Frederick Douglass, born in 1818, became renowned for his significant contributions to black rights across America. He wrote poignant essays when the nation was divided on the legality of slavery and set forth a movement that would ultimately end with slavery’s abolishment by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. Douglass rose to fame after the publication of his first book, “the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself”, where he not only connected with other blacks and slaves alike but used his advocatory and poignant speech to argue for black equality, specifically the abolishment of slavery. Following the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, which legalized the institution of slavery, Douglass spoke reason and truth in criticizing the Court’s holding, stating that the interpretation of the Constitution contradicts the intentions of the Founding Fathers, who anticipated a future ending of slavery. He became the national leader of the abolitionist movement and is recognized for his significant impact on the fight for slavery’s abolishment throughout the 1800s.
Born into slavery in 1822, Harriet Tubman would come to be known as a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. While Tubman’s family was separated at the mere age of five, in 1944, Tubman escaped her slaveholder, traveling ninety miles north to the free state of Pennsylvania. While Tubman found work as a housekeeper in Philadelphia, she realized she longed for freedom for her family, friends, and other slaves. She subsequently made thirteen trips back to the south, freeing approximately seventy slaves as she conducted the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine passages and safe houses used to escape slaves into free states and Canada. Tubman’s boldness in jeopardizing her own life for the future abolishment of slavery ultimately establishes her legacy and her reputation as the “Moses of the People”.
W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, notably an African-American sociologist, defied the social codes enforced upon blacks during the late 1800s after pursuing higher education and publishing numerous renowned books on equal rights and black equality in a bipartisan nation. He became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and proceeded to publish relevant papers arguing for black equality and fair integration into society before becoming the director and one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909, a civil rights organization aimed at advancing justice for African-Americans. Du Bois impacted equal rights in America through his confrontational approach to addressing the unjust legislation being passed in the U.S. in the early 1900s. He marked an impact that is still recognized today for his poignant contributions.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. As Parks recalled, “When that White driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” In a confrontation with Montgomery, Alabama’s bus segregation laws, Parks was arrested and booked into the county jail. When she called her mother, the first words her mother asked were, “did they beat you?”, revealing the common yet underrepresented police brutality that persisted without punishment during this time. As a result of the incident, approximately 40,000 African Americans took part in a 381-day boycott that gained the advocating of globally recognized human rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.. Rosa Parks’s actions incited a movement that paved a path for the development of equal rights in the U.S.. Her voice of activism following her arrest shifted the paradigms of what black equality truly meant in a nation claimed to be the land of the free. These racist laws aimed to segregate blacks created racial barriers and disparities that could only be knocked down by bold strokes of action. Rosa Parks defied these barriers and discriminatory laws, transforming the way the nation viewed equal rights, and leading to the future Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. would come to be known as one of the most prominent civil rights activists and leaders of the civil rights movement. His approach to nonviolent resistance to achieve equal rights for African-Americans earned him a Noble Peace Prize in 1964. King is remembered as a poignant oralist, known to connect with his audience who collectively aspired for a national progression towards equal rights, most notably seen in his “I have a Dream Speech”. In 1944, King chaired the youth membership committee of the Atlanta NAACP Youth Council. His prominent voice persisted through the Civil Rights Movement as he advocated for the peaceful integration of equal rights in society, in a nation separated by race, where his contributions ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fred Gray, an African-American civil rights attorney born in 1930, litigated several paramount cases addressing the status of black rights in the nation. As the lead attorney in the court case Browder v. Gayle, his work ultimately resulted in Supreme Court upholding the lower court’s decision, legally ending bus segregation. The decision subsequentially concluded the Montgomery bus boycott, a social protest against the segregation policies on the public transit systems, brought upon in the wake of Rosa Park's arrest, who was also represented by Gray. He stood as Martin Luther King Jr’s first attorney, as well as the representative for several victims in the Tuskeegee Syphilis Test, where hundreds of black men with low incomes were used as test subjects in syphilis treatments without their formal consent. His legal contributions to black equality and the advancement of civil and equal rights had broad impacts on the United States' desegregation and the continual progress of black rights.
Born in 1940 to Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis became known for his non-violent pledge to equal rights activism as he lead protests throughout the civil rights movement and voiced his poignant voice on equality. In 1963, Lewis became the chairman and one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, positioning him in the public eye amidst his nationally recognized protests advocating for the desegregation of a racially divided nation. He became one of the first freedom riders in protest of desegregating buses and challenged Jim Crow laws and racial oppression across the south. In 1987, Lewis was elected as Congressman for Georgia’s fifth district, where he continued serving in the House of Representatives until his death in 2020, leaving a legacy that recounts the boldness and character he held in advocating for equal rights and opportunities.