Media One Radio Group and The Barnes Firm brings you short stories featuring 20 Important Black Leaders, we feel, everyone should know - each with a distinct story and legacy, but all sharing poise and confidence that added to their iconic statuses.
Look a little closer at each story to witness their perseverance through oppression and their determination through struggle. There, you'll find the link that brings these American heroes together.
Published 1/1/20 by Danyale Reed, Mom Life.
It's an insult to call Maya Angelou simply a poet. She worked closely beside MLK (who was killed on her birthday) and Malcolm X during the civil rights movement. She acted in theater and film, while receiving dozens of honorary degrees. The title of great black American leader was just one of the many crowns worn by author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first bestselling nonfiction book by an African American woman.
W.E.B. Du Bois
To say W.E.B. Du Bois took education seriously would be an understatement. The co-founder of the NAACP graduated high school (valedictorian, of course) in 1884 and spent the next 11 years studying at various schools, eventually becoming the first black person to ever receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He fought tirelessly for social justice until his death in Ghana at the age of 95.
Madam C.J. Walker
Perhaps the Oprah of her time, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) is often credited as the first black woman millionaire. She was a marketing genius, developing a beauty system specifically for black women and advocating for those same women through charitable contributions, like the scholarships she funded at Tuskegee Institute. Committing to her cause, Walker employed over 3,000 people and rewarded them for giving back to their communities.
If you don't know about the Chisholm Train, you're missing out. Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress and also the first black woman to seek presidential candidacy with a major party. Acting as a stepping stone for what would one day be our first African American president, Chisholm is surely a great black leader to learn about right now.
Harriet Tubman literally led black people from slavery to freedom. There's no way you can find a better black leader than that. After she helped save over 300 slaves via the Underground Railroad, Tubman went on to serve in the Civil War as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. Until the day she died, the metaphorical conductor served her community by opening schools for African Americans and speaking on behalf of women's rights — all without ever learning to read.
Arranging peaceful sit-ins and collaborating with other great leaders like MLK during the civil rights movement means Ella Baker was a prominent person in black history. She was inspired by the resilient stories of life as a slave, told to her by her grandmother, that moved her forward with purpose in life. Determined to bring justice and equality to America, Baker organized pivotal events that helped put a stop to segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Articulating what it feels like to be black isn't easy. From the slight injustices life hands you, to the bold reactions of other people, based only on what you look like, it's an experience few outside the community can understand. Somehow, James Baldwin revealed these most intimate experiences in works like Go Tell It on the Mountain and the autobiographical Notes of a Native Son. He was a stand-out writer, playwright, and leader in black literary history.
He floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee … and went to jail for refusing to be drafted into a war he didn't believe in. You guessed it: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali made a name for himself in and out of the ring. Besides being considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time, Ali was a social activist, refusing to fight for something he didn't believe in.
Born to poor farmers in the Bahamas but later moving to New York, Sidney Poitier came from nothing, but achieved the unimaginable for black actors of his day by becoming a leading man in Hollywood. Poitier was determined to make opportunities for African Americans and did so by performing outstandingly as an actor, gaining a respected reputation. Eventually, he went on to become the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role in Lilies of the Field.
Jackie Robinson was, like Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, one of the most influential sports figures of his day. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a Major League Baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was the catalyst that broke baseball’s color barrier –– the idea that African American players couldn’t play in the top professional leagues, but only in the “inferior” Negro leagues. Jackie Robinson career spanned a decade, and his place in the annals of baseball history was solidified when his jersey number, 42, was “retired” by all MLB teams (meaning no player may ever use that number again) in 1997.
Booker T. Washington
The civil war brought him freedom from slavery before he became an influential educator, author and advisor to several US presidents. He encouraged African Americans to improve their status through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to fight segregation and the disenfranchisement of blacks in the Jim Crow South. He was the first African American to dine with a president in 1901.
Born a slave to a mother he would only see a few times in his life and a white father he'd never meet, Frederick Douglass resolved to escape his harsh life and help other African Americans do the same, through abolition. He published multiple autobiographies about his life as a slave, acting as a spokesperson for equality. He wasn't only a leader of the black community, but to all, fighting for equal rights of women and minorities during his lifetime.
She may have come from a tumultuous childhood filled with abuse, but Oprah Winfrey grew up to become a leader to African Americans, women, journalists, filmmakers, and pretty much anyone with a pulse. Winfrey is as close as it gets to American royalty, with a business empire that can't be touched. She's everything you'd want in a queen, so all hail Oprah.
During a time when black people were discouraged from learning how to read and write, Phillis Wheatley, a Senegal/Gambia-born black girl who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, defied them all and published a book of poetry. She's not only the first African American to have a work of poems published (endorsed by John Hancock and George Washington), but also one of the first women to do so.
As the first black US Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was an extremely influential black leader. He was a patriot liberal who defended constitutional rights in a positive light whenever he had the chance. With monumental victories throughout his career, like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (the verdict that invalidated segregation in public schools), he was a major contributor to the end of the Jim Crow era.
The mother of late rapper Tupac Shakur is known from his affectionate song, Dear Mama, but Afeni Shakur was also remembered as a black leader in her own right. Once a Black Panther, Afeni defended herself and, because of that, was acquitted of conspiracy bombing charges (along with 20 others), giving birth to Tupac just one month and three days later. A political activist, businesswoman, and philanthropist, Afeni symbolized what was achievable even through the most severe circumstances in life.
He was known for having firm views on black empowerment and separatism, but Malcolm X is an important black leader for the transformation he made later in life. Although he was once the face of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X later left the organization and renounced its teachings. After a life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, he came home a new man with optimistic views on integration and a message of love for all.
Often called "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Four days later, black people in the city organized a boycott of the city's buses that lasted for over a year. This collective protest employed Martin Luther King Jr. as its spokesperson and initiated the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Powered by faith, inspired by Gandhi and motivated by hope for equal treatment for all, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered words to a generation (such as his I Have a Dreamspeech) that moved them to change the way they thought, which ultimately shifted the world. There is still work to be done to complete Dr. King's vision, but there is no doubt that the progress we've made was set in motion by black leaders like him.
One of the most recent and significant black leaders of our time is none other than the 44th US president, Barack Obama. He was only the fifth African American to ever be elected to the US Senate and the first black person ever elected as commander-in-chief. The entire Obama clan — including, Michelle, Malia and Sasha — are this county's greatest representation of #blacklove and deserve to be celebrated