by Sarah Whitman
February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month, a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements of black activists, innovators, and creatives. We’d like to take this time to highlight eight black activists you may not have heard of or may forget about but have made an incredible impact on our world today.
1. Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson is an incredible author who dedicated his life to challenging the systematic racial bias within the criminal justice system. His book Just Mercy details Stevenson’s work with death row inmates in rural, poor Alabama. Stevenson worked pro bono for mostly black inmates who were not given a fair trial, wrongly condemned, or treated unfairly by the justice system because of the color of their skin. Stevenson not only made a huge difference in the lives of individuals but went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and combating racial and economic disparity within the justice system. Just Mercy is a must read, and is being made into a movie starring Michael B. Jordan.
2. Kimberle Crenshaw
If you’ve studied sociology in recent years, you’ve doubtless read many a Crenshaw article. But for the non-soc nerds in the house, Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality”. This means that no one person can fall into a single category. For example, I am not just white, I am not just a woman, I am not just Jewish -- I am a white, Jewish, woman and those categories intersect to make me who I am and determine how the world sees and treats me. Most of Crenshaw’s work is with black women, who are often discluded from both the “black” and “woman” category (i.e: ever heard of white feminism?) Crenshaw is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia where she teaches critical race theory and intersectional theory.
3. John Lewis
John Lewis is currently serving as the Congressman of Georgia’s 5th district, but made his start as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement right alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis was inspired by King and began learning about non-violent protests, participating in lunch counter sit-ins and eventually joining the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis later became the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC as you’ve probably heard it called). He was named one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and spoke alongside MLK at the March on Washington. He also led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. As a Congressman, Lewis has fought for progressive legislation like healthcare reform, public education funding, and measures to fight poverty. He went back to his roots in 2016 when he and 40 other Democratic Congresspeople held a sit-in on the House of Representatives floor to ask for gun reform after the Orlando night club shooting. Lewis is still a sitting member of Congress.
4. Anita Hill
Between the Keri Washington movie and comparisons between Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, you likely heard Anita Hill’s name in 2018. In 1991, after Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by George H. W. Bush, Anita Hil publically accused Thomas of sexually harassing her. According to Hill, for the first two years of her employment with Thomas, he continually came onto her. After she persistently declined, he used work to talk about sexual subjects. Hill was subjected to a Congressional hearing, where the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Hill’s character and credibility. In the end, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. However, Hill went on to become a very successful lawyer, had a movie made about her, and wrote an incredible opinion piece where she paralleled Bret Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings and the treatment of Christine Blasey Ford to her own experience.
5. Mae Mallory
Mae Mallory was a badass bitch out to get what she wanted. She was a huge proponent of desegregating schools and formed a group of black mothers who protested the inadequate conditions in all black schools, including inexperienced teachers and overcrowded classrooms, even after Brown v. Board of Education. Mallory and her group sued the city and the state and led a 162-day boycott with 10,000 parents. And we thought the LA teacher’s strike was bad...Mallory eventually won the lawsuit in 1960, and children were allowed to transfer to integrated schools. Many have compared Mallory to Malcolm X, as she was a radical activist who was ready to do whatever necessary to end oppression. She worked with Freedom Riders and SNCC, and although often forgotten in mainstream education made a real difference for the Black Power movement and students of Harlem.
6. Amelia Boynton Robinson
You guys know that picture of the Obamas walking the path of the march from Selma to Montgomery? The woman in the wheelchair is Amelia Boyton Robinson, and that was not the first time she made the trek. In the 1930s, Robinson began advocating for voting rights in the South and became one of the first black women registered to vote. In 1964 she ran for Senate in order to encourage other black women to get involved in politics. She helped plan the March from Selma and was brutally beaten along with the rest of the nonviolent protestors by police. In 1990 she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal. She lived to be 104 years old.
7. Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height has been called the matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement, and led groundbreaking work advocating for black women. As the President of the National Council of Negro Women, she organized dialogues between black and white women to increase understanding. Like Lewis, Dorothy Height was named one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement but was often ignored by the press because of her gender. She consulted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, encouraging him to desegregate schools, appoint women of color to cabinet positions, and served on the President's Committee on the Status of Women. Later in life, Height worked on a committee to protect the reproductive rights of women of color. This woman is definitely someone who deserves more credit then she gets.
8. Huey P. Newton
Newton was a revolutionary black activist who co-founded the Black Panther Party, a black organization committed to uplifting black communities through social programs and self-defense training. Newton was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and worked for better housing, jobs, and education for black Americans. Like Malcolm X, Newton and the Black Panthers weren’t afraid to use violence if it was deemed necessary for their mission. White America vilified the Black Panther Party and Newton as violent criminals, but they did a lot of good for black communities and children.
This month (and every month), we honor and celebrate the people who have dedicated their lives to civil rights and creating a better and more equal world for Black Americans. Happy Black History Month!
Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP