PHOTOS: 25 most influential black American leaders
8:54 AM, Feb 1, 2012
Often recognized as the literary son of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, an openly gay, African-American writer, was an anomaly of his time. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, explored both religious and homoerotic themes. An essayist as well, Baldwin’s first collection, Notes of a Native Son, appeared in 1955. Exploring themes of racial, national and sexual identity was the norm for Baldwin who consciously strived to make sense of his time.
The very first African-American elected to Congress from New York, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was a man who defied the times. Even before succeeding his father at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937, Powell had won a hardcore Harlem following as a community activist for jobs and housing during the Great Depression. From picketing the 1939 New York World’s Fair offices at the Empire State Building to organizing a bus boycott of the New York Transit Authority to protest discrimination.
Despite being born a slave in Virginia and raised in dire poverty, Booker T. Washington, a Hampton grad, built Tuskegee into a premier African-American educational institution from 1881 to his death in 1915. A tireless advocate of education’s critical role in uplifting the race, Washington wrote his autobiography, Up from Slavery, in testament.
It took a little time for John H. Johnson to tweak his publishing vision with Ebony and JET, which emphasized African American achievement and success, but once he did, their influence eclipsed all African-American publications. A primary chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, the pages of Ebony and JET featured award-winning images of the 20th century’s most tumultuous social change.
Born to a teenage, unmarried mother in Greenville, South Carolina, Jesse Jackson’s prospects for greatness were slim. After a rocky stint at the University of Illinois, the gifted athlete and bright student excelled at North Carolina A & T.
Born poor and illiterate in the harsh Mississippi Delta, the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper herself, became a key figure in the Mississippi leg of the Civil Rights Movement. Although exposed to homegrown civil rights activities through meetings she attended for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in the all black Mound Bayou, it wasn’t until she answered the call to vote issued by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Com
Her name may not always be shouted the loudest during a civil rights leaders’ roll call but Ella Baker was a tireless advocate for freedom and justice. Taking a stand for economic justice, Baker, just three years removed from college, began her work with the Young Negroes Cooperative League in New York City in 1930. Hired as a field secretary for the NAACP in 1940, the Virginia-born, North Carolina-raised Baker served as director of branches from 1943 to 1946.
Perhaps the nation’s most well-known black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois’s impact was felt on all fronts. Early work such as his doctoral thesis The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America, The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction set a standard for African-American scholarship.
When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States in November 2008, “never in my lifetime” was the popular refrain, especially among older African-Americans from the Jim Crow South who remembered grandparents who had been enslaved. Obama’s mixed race background (Kenyan father, white Midwestern mother), Ivy League pedigree (Columbia, Harvard Law), community activism on Chicago’s tough South Side as well as stints as an Illinois and U.S. senator, made him uniq
Arguably the most famous African-American of all time and one of the most influential Americans of any race, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement for many. Rising to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal blow against segregation, King, a fiery orator, inspired a nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during 1963’s historic March on Washington, one of the Lincoln Memorial’s largest.
Best known for her tireless anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who penned the pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record, 1892–1894, refused to bow down to white supremacy, even suing the railroad for demanding she give up her seat in 1884. A daughter of Mississippi, Wells-Barnett, working from Memphis in the 1880s, early 1890s, left her job as an educator to run the Free Speech and Headlight, a paper she partially owned.
There are few celebrated African-American leaders who could authoritatively speak on slavery and freedom as personally and philosophically as Frederick Douglass. A runaway slave and staunch abolitionist, Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, remains one of the most significant slave narratives ever produced. A gifted orator, Douglass spoke out against slavery in the United States and abroad. As publisher of several newspapers, including his
Using the law to serve African Americans, Thurgood Marshall tried many cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 out of 32 actually. Still, none have been more critical than 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board victory overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had legally sanctioned a “separate but equal” doctrine since 1896. A 1933 graduate of the Howard University School of Law, the Baltimore native’s action was deliberate as he followed his teacher and mentor Charles Hamilton Houston to the
On March 6, 1857, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court denied Blacks U.S. citizenship and denied the power of Congress to restrict slavery in any federal territory.
Perhaps the most famous woman of the modern Civil Rights era, Rosa Parks possessed a quiet courage that literally re-energized the struggle. Refusing to give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955 to accommodate a white passenger, Parks was arrested and booked.
Without a doubt, the most celebrated runaway female slave, Harriet Tubman’s bravery and selflessness has long inspired generations. Born a slave in Maryland around 1820, Tubman became sickly as a child. Reported epileptic seizures didn’t squelch Tubman’s thirst for freedom. Although she successfully escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, Tubman was not content with just her own freedom.
Correspondence with Booker T. Washington convinced Marcus Garvey to come to the United States in 1916. Influenced by his travels to Central America and London, Garvey believed that uniting the African Diaspora was essential to black liberation and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in his native Jamaica in 1914. Establishing the American chapter himself in New York City in 1917 with just over a dozen members, the UNIA grew quickly.
One of the key architects of the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph joined the Socialist Party of America when he was just 21. Randolph co-founded the radical monthly magazine The Messenger, which operated from 1917 to 1928. Departing from popular positions, The Messenger criticized Marcus Garvey’s repatriation efforts as well as opposed U.S. entry in World War I and subsequent African-American participation in the war.
Paul Robeson was a renaissance man. An All-American college athlete and a Phi Beta Kappa member at Rutgers, Robeson, who graduated valedictorian, also finished law school but his entertainment career took off.
Born into a Midwestern family led by a Baptist preacher and Marcus Garvey supporter, Malcolm X experienced white supremacy, including the brutal murder of his father, before the age of 7. A prison conviction for the high school dropout turned into a lifeline for black America as the former Malcolm Little embraced Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s teachings of black empowerment and self-sufficiency.
In the United States, there is no slave rebellion more famous than Nat Turner’s in 1831. Enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was known as a religious man and was said to have prophetic visions. As early as 1828, Turner reportedly received instructions to “slay my enemies with their own weapons” but did not actively begin planning the rebellion until February 1831.
Known as the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson believed that documenting and sharing African American contributions was essential to cultivating positive self worth among African-Americans as well as garnering respect from other races. Woodson spearheaded the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 specifically to research the African-American past.
Her genuine desire to serve others always distinguished Mary McLeod Bethune. A dedicated educator, Bethune’s constant search for more money for African American educational needs prompted her to form powerful relationships with John D. Rockefeller as well as Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt.
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s more colorful and legendary figures, Langston Hughes managed to frame issues of African-American identity and pride in terms that seemed as much poetic as they were political. Though he contributed to both the NAACP’s The Crisis and the socialist magazine The Messenger, among other publications, falling in and out of various movements, Hughes’s politics, though decidedly pro-black, never overshadowed his strong individualism.
Obscure to most people, Charles Hamilton Houston was one of this nation’s greatest legal strategists. Sometimes referred to as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” Houston, the son of a lawyer, masterminded the strategy to dismantle Jim Crow by actively testing the “separate by equal” doctrine in the courts.
Dubbed the “King of Calypso,” the New York-born Harry Belafonte celebrated his Caribbean roots to the top of the musical charts, scoring big with classics like “Day-O.” As an actor, his natural good looks played best in classics like Bright Road and Carmen Jones, where he had significant roles.
We definitely shouldn't view this as just a top ten list. Instead, we should really ask ourselves what leaders, if any, would resonate today. (CREDIT: Ronda Racha Penrice)