Five Under Recognised Figures from American Black History You Should Know About


Black History in America is best represented by images of Martin Luther King Jr delivering his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Although Martin Luther King has undoubtedly earnt his place as a champion for the cause of Black Civil Rights, there are many other figures whose actions must also be recognised in the pursuit of equality across America, a struggle which lasted almost a century.

Booker T. Washington 

Booker T Washington lived during the very early stages of the civil rights era. His social rights were subsequently heavily restricted by his ethnicity, predominantly due to the extreme discrimination faced by African Americans from the majority of whites in the south of the country. Despite such severe limitations Washington was able to gain high social status as an author and teacher, and is perhaps most well-known for delivering the 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech. The speech proposed that African Americans would sacrifice political rights in the south in order that they might secure greater economic and legal parity, a highly controversial proposal amongst other civil rights leaders. Indeed William E. B. Du Bois condemned Washington’s Atlanta compromise as treason for sacrificing political rights, as Washington suggestion meant that African Americans would have fewer rights than White Americans. However, Washington’s compromise was highly successful and revolutionary in softening hostile white attitudes in the south and marked a significant turning point in the civil rights discussion, as some white Americans began to accommodate African Americans within society. Washington should also receive praise for founding the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881, the first university exclusively for African American students, which was essential in allowing students to occupy higher roles in the future.

William E. B. Du Bois 

William Du Bois was a fixed figure throughout the civil rights era in America, and was undoubtedly one of the most persistent campaigners for civil rights. Whilst most civil rights pioneers accepted that equality was a step by step process, Du Bois refused to make concessions to achieve some social rights. Instead Du Bois worked at a grassroots level co-founding the NAACP in 1909, an organisation with the primary objective of defending the legal rights of African Americans, in addition to organising peaceful demonstrations through marches and sit-ins. Although at first Du Bois struggled to persuade white Americans of the need for change due to his resolute attitudes and mistrust of southern whites, the NAACP was highly successful in attracting support from both African Americans and white sympathisers as the 20th century progressed. Without the NAACP the movement would certainly not have gained so much momentum and support, and Du Bois’ impact in establishing the organisation was therefore fundamental to equality for African Americans being achieved at all.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey’s approach to handling the civil rights issue was comprehensively dissimilar to the prevalent methods employed by other civil rights leaders. While most figures in the early period struggled against the current of discrimination and persecution in the south, Garvey offered a unique solution through the ‘Back to Africa’ movement. Garvey became disillusioned in the 1920’s that civil rights could be achieved in America, and therefore began to persuade African American families that they ought to migrate to Liberia where they would be treated fairly. Although the scheme was ultimately unsuccessful in increasing migration out of America, the movement was a decisive factor in inspiring many African Americans in the south to migrate into the north western states of the country, areas which were traditionally more sympathetic to the civil rights issue. Conversely, Garvey himself was imprisoned in 1922 over fraud charges for his vessel to transport passengers to Liberia, and was consequently unable to make an impact to the civil rights movement following his release and deportation in 1927.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt’s contribution towards bringing about equality was not as conventional as other aforementioned figures. Eleanor’s most valuable effort was bringing the issue to the attention of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, although Eleanor also participated through traditional methods, for instance lobbying during the 1930’s against continuing lynching in the south. Indeed Eleanor played a pivotal role in developing Roosevelt’s second New Deal to offer African Americans equal employment opportunities to white Americans, as well as arranging meetings between her husband and respected African American leaders to convince Franklin why federal change was so important to progression of the movement. Franklin Roosevelt’s label as being ‘the first civil rights President’ is testament to Eleanor’s vital effort in persuading Franklin that the issue had to be solved, with Roosevelt’s presidency setting the benchmark for successors to continue issuing civil rights legislation.

Stokely Carmichael

Stokely Carmichael rose to prominence towards the end of the civil rights era. Despite the successful introduction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, protests were maintained throughout the 1960’s to ensure the legislation was completed accepted across America. Carmichael worked as an organiser for the ‘Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee’ (SNCC) and participated in a range of protests arranged by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) during this period, yet felt frustrated by the minor impact these protests were having. Indeed, Carmichael eventually became disillusioned with the methods of protests used by the SNCC, and is most renowned for his ‘black power’ speech in 1966 which suggested a more violent form of protest was needed. Although this violent approach was popular amongst fellow students and members of ‘The Nation of Islam’, a Black Nationalist movement, the method alienated white sympathisers and divided the movement, with Martin Luther King Jr strongly opposed to these violent forms of protest.

Feature image by Zoe Collins


Wessex Scene Politics Editor 2016/17 Modern History and Politics Student

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