Recent months have seen a wave of activism against entitled, rude and racist Karens across social-media platforms. This movement resonates in a country on the verge of racial division.
This phenomenon has its roots in the Civil Rights Movement, when African American activists joined forces to fight segregation in public spaces. Since then, activists have continued their fight for rights both here and abroad – proving that activism can shape history.
Born on February 21st 1940 on a sharecropper’s farm near Troy, Alabama, John Lewis was an influential civil rights leader who championed Black people’s right to vote. He played an integral role in many aspects of the Movement such as organizing sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters, participating in Freedom Rides and serving as chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
Lewis endured physical attacks and beatings during his early days as an activist, yet remained committed to nonviolence. This commitment was especially evident during the Selma-Montgomery marches when he and others were assaulted by state troopers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
As a result, the Movement was successful in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following his retirement from SNCC, he remained involved with the Movement as director of voter education initiatives for the South. He first served his community as city councilman of Atlanta before being elected to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district in 1986 – where he still serves today.
Lewis was widely hailed as “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” having dedicated his life to upholding human rights, protecting civil liberties, and creating what he called “The Beloved Community” in America. His commitment to upholding ethical standards and moral principles earned him respect from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Bond, one of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960, entered politics upon graduating from Morehouse College. He was one of eight African American men elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965 – ushering in integration into that office for the first time since Reconstruction.
He served in the Georgia General Assembly for two decades, serving two terms in each chamber – six times in the House and once in the Senate. A member of the Black Caucus within that body, he also held numerous committee posts throughout its duration.
Bond’s involvement with the civil rights movement remained a constant throughout his career as both an activist and politician. While he believed that through collective action and policy changes could bring about social progress, he recognized there were times when such efforts failed.
In 1963, Bond began his career at The Inquirer in Atlanta as a staff writer for their new protest newspaper. He remained there for many years until becoming its managing editor.
Bond was dismayed when SNCC began adopting more of a separatist philosophy during the mid-’60s. He had always imagined SNCC as an organization that would embrace all people regardless of race.
His ambivalence towards SNCC’s separatist direction reflected his own growing disenchantment with the civil rights movement, as well as an understanding of human rights more generally, acknowledging that American’s violence and oppression against peoples of color wasn’t an isolated incident but part of their own history.
Bayard Rustin, born in 1917 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, rose to be a leading figure within the American Civil Rights Movement and an advocate for nonviolence. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent approach in India, he adopted this non-violent strategy during his youth.
During World War II, he was a conscientious objector and served 28 months in federal prison as a result. Upon his release, he founded two pacifist organizations – Fellowship of Reconciliation and War Resisters League – with other conscientious objectors as its leader.
In 1947, he spearheaded the first Freedom Rides movement, using civil disobedience to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses. Additionally, he collaborated with Black trade unionist A. Philip Randolph during 1941’s March on Washington Movement and later, in 1948, spearheaded a campaign to end segregation within the military.
He served as a strategist for King’s Civil Rights Movement and organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership and teach him nonviolence. King considered him one of his closest advisors, leading the fight against segregation including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Additionally, King was active in labor organizing and served as co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America (SDUSA) from 1955 until 1968.
Jo Ann Robinson
Jo Ann Robinson, born near Culloden in 1912 near Atlanta, became the first woman in her family to graduate college. She earned both a bachelor’s degree in English from Fort Valley State College and a master’s in English from Atlanta University.
In Montgomery, Alabama, she taught at a historically Black college and was actively engaged in her local community. As president of the Women’s Political Council – an organization for middle-class African American women – she achieved great success.
On December 1, 1955, Robinson and other Women’s Political Coalition (WPC) members saw an opportunity to protest segregation in Montgomery. They created a flyer that called for a one-day boycott of city buses beginning on Monday, December 5.
Robinson worked behind the scenes as an organizer of the boycott, editing MIA newsletters and organizing many activities that supported its cause. Unfortunately, she was repeatedly harassed and assaulted; in 1956 a police officer threw a stone at her home while acid was poured on her car.
Robinson was an activist in the civil rights movement throughout her life. However, her health began to deteriorate after publishing her memoir The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (1992). Ultimately, Robinson succumbed to cancer in 1992.
Audre Lorde was an American poet, essayist, librarian and feminist renowned for her impact on modern culture. Her writings addressed topics such as sexual identity, race relations, gender identity, love affairs, betrayals, illness and disability with compassion.
Lorde was born in Harlem, New York to West Indian parents. She attended Hunter College (City University of New York; CUNY) where she majored in literature and philosophy.
She experienced growing up feeling unwelcomed and rejected by society. For instance, when her family went on their first trip to Washington D.C., they were told they couldn’t eat outside due to being black – an experience which proved traumatic for her.
Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and chronicled her experience in The Cancer Journals, a poignant book that showcases Lorde’s conviction that difference should be celebrated rather than shrouded away.
Lorde firmly believed that feminism must be inclusive, not just for white heterosexual women. This contention formed the basis of her feminist theory and intersectionality; ultimately, Lorde believed all forms of oppression are connected and must be addressed together.
Constance Baker Motley
Motley, who passed away in 2005, was the first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship. Throughout her tenure on the bench she made significant rulings that continue to influence today’s legal landscape.
She was the leader of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and an icon in the civil rights movement. Her caseload included discrimination in voting rights, public accommodations, and housing access rights.
Her determination and tenacity helped her win many cases. Additionally, she played an influential role in Brown v. Board – the landmark case which put an end to segregation in public schools throughout the South.
Her most challenging work was the relentless fight against racial discrimination in housing. She took part in many cases that challenged segregation of public housing units throughout the South, including one which ultimately resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Her housing litigation proved particularly challenging, as she often encountered violent resistance from White homeowners. Ultimately, though, it was her reputation as a lawyer that enabled her to prevail and make all forms of residential housing segregation illegal.
Constance Baker Motley was an unsung civil rights hero, fighting tirelessly to end racial segregation with her courage and dedication. Her story deserves to be told.
Ernestine Eckstein was a Black lesbian who participated in early gay rights demonstrations and eventually served as vice president of the New York chapter of homophile organization Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), one of the earliest lesbian civil and political rights organizations.
Eckstein was a pioneering visionary who predicted and foretold many of the issues confronting LGBTQ individuals in decades to come. As the sole Black lesbian at an iconic gay rights protest outside the White House in 1965, Eckstein left behind her legacy of courage and unwavering determination to ensure all peoples’ liberation.
Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen conducted an in-depth interview for The Ladder magazine in 1966 that provides valuable insights into their views. As the first American lesbian of color to grace the cover of such a prominent lesbian political journal, her words helped shape how members of DOB communities were perceived both within and outside the lesbian community.
In addition to her role as a gay activist, she was also active in the Black feminist movement and founded San Francisco’s Black Women Organized for Political Action. Through her affiliations with NAACP, CORE, and DOB she became an influential voice for both Black and LGBTQ communities during the Civil Rights era.