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Civil Rights Leaders

by Legacy Staff

Learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and the other great men and women who helped advance the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Click the links below to explore the legacies of MLK and others who worked alongside him, including his wife, Coretta Scott King. Then visit our special Civil Rights Memorial Site to discover more leaders and foot soldiers in the struggle for equality.

Martin Luther King Jr. leads civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965
Martin Luther King Jr. leads 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama
(Getty Images / Hulton Archive / William Lovelace)

The Lives Martin Luther King Touched

In King’s honor, we are sharing some of the moments in his life that were also key moments in the lives of others. In fact, these events were important enough that they are included in the obituaries for these individuals who shared a moment in time with Dr. King.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

“…I am in Birmingham because Injustice is here. … I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Coretta Scott King: 20 Facts About the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement

Though well-known as King’s wife, a role she cherished, she was much more than just a wife and widow. In her honor, we present 20 facts you may not have known about Coretta Scott King: 1. Born April 27, 1927, in Marion, Ala., young Coretta Scott grew up on a farm and picked cotton to help make money for her family. Read more

Ralph Abernathy: King’s Right Hand Man

The turning point in Abernathy’s life—and indeed, a turning point for life in America—came on Dec. 1, 1955, when a Black woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus to make way for White riders. She was a coworker of Abernathy’s at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and her arrest led King and Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association in order to organize a boycott protesting Montgomery’s policy of segregated busing.

Civil Rights Giants Ralph Abernathy and Whitney Young

Whitney Young worked to effect change from within. As the head of the National Urban League, he turned the organization from a small and cautious one to a leader in the civil rights movement. He worked with major corporations to change their hiring practices, bringing more blacks and women into good jobs. He advised Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, fostering a connection between their office and the civil rights movement. As Nixon said at Young’s funeral, “he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.” 

Inspired by Rosa Parks

The story of Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus has become a modern-day legend, a story every schoolchild knows by heart. In the years since that 1955 act of defiance, Parks touched the lives of countless citizens and fellow supporters of civil rights. Some of us were inspired from afar, while others proudly met Parks and worked alongside her in the struggle for equal rights. For many, the experience proved so unforgettable that it even made its way into their obituaries. Today, we honor Rosa Parks by meeting some of the people whose lives she forever changed. 

Malcolm X was one of the most influential Black leaders of the 20th century

Standing as a counterpoint to King’s philosophy of nonviolence, Malcolm X was known for urging his followers to fight for their humanity using “any means necessary.” His legacy is one of unrelenting activism to raise the self-esteem of black people, urging them to demand full equality.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives)

Five Ways Medgar Evers Worked to Make the United States a More Equal Nation

From the NAACP to sit-ins around Mississippi, we look back at the many ways Medgar Evers fought for civil rights and equality before being assassinated at age 37.

Bayard Rustin: 10 Facts About the Man Who Made the March on Washington a Reality

Rustin isn’t as well-known as some civil rights leaders, but his legacy is well worth remembering. So important were Rustin’s contributions to civil rights that the White House awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Thurgood Marshall: 20 Facts About the First Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice

The University of Maryland was Marshall’s top choice for law school, but he didn’t apply because of the school’s segregation policy. Instead, he studied law at Howard University where he graduated first in his class. Marshall’s first big civil rights victory as an attorney, Murray v. Pearson, was against the school he couldn’t attend, the University of Maryland. He successfully challenged their segregation policy, opening the door to equal education for generations of Maryland students. 

Ella Baker: 10 Facts About the SNCC Co-Founder

Baker helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where she guided students who were leading campus sit-ins to work together as a larger movement. So important was Baker to the committee that she became known as the organization’s godmother. Among other initiatives, Baker helped the committee launch the Freedom Rides in 1961. Through it, Baker mentored many of the young people who formed a new generation of civil rights leaders, among them Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Diane Nash and Bob Moses.

Rev. Joseph Lowery, Co-Founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

When Lowery began his lifetime of work as a civil rights leader, he was a pastor in Mobile, Alabama. There, he cofounded and led the Alabama Civil Affairs Association, which organized a successful bus boycott in Mobile that prompted the removal of the law that Black bus passengers had to give up their seats to White passengers. He went on to help Dr. King organize a similar boycott in Montgomery, one of the great catalysts for the civil rights movement. In 1957, Lowery helped Dr. King found the SCLC, and he later became the group’s third president, leading it from 1977 to 1997. 

Artists, Athletes, and Activists

Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, saying “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? … If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.” His conscientious objection to serving in the war nearly cost him his career.

James Brown, Say It Loud: Whenever the “Godfather of Soul” turned to activism, his message came through loud and clear—and funky.

John Carlos & Tommie Smith: The whole world was watching when they raised their fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968.

Rev. Clay Evans (1925–2019), civil rights leader and gospel legend

Dick Gregory (1932–2017), socially conscious comedian advocated for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War

Lena Horne was born into a family of civil rights activists. During the 1960s, the entertainer was present at some of the most pivotal moments in the struggle including the March on Washington.

Gospel Legend Mahalia Jackson became involved in the movement after meeting King at the National Baptist Convention in 1956. Her singing would help raise spirits and money.

Curtis Mayfield: The year was 1964, King still had four years to live, and the struggle for civil rights was igniting the nation. A song was released, one that perfectly summed up the fight so far and imparted strength to continue the struggle: “Keep on Pushing.”

Odetta: The folk singer hailed by Martin Luther King Jr. as the “Queen of American folk music” inspired Bob Dylan and countless others during the 1950s and ’60s.

Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963.

More Soldiers in the Struggle

Juanita Abernathy (2019), civil rights leader

Unita Blackwell (1933–2019), civil rights activist was advisor to seven presidents

Eddie Brown Jr., a leader and organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

Dorothy Cotton (1930–2018), civil rights pioneer

Baxter Leach (2019), helped organize 1968 Memphis sanitation strike

Mildred and Richard Loving, lead plaintiffs in lawsuit that saw U.S. Supreme Court decree that all state laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional

Chris McNair (1926–2019), father of 1963 Birmingham bombing victim

Frederick D. Reese (1929–2018), civil rights activist led Selma’s “Courageous Eight”

Rev. Nimrod Q. Reynolds, founded the Anniston (Alabama) Improvement Association that would later become the local branch of the SCLC

Emma Sanders (1928–2020), civil rights activist who fought for voting rights and integrated delegations

Mildred Smith‘s lawsuit led to integration of hospitals throughout Virginia

Ozell Sutton (1925–2015), longtime civil rights activist who marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma

Wyatt Tee Walker, civil rights pioneer

Roger Wilkins (1932–2017), civil rights activist, historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who served as assistant attorney general under LBJ during a volatile time in the civil rights movement

Simeon Wright (1942–2017), Emmett Till’s cousin who witnessed kidnapping

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