written about her story, or check out this NPR story or this interview with her on Democracy Now.
C.T. Vivian, a 2013 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a member of SCLC and a Freedom Rider. As a minister in Nashville, he was a participant in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, and went on to be a participant in many campaigns throughout the movement. His 1970 book was the first book written about the Civil Rights movement by one of Dr. King’s staff members.
Diane Nash is a co-founder of SNCC, and was a key leader in successful campaigns such as the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Selma Voting Rights campaign. She is the recipient of many awards and remains a strong advocate for nonviolence (which she now refers to as “Agapic Energy”) to this day. Read a book about her life here, and watch a short interview with her here.
Dorothy Cotton was one of the highest ranking women within SCLC, serving as their Education Director and directing their Citizenship Education Program. After Dr. King’s death, she served as Vice President for Field Operations for the MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where she led trainings in nonviolence. She recently authored this book, and you can also see her work with the Dorothy Cotton Institute.
Ella Baker often worked behind the scenes, and served as a mentor to many young leaders of the movement. An activist who was always committed to empowering young people with a firm belief in the idea of collective leadership, she was often critical of the male dominated, hierarchical leadership of the Movement. After her work with the NAACP and SCLC, she played an instrumental role in calling a meeting of young leaders; a meeting that would serve as the founding of SNCC. Multiple books have been written about her, and a documentary film was also made about her life.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a leader with SNCC and was active organizing in Mississippi. There, she played a leading role in organizing 1964’s Freedom Summer project, and later served as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was also an active leader in later campaigns including the Poor People’s Campaign. Hamer was also well known as a freedom singer, inspiring many with her Christian hymns. Multiple books have been written about her which you can see here. A documentary about her life can be seen here, or a free video profiling her work can be seen here.
Fred Shuttlesworth was a co-founder of SCLC. A minister from Birmingham, he initiated the well known Birmingham campaign, which he called “Project C” (C for Confrontation), a campaign that eventually led to the Children’s Crusade. He was the minister who invited Dr. King to come to Birmingham, where he would ultimately get arrested and pen his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He was also an organizer of the Freedom Rides. These three books have been written about him, and you can listen to an NPR profile about him here.
James Bevel, as the Director of Direct Action and Nonviolence Education for SCLC, was a critical player in the Civil Rights Movement. He was known as Dr. King’s top lieutenant, the chief strategist for some of the most successful campaigns during the movement, including in Birmingham, Selma and Chicago. He would later go on to be a leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement and was the initiator of the Million Man March.
James Forman was a leader with SNCC, serving as their first Executive Secretary. As an older member of SNCC, he would help manage and expand the infrastructure of the organization in its early days. He would later go on to be involved with the Black Panther Party and the International Black Workers Congress. He is the author of several books, including “The Making of Black Revolutionaries.”
James Lawson was one of the first nonviolence trainers of the movement. After living in India and studying the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King called on him to provide workshops to leaders in the movement. He led a year-long training for students of the Nashville lunch counter sit-in movement, and would later go on to support the development of SNCC. An early member of FOR and CORE, he served 14 months in prison for refusing to report for the draft. He also helped to coordinate the Freedom Rides, and was active in the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike.
James Meredith was the first African American student enrolled in the University of Mississippi, in this well known case. In 1966, he would begin a solitary “March Against Fear,” from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS. Soon after he began, he was shot by a gunman and sent to the hospital. Leaders of the movement would continue to march on his behalf, and Meredith would re-join the march the day before it arrived in Jackson – with 15,000 marchers. He authored two books, and was the subject of several books.
James Reeb was a northern Unitarian Universalist minister who was beaten and murdered during the Selma to Montgomery marches. A member of SCLC, he came down to Selma to support the movement and participated in both the first and second marches. Following the second march, Reeb was having dinner with other ministers when they were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. He died from his injuries two days later. A book was written about him here.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first person to be killed during a nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights Movement. He was part of a march to a local jail to protest the jailing of a young civil rights worker. The march was attacked by police, sheriffs deputies, and state troopers. Jackson, his mother and his 82-year-old grandfather retreated into a cafe, where state troopers followed and began beating his mother and grandfather. Lee tried to protect them and was shot twice at close range. His death catalyzed the initial Selma to Montgomery march.
Jo Ann Robinson worked with the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The night that Rosa Parks was arrested, she stayed up all night mimeographing 35,000 fliers. After the success of what was initially planned as a one-day boycott, she would become a member of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association.
John Lewis is a co-founder of SNCC, and served as their Chairman during some of the movement’s most tumultuous years. He was a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, and was a participant in the Freedom Rides and a leader in the March on Washington. His speech at the March on Washington was considered too confrontational by some, and was partially censored. Check out the video or the text of the original unedited speech. He is currently a US Congressman, and is the author of these three books.
Julian Bond was a co-founder of SNCC and served as their Communications Director, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, chairman of the NAACP (1998-2010), and served 20 years in the Georgia House and Senate. He narrated PBS’s Eyes on the Prize documentary series about the Civil Rights movement. An outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, he boycotted Coretta Scott King’s funeral, protesting King’s children for choosing to hold the service at an anti-gay mega church, despite Coretta’s own support of LGBT rights. He helped to author multiple books, and was featured in these books and this movie.
Marion Barry, a co-founder of SNCC, served as their first chairman. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1965 to organize the DC chapter of SNCC, and would go on to be active in DC politics for years, including becoming a two-time mayor. In 1967, he co-founded Pride Inc., an effort to provide job training and food distribution to low-income communities throughout DC. Despite serving time in a federal prison for drug use, he would remain a popular political figure in DC. He wrote one book and was featured in these two.
Medgar Evers was the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. He was involved in James Meredith’s struggle to de-segregate the University of Mississippi. He was assassinated by a member of the White Citizens Council in 1963. Multiple books have been written about him, and the 1996 movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” dramatized the three-decade struggle by his widow Myrlie Evers to bring his assassin to justice. NPR profiled him in 2003.
Myles Horton is the founder of the Highlander Folks School (now known as the Highlander Research & Education Center). Highlander, founded in 1932 as a training school and cultural center, is perhaps most well known for having trained Rosa Parks and countless other Civil Rights leaders, as well as leaders of the Labor movement before that. He was a strong advocate of popular education, believing that people always had the answers to their own communities’ problems. Horton authored three books and was featured in the 1985 documentary “You Got to Move.” A 2-hour interview with Bill Moyers can be seen for free here.
Ralph Abernathy was one of Dr. King’s closest friends and confidants. A minister from Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, a church with a long history with Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King preached. He worked with Dr. King from the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, introduced him before his last speech in Memphis, shared a motel room with him on his last night, and was with him the moment of his assassination. He took over leadership of SCLC after Dr. King’s death. Abernathy also helped to negotiate a peace settlement between the FBI and the American Indian Movement at the Wounded Knee incident. He published an autobiography in 1989.
Rosa Parks, contrary to what many people believe, was not simply “tired” the day she refused to get up from the seat on the bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. If anything, she was tired of the injustice of segregation, and took a seat in order to take a stand. A secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, she had received a training at the Highlander Folks School just four months prior to her action. For her courageous act, she was fired from her job as a seamstress. She has written a few books, and was written about in many more. A biopic movie of her was released in 2002.
Roy Wilkins was a long time leader with the NAACP, especially during the height of the Movement, serving as it’s Executive Secretary from 1955 to 1964, and it’s Executive Director from 1964. He also served as the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, after the departure of W.E.B. Du Bois. The NAACP played critical roles in Brown vs the Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act during his tenure. He wrote an autobiography and was featured in this book and this movie.
Ruby Bridges, at 6 years old, became the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the South. On November 14th, 1960, under a court mandated order and with protection from US Marshals, Ruby entered New Orleans’ William Frantz Elementary School as its first black student. Ruby’s family would endure backlash, including her father losing his job. Despite all this, a former US Deputy Marshal would comment, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried.” She would go on to start the Ruby Bridges Foundation in her adult life. She has authored several books, been written about in a few more, and a movie was made about her story.
Septima Clark was instrumental in creating the Literacy and Citizenship Schools which were instrumental in the voter registration drives during the movement. Dr. King commonly referred to her as “the Mother of the Movement.” She was the director of workshops at Highlander Folks School, but as the Citizenship Schools grew and grew, the program was transferred to SCLC, along with Clark’s position. She wrote a book, and was featured in this book.
Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Toure, was chairman of SNCC from 1966 to 1967, a Freedom Rider, and would go on to be a symbolic leader in the Black Panther Party. He popularized the term “Black Power,” first using it in a speech on June 16, 1966, after the shooting of James Meredith. He would eventually go onto challenge nonviolence, and became increasingly supportive of Black Nationalism. He wrote two books, and was featured in these two books.
Vincent Harding worked with various civil rights organizations and was a close ally to Dr. King. He wrote several of Dr. King’s speeches, including his famous speech against the Vietnam War, “A Time to Break Silence.” After Dr. King’s assassination, Harding worked with Correta Scott King to establish the King Center, and became it’s first director. An historian and a theologist, he is the author of multiple books.
Viola Liuzzo was an activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for her role in the Civil Rights Movement. A Unitarian Universalist, she travelled to Selma to support the Selma to Montgomery march after witnessing the violence during the initial “Bloody Sunday” march. She was shot days after the completion of the march as she was driving marchers back home. The KKK targeted her to try to dissuade other non-southerners from coming down to support the movement. Several books have been written about her, and a documentary movie was produced about her as well.
And many more…..
*Note: Links to the Amazon listings of many books are provided for information purposes, but we encourage you to go support your local independent bookstores!