5 Current and Historical Black Civil Rights Activists

Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)

Bayard Rustin was a political strategist who shaped Martin Luther King Jr’s movement and philosophy. During 1948, he traveled to India where he learned nonviolence civil disobedience tactics from Gandhi. On return to America, he taught MLK these tactics and helped adapt them for use in the United States. Among many accomplishments, Rustin also helped propose the first March on Washington which lead to the Fair Employment Act by Executive Order from President Roosevelt. Because he was an openly gay man, he was sidelined in events and is lesser known in historical accounts. Despite being targeted for homophobic attacks, Rustin avowed in an interview that his decision to come out “was an absolute necessity” and fought for LGBTQ rights during the 1980s.

Ida Wells (1862 – 1931)

Ida Wells was a journalist and a civil rights advocate who created an anti-lynching campaign, formed civil rights organizations, and promoted woman’s suffrage. To document experiences on lynching, she traveled to the south to gather statistics (in modern times, called data journalism) and compiled her findings in, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States. Wells also was a prominent advocate for African American women’s voting rights and had to contend with opposition to Black voting rights from the woman’s suffrage movement. Ultimately, her efforts helped pass the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act.

In 2020, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism.

Alicia Garza (1981 – Present)

Self-described as a queer, social justice activist, Alicia Garza is one of the founding members of Black Lives Matters (Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi are the other co-founders) which began as social media posts in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal. She has also worked to support community health by founding the Black Futures Lab which collected the largest survey of Black communities. Currently, she is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Marion Stamps (1945 – 1996)

Marion Stamps was a prominent community activist for equal rights in public housing. As head of the Chicago Housing Tenant Organization, she helped educate people on their housing rights which resulted in changing federal housing laws and standards. To address ineffectual leadership in public housing, she helped elect Chicago’s first African American mayor by organizing mass voter registration drives. And in 1994, she worked with gang leaders in Chicago to establish the only citywide gang truce in Chicago history.

For a more in depth description on housing activism, read her interview (question 5).

Michelle Alexander (1967 – Present)

Michelle Alexander is an author, civil rights lawyer, and a professor who advocated against mass criminalization in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which helped create a national debate on issues of the criminal justice system. Before she was a professor of law, she built a campaign against racial profiling called “Driving While Black or Brown Campaign” which set up toll-free, confidential hotlines for people experiencing discriminatory traffic stops.

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