Even those unfamiliar with the finer details of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s can pinpoint Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as seminal figures of the era. A deeper dive into the research will reveal names including A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney M. Young, and Medgar Evers, leaders who rightly earned their place among the luminaries of the period for spurring legal and social upheaval.
However, not everyone earned due recognition for their contributions, whether because of clashes in temperament or deep-seated prejudices that went beyond matters of race. Here are five lesser-known civil rights influencers who helped to change the course of history.
Well before the nation watched the struggle for Black equality unfold on television, Bayard Rustin was at the forefront of a previous generation of activists as a co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE’s main objective was to use “nonviolent direct action” while fighting for civirl rights. Rustin later helped King launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and is credited as a primary organizing force behind the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and the 1963 March on Washington.
But Rustin was also an openly gay man, and as such, was always in danger of being marginalized despite his obvious brilliance as an adviser and strategist. He was forced out of the SCLC after a congressman threatened to spread rumors about an affair between King and Rustin, and while he returned to pull together the March on Washington, internal opposition forced him to accept a lesser public role in the proceedings.
Rustin later served as president and co-chair of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and continued his push for economic progress even as the wider public movement lost steam. By the time of his death in 1987, Rustin was something of a historical footnote, despite having his fingerprints all over the major civil rights victories of his day.
Nine months before Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, the same thing happened to 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. So why was the Parks incident the one that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott and transformed the issue into a national story? As Colvin herself later conceded, the then-42-year-old Parks, a secretary for the NAACP, was considered by some to be a more respectable symbol for the boycott, particularly after it was discovered that the unwed teenager had become pregnant.
Nevertheless, Colvin wound up playing a crucial role as events unfolded, as she was named a plaintiff in the 1956 Browder v. Gayle case that challenged the constitutionality of Alabama's segregated buses and provided the legal backbone for the boycott's triumph. Colvin left Alabama soon after and spent most of the following decades living anonymously in New York City, though her contributions have finally earned some long-overdue recognition in recent years.
Fannie Lou Hamer
If King served as the face and eloquent voice of the civil rights struggle, then Fannie Lou Hamer represented its rank-and-file members who were sparked to action because they were "sick and tired of being sick and tired." Born into a Mississippi family of sharecroppers, Hamer was fired after attempting to register to vote in 1962. She used that experience to fuel a tireless dedication to voting rights and launch the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964.
That summer, Hamer entered the national spotlight with a powerful speech before the Democratic National Committee's credentials panel in which she recalled being subjected to a brutal beating in jail. But her presence also underscored the limitations of her position in the pecking order; President Lyndon B. Johnson dismissed her as an " illiterate woman," and even ostensible ally Roy Wilkins of the NAACP said she was "ignorant."
Still, Hamer kept up the fight for equal rights even as she struggled to summon the respect she deserved. She later spearheaded the foundation of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969 and the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971.
Even when compared to other activists who overcame intimidation and violence to participate in demonstrations, James Meredith stands out for his astonishing displays of courage. In the fall of 1962, the 29-year-old Air Force veteran integrated the University of Mississippi. His mere presence at the university caused an uproar and ignited a massive riot that drew 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals, and national guardsmen into the fray. Four years later, Meredith embarked on a solo "March Against Fear" out of Memphis, Tennessee, but was shot before he could complete the planned 220-mile walk to Jackson, Mississippi.
While he drew praise from King, most notably in the famed "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Meredith was never one to conform to the expectations of others. In 1967, he raised eyebrows by endorsing the reelection campaign of former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who once vehemently opposed Meredith's entry into the state's flagship university. Two decades later, after several failed attempts to run for office, Meredith supported the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.
Today, a statue commemorating Meredith's achievement stands on the Ole Miss campus, though the rest of his complicated story is often omitted from history lessons.
Pauli Murray was enormously influential as a lawyer, writer, and teacher. She became California's first Black deputy attorney general in 1945, as well as the first African American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law School two decades later. Additionally, the acclaimed scholar saw her legal arguments used in the groundbreaking cases of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which struck down segregation in public schools, and Reed v. Reed (1971), which extended the rights under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to women.
Publicly critical of the sexism rife within the ranks of the civil rights movement, Murray helped launch the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Eventually, she found herself out-of-step with its leadership and stepped away. On her own once again, Murray resigned from her teaching post and entered New York's General Theological Seminary, en route to one final historic achievement in 1977 as the first African American woman to be vested as an Episcopal priest.