Civil Rights Leaders Who Changed History

These 10 men and women changed all of our lives through their commitment and service.

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Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Rep. William Fitts Ryan, James Farmer and John Lewis

Library of Congress

Black History Month is our time to highlight and reflect on those who have made significant contributions to the black community. These notable civil rights leaders changed the course of history through their activism. Some, like Martin Luther King Jr., are household names. Others, like Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington, are unsung heroes. Their names may not be included in every history textbook, but their contributions to the fight for equality are important to recognize and remember.   

1. Educator Dorothy Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. She was a leader in both the civil rights and reproductive rights movements over her career, and was a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. 

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2. Bayard Rustin was a leading civil rights activist who organized the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin advised King on Gandhian civil disobedience tactics, and he and King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Library of Congress

3. Civil rights leader and politician John Lewis currently serves as the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional district. Lewis served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963. Lewis helped plan the March on Washington and is a hero of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protest at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Lewis is considered one of the last living “Big Six” from the civil rights era.

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4. Hosea Williams was a member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle and served as a trusted confidant to MLK. He dedicated his life to public service and founded the organization “Hosea Feed the Hungry and the Homeless,” one of the largest holiday social services in North America.

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Courtesy of Atlanta History Center

5. Gloria Richardson co-founded the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee, which worked to desegregate Cambridge, Md. In honor of her work, Richardson was invited to be one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”

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6. The most well-known figure of the era, Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor, activist, humanitarian and leader of the civil rights movement. He is best known for using nonviolent civil disobedience, grounded in Christian beliefs, to push for social change.

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Library of Congress

7. James L. Farmer Jr. led and organized the 1961 Freedom Ride on buses throughout the American South, which helped pave the way for the desegregation of interstate travel in the United States.

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Library of Congress

8. A. Philip Randolph was a prominent member of both the civil rights movement and the labor organizing movement. Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first majority-black labor union. Randolph led the March on Washington along with Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr.

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Library of Congress

9. Roy Wilkins became the executive director of the NAACP in 1964. During his tenure, the NAACP played an integral role in many significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.