R E S O U R C E S
Lynching and Murders of African American Activists
By 1963, homemade bombs set off in Birmingham's Black homes and churches were such common occurrences that the city had earned the nickname "Bombingham."
16th Street Baptist Church
Many of the civil rights protest marches that took place in Birmingham during the 1960s began at the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had long been a significant religious center for the city’s Black population and a routine meeting place for civil rights organizers like King.
KKK members had routinely called in bomb threats intended to disrupt civil rights meetings as well as services at the church.
At 10:22 a.m. on the morning of September 15, 1963, some 200 church members were in the building—many attending Sunday school classes before the start of the 11 am service—when the bomb detonated on the church’s east side, spraying mortar and bricks from the front of the church and caving in its interior walls.
…the bodies of four young girls (14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. …Even though the legal system was slow to provide justice, the effect of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was immediate and significant.
Outrage over the death of the four young girls helped build increased support behind the continuing struggle to end segregation—support that would help lead to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In that important sense, the bombing’s impact was exactly the opposite of what its perpetrators had intended.
Birmingham Bus Boycott
In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks is jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, a violation of the city’s racial segregation laws. The successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., followed Park’s historic act of civil disobedience.
Learning of Parks’ arrest, the NAACP and other African American activists immediately called for a bus boycott to be held by Black citizens on Monday, December 5. Montgomery Bus Boycott - Facts, Significance & Rosa Parks - HISTORY The boycott took place from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. Four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott, a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement.
“The mother of the civil rights movement,” as Rosa Parks is known, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913. She worked as a seamstress and in 1943 joined the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
King emerged as the leader of the bus boycott and received numerous death threats from opponents of integration. At one point, his home was bombed, but he and his family escaped bodily harm.
The boycott stretched on for more than a year, and participants carpooled or walked miles to work and school when no other means were possible. As African Americans previously constituted 70 percent of the Montgomery bus ridership, the municipal transit system suffered gravely during the boycott. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama state and Montgomery city bus segregation laws as being in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On December 20, King issued the following statement: “The year old protest against city buses is officially called off, and the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the buses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.” The boycott ended the next day. Rosa Parks was among the first to ride the newly desegregated buses.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent civil rights movement had won its first great victory. There would be many more to come.
Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005. Three days later the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to honor Parks by allowing her body to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
June 21, 1964,Freedom Riders: Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner murdered.in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
After all, three were buried, Price told the group:
“Well, boys, you've done a good job. You've struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You've let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I'm looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three sonofbitches [sic] tonight. Does everybody understand what I'm saying? The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!”’
Eventually, Tucker was tasked with disposing of the CORE station wagon in Alabama. For reasons unknown, the station wagon was left near a river in northeast Neshoba County along Highway 21. It was soon set ablaze and abandoned
Goodman red clay in this lings and in his grasp. He was likely buried alive with Chaney and Schwerner who are murdered earlier.
Michael Donald 19 , March 20,21,!981
Michael's mother Beulah Mae Donald held an open-casket funeral, saying that she wanted the world to see the horror that had been inflicted on her son.
"I didn't even know what he looked like as my child," Beulah Mae Donald said. "The undertaker didn't want me to see where they'd made a footprint on his face with their boots."
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois, our days later, at approximately 2:30 in the morning on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water.
In 2009, the original glass-topped casket that Emmett Till was buried in was acquired by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Coming only one year after the Supreme Court‘s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Till’s death provided an important catalyst for the American civil rights movement.
AUGUST 28, 1955 / MONEY, MISSISSIPPI
Six thousand, five hundred.
That’s the approximate number of Black people lynched in the U.S. between 1865 and 1950—at least, those that are known—according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Lynching (definition): a murder outside of the judicial process—including but not limited to hangings, typically done by a mob.
People of African descent have endured racial oppression and brutality on American soil from the moment the first slave ship arrived with human cargo in 1619. But even though slavery was legally abolished in 1865, the horrors of the shackle and the whip were followed by new kinds of terrorism and violence toward Black people that have persisted throughout the nation’s history. Sometimes, it's been committed by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes, it's been the act of a single individual. And sometimes, it's even been treated as an open public spectacle. In all cases, racially motivated violence has remained a powerful tool to reinforce white supremacy, dehumanize Black people and intimidate them from seeking progress, equality—or even stability.
The details of most lynchings and other acts of racial violence remain lost to history. But the bloodshed described below captured broader attention, inspiring outrage, activism—and in some cases, a measure of progress.
When 14 year-old Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, his shockingly brutal death became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Born and raised in Chicago, Till was no different from an average teen: According to his cousin Wheeler Parker, he was a prankster, had a soft spot for animals and loved being the center of attention. He also loved his family, taking up many household duties to support his mother Mamie Till-Mobley. “Emmett had all the house responsibility,” she later recalled. “He cleaned…cooked quite a bit…even took over the laundry.”
In August 1955, Emmett joined his uncle Moses Wright and 16-year-old cousin Wheeler on a trip to visit family, in Money, Mississippi—his first experience of the rural South. He and Wheeler helped family pick their cotton crops, then cooled off with a swim. Their first few days in Money were filled with family, laughter and fun.
Then, on August 24, Till, Parker and a few other teens went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for some refreshment. Accounts of the incident differ, but Parker—a direct eyewitness—says Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the store owner’s wife.
‘Even now, we don’t know what possessed him. He…didn’t have any idea [of] the danger.’// Emmett Till’s cousin Wheeler Parker, oral history interview with the Library of Congress
Late on the night of August 28, Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam arrived at Wright’s home, declaring they “were looking for the boy that did the talking” and dragging Till off in their car. Three days later, the teen’s mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River—savagely beaten, shot in the head, his neck tied to a massive fan with barbed wire. The bright-eyed, upbeat boy was unrecognizable.
Gutted by grief, Till’s mother nonetheless stood strong, determined to show the world the atrocity committed against her child. “That body was half-buried literally in Mississippi, and if it would've been all the way buried, we wouldn't know who Emmett Till was,” says Dave Tell, author of Remembering Emmett Till. “She got on the phone, she convinced them to send the body back North.”
She didn’t stop there. Mamie decided on an open casket at Emmett’s public funeral, exposing her son’s disfigured face to the nearly 50,000 mourners—and permitting wide distribution of photographs, including a national Jet magazine spread. Circulated just as the civil rights movement was beginning to mobilize, the graphic images literally put a face to the growing outcry against racial violence in America. Bryant and Milam’s quick acquittal by an all-white jury only fueled the national outrage. Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, recanted her accusation decades later.
Emmett’s story might have passed virtually unnoticed had Mamie not continued to push it out into the world, even embarking on a speaking tour for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her son’s death not only inspired local activists to fight for justice, but sparked embers of resistance in the broader civil rights struggle. One hundred days after Till’s death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, resulting in the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and a later Supreme Court desegregation decision.
Thomas Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell
MARCH 9, 1892 / MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
In the decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans worked to build their lives and livelihoods from less than nothing. Despite steep challenges, Black businesses began to blossom in the late 19th century. In the “Curve” neighborhood of Memphis, co-owners of the thriving People’s Grocery, Will Stewart, Calvin McDowell, and Thomas Moss, brought pride—and much-needed capital—to their mixed-race neighborhood.
Moss, in particular, earned praise for his community involvement, as a mail carrier as well as a successful business owner. “A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis,” wrote his close friend, fellow Memphis resident and emerging journalist Ida B. Wells, in her autobiography Crusade for Justice. “He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration than if he had been a dog.”
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
AUGUST 7, 1930 / MARION, INDIAN
After circulating for years, the graphic “postcard” reached Bronx high school educator Abel Meerpol, who was moved to write the 1937 poem that would eventually become “Strange Fruit.”
‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.’
Billie Holiday recorded the song as a tribute to her father who died of a lung disorder, denied proper medical care because of his race. Her insistence on singing the tune at nightclubs left patrons uncomfortable and stunned—and helped tank her career. Still, it became an enduring anti-lynching anthem. As for Cameron, he was forever changed after the trauma of his attempted lynching, becoming a passionate civil rights advocate and going on to found the American Black Holocaust Museum. He was officially pardoned in 1993.The Am. Black Holocaust Museum is in Milwaukee, WI. He conceived and built the Museum after visiting the Yad Vashem Museum In Jerusalem, Israel in 1979.
Harry and Harriette Moore
DECEMBER 25, 1951 / MIMS, FLORIDA
Although less well known than some civil rights figures, Harry Moore pursued the cause of racial equality with a dedication that eventually cost him his job and his life. Moore and his wife Harriette, both teachers in all-Black schools in Mims, Florida, were committed to the improvement of Black lives before becoming actively involved with the NAACP in 1934, when he founded the Brevard County chapter. As his activist passions grew, he filed a lawsuit for equal pay among white and Black teachers in 1937 and took on the issue of lynchings in Florida in 1943. (At the time, the state had the highest per-capita lynching rate.)
But his activism came at a price. In 1946, Harry’s involvement with the NAACP caused the couple to lose their teaching positions. In turn, he became a full-time paid organizer. As his association and work with the civil rights group intensified, so did the risk—especially after he became involved with the infamous 1949 Groveland rape case. After four young Black men were accused of raping a white woman, three were severely beaten while in police custody and the other was shot after escaping. Conviction by an all-white jury followed, and Harry campaigned to appeal their case and have Sheriff Willis McCall held responsible for their torture. A long legal battle resulted in the Supreme Court overturning the young men’s convictions but ended with McCall shooting two of the defendants while escorting them to their new trial—killing one and critically injuring the other. Harry, infuriated, called for McCall’s suspension and indictment.
Six weeks later, on Christmas night 1951, the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary, a bomb exploded beneath their bed. Harry died before reaching the hospital, and Harriette died nine days later.
‘It seems that I hear Harry Moore.
From the earth his voice cries,
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold—
For freedom never dies!’
// A verse from ‘Ballad of Harry Moore,’ by Langston Hughes
The Moores’ murder, unsolved to this day, became known as one of the first lynchings of the civil rights movement. News of the assassination spread swiftly, shocking and invigorating the country. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt all spoke out against the targeted attack. Famed writer Langston Hughes honored and grieved the activist’s life with his poem “Ballad of Harry T. Moore.” Hundreds attended the activist’s funeral, and President Harry S. Truman was flooded with telegrams and letters protesting the assassination. Although the Moores’ murder eventually faded into the sea of lynchings in American history, it garnered great attention at the time and raised wider awareness of the burgeoning civil rights struggle.
FEBRUARY 26, 2012 / SANFORD, FLORIDA
Nearly 60 years after Emmett Till’s lynching, the killing of another Black teen—Trayvon Martin—shook the nation and incited a movement. But before the 17-year-old became an involuntary martyr, he was a high school student who loved video games and math class, looked forward to his junior prom and aspired to work with planes—even attending aviation school. But like so many Black people before him, his life was cut short, swiftly, and unexpectedly, for no reason.
On the night he was killed, Martin was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, during a 10-day high school suspension. Within the gated community, a series of recent break-ins prompted George Zimmerman—member of the neighborhood watch—to follow the teen as he walked home from a convenience store, even though law enforcement told him not to pursue. Martin, on the phone with his girlfriend, expressed concern about being tailed and began to run. What followed was a clash between the two, which left the unarmed teen dead from a gunshot to the chest, less than 100 yards from his front door.
UPDATED:JAN 19, 2021, ORIGINAL: DEC 4, 2017
Civil Rights Movement Timeline HISTORY.COM EDITORS
Executive Order 9981. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.
Civil Rights Act of 1957. Civil Rights Digital Library.
Governor George C. Wallace’s School House Door Speech. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Greensboro, NC, Students Sit-In for US Civil Rights, 1960. Swarthmore College Global Nonviolent Action Database.
Historical Highlights. The 24th Amendment. History, Art & Archives United States House of Representatives.
History—Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment. United States Courts.
History of Federal Voting Rights Laws. The United States Department of Justice.
“I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Stanford.
Oldest and Boldest. NAACP.
SCLC History. Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Selma to Montgomery March: National Historic Trail and All-American Road. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. National Archives.
The civil rights movement was an organized effort by Black Americans to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. It began in the late 1940s and ended in the late 1960s. Although tumultuous at times, the movement was mostly nonviolent and resulted in laws to protect every American’s constitutional rights, regardless of color, race, sex or national origin.
May 17, 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, a consolidation of five cases into one, is decided by the Supreme Court, effectively ending racial segregation in public schools. Many schools, however, remained segregated.
August 28, 1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago is brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His murderers are acquitted, and the case bring international attention to the civil rights movement after Jet magazine publishes a photo of Till’s beaten body at his open-casket funeral.
January 10-11, 1957: Sixty Black pastors and civil rights leaders from several southern states—including Martin Luther King, Jr.—meet in Atlanta, Georgia to coordinate nonviolent protests against racial discrimination and segregation.
September 4, 1957: Nine Black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” are blocked from integrating into Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually sends federal troops to escort the students, however, they continue to be harassed.
September 9, 1957: Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law to help protect voter rights. The law allows federal prosecution of those who suppress another’s right to vote.
February 1, 1960: Four African American college students in Greensboro, North Carolina refuse to leave a Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter without being served. The Greensboro Four—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil—were inspired by the nonviolent protest of Gandhi. The Greensboro Sit-In, as it came to be called, sparks similar “sit-ins” throughout the city and in other states.
November 14, 1960: Six-year-old Ruby Bridges is escorted by four armed federal marshals as she becomes the first student to integrate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her actions inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With (1964).
1961: Throughout 1961, Black and white activists, known as Freedom riders, took bus trips through the American South to protest segregated bus terminals and attempted to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters. The Freedom Rides were marked by horrific violence from white protestors, they drew international attention to their cause.
June 11, 1963: Governor George C. Wallace stands in a doorway at the University of Alabama to block two Black students from registering. The standoff continues until President John F. Kennedy sends the National Guard to the campus.
August 28, 1963: Approximately 250,000 people take part in The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King gives his “I Have A Dream” speech as the closing address in front of the Lincoln Memorial, stating, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
September 15, 1963: A bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama kills four young girls and injures several other people prior to Sunday services. The bombing fuels angry protests. (9 months later the CRA became Law in 1964]
July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, preventing employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin. Title VII of the Act establishes the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to help prevent workplace discrimination.
March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday. In the Selma to Montgomery March, around 600 civil rights marchers walk to Selma, Alabama to Montgomery—the state’s capital—in protest of Black voter suppression. Local police block and brutally attack them. After successfully fighting in court for their right to march, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders lead two more marches and finally reach Montgomery on March 25. Dr. King delivered his “Our God is marching On speech. He spoke about the concept of the Arc of the Universe is long but it bends towards justice once again after the I have adream speech..
August 6, 1965: President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent the use of literacy tests as a voting requirement. It also allowed federal examiners to review voter qualifications and federal observers to monitor polling places.
April 11, 1968: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, providing equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion or national origin.
Read more about the civil rights movement:
Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?
Six Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement
The ‘Silent’ Protest That Kick-Started the Civil Rights Movement
How the Black Power Movement Influenced the Civil Rights Movement
UPDATED: JAN 19, 2021. ORIGINAL: FEB 5, 2018
Six Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement
Though their stories are sometimes overlooked, these women were instrumental in the fight for equal rights for African-Americans.
While their stories may not be widely known, countless dedicated, courageous women were key organizers and activists in the fight for civil rights. Without these women, the struggle for equality would have never been waged. “Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,” activist Coretta Scott King asserted in the magazine New Lady in 1966. Here are a few of their stories.
1. Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
Brandeis University professor Dr. Pauli Murray, 1970. (Credit: AP Photo)
The Draftswoman of Civil Rights Victories
The writings of The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray were a cornerstone of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended school segregation, but the lawyer, Episcopal priest, pioneering civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Organization for Women wouldn’t be made aware of that extraordinary accomplishment until a decade after the fact.
In 1944, Murray was the only woman enrolled at Howard Law School—and at the top of her class. While discussing Jim Crow laws, Murray had an idea. Why not challenge the “separate” in “separate but equal” legal doctrine, (Plessy v. Ferguson) and argue that segregation was unconstitutional? This theory became the basis of her 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall called the “bible” of Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1965, Murray and Mary O. Eastwood co-authored the essay “Jane Crow and the Law,” which argued that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment should be applied to sex discrimination as well. In 1971, a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully argued this point in Reed v. Reed in front of the Supreme Court. Murray was named as a co-author on the brief.
Murray died in 1985, and in the decades since, public awareness of her many contributions has only continued to grow. Murray was sainted by the Episcopal Church in 2012, a residential college at Yale was named in her honor in 2017, and she has become an LGBTQ icon, thanks, in part, to the progressive approach to gender fluidity that she personally expressed throughout her life. Despite all this, as she wrote in the essay “The Liberation of Black Women” in 1970: “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”
2. Mamie Till Mobley (1921–2003)
Mamie Bradley, mother of lynched teenager Emmett Till, crying as she recounts her son’s death, 1955. (Credit: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
Inspirational Mother of a Martyr
Mamie Till Mobley’s story is one of triumph in the face of tragedy. Though she never sought to be an activist, her resolve inspired the civil rights movement and “broke the emotional chains of Jim Crow,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson would remark upon her death.
On August 28, 1955, Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, by two white men who claimed that Till had “wolf-whistled” at one of their wives. When Till’s mutilated corpse was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi officials tried to dispose of the body quickly, but Mobley obtained a court order to have her only child’s remains returned to Chicago. Though his casket arrived padlocked and sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, Mobley insisted that her son’s brutalized body be displayed during his funeral. “I want the world to see what they did to my boy,” the grieving mother explained.
“Mrs. Mobley did a profound strategic thing,” Jackson later told the New York Times. “More than 100,000 people saw his body lying in that casket…at that time the largest single civil rights demonstration in American history.” Until her death in 2003, at the age of 81, Mobley advocated for underprivileged children and against racial injustice. Although she never got justice for her son (his murderers were acquitted by an all-white male jury), Mobley didn’t let it dampen her spirit. As she told a reporter: “I have not spent one minute hating.”
3. Claudette Colvin (born 1939)
Bronx resident Claudette Colvin in 2009.
The Teenager Who Refused to Give Up Her Bus Seat Before Rosa Parks
When Claudette Colvin‘s high school in Montgomery, Alabama, observed Negro History Week in 1955, the 15-year-old had no way of knowing how the stories of Black freedom fighters would soon impact her life. “I knew I had to do something,” she later told USA Today. “I just didn’t know where or when.”
Colvin got her chance on March 2, 1955, when she boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery. She and three other Black students were told to give up their seats for a white woman. Colvin, emboldened by her history lessons, refused. “My head was just too full of Black history,” she stated in an interview with NPR. “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Colvin was arrested and eventually put on indefinite probation. Though Colvin’s courageous act occurred nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar protest, the NAACP chose to use the 42-year-old civil rights activist as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott, as they believed an unwed mother—Colvin became pregnant when she was 16—would not be the best face for the movement. Colvin felt slighted, but later joined three other women—Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ultimately overturned bus segregation in Alabama.
Colvin rarely talked about her heroic actions until the 1990s. “I’d like my grandchildren,” she said, “to be able to see that their grandmother stood up for something, a long time ago.”
4. Maude Ballou (1925-2019)
Maude Ballou, in 2015, with a photo of herself taken when she served as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s secretary from 1955 to 1960. (Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
The “Daredevil” Who Served as MLK’s Right-Hand Woman
In 1955, Maude Ballou—a young mother who had studied business and literature in college and was program director of the first Black radio station in Montgomery, Alabama—was approached by her husband’s friend, a young minister and activist named Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the personal secretary.
After agreeing, Ballou became the Rev. Dr. King’s right-hand woman from 1955 until 1960, years of great unrest and transforming events that included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the publication of King’s first book, Stride Towards Freedom, and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in Washington, D.C.
Her work placed Ballou in enormous danger. In 1957, she was listed as number 21 on the Montgomery Improvement Associations list of “persons and churches most vulnerable to violent attacks.” (King was at the top of the list.) Her children’s lives were threatened, and KKK members watched her at work through the windows of the church. But Ballou just kept on working. “I was a daredevil, I guess,” she told The Washington Post in 2015.
“I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen,” said Ballou, who went on to serve as a teacher and college administrator. “We were very busy doing things, knowing that anything could happen, and we just kept going.”
Ballou passed away on August 26, 2019. She was 93 years old.
5. Diane Nash (born 1938)
Diane Nash at the 2011 Search For Common Ground Awards at the Carnegie Institution for Science, 2011. (Credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
Freedom Rider and Nonviolent Student Activist for Desegregation
A native of Chicago, Diane Nash hadn’t experienced the shock of desegregation within the Jim Crow South until she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The “Whites Only” signs scattered throughout Nashville inspired Nash to become the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1960, where she organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Nashville. Nash kept the group’s commitment to nonviolence front and center at the sit-ins, which proved very effective in ending the discriminatory practices within the restaurants.
The following year, Nash took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides, a protest against segregated bus terminals that took place on Greyhound buses from Washington D.C. to Virginia. The Freedom Rides, which were initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), encountered a mob of angry segregationists as they entered Anniston, Alabama, and were brutally beaten and unable to finish the route. SNCC—under the direction of Nash— continued the protest from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.
Before setting off with a group of 10 students from Nashville, Nash received a call from John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy Jr., who tried to persuade her to end the Freedom Rides, insisting the bloodshed would only continue if they persisted. Nash, unshaken by the stance of the White House, told Seigenthaler that they knew the risks involved and had already prepared their wills before continuing the Freedom Rides.
Nash later moved back to Chicago and went on to serve as an advocate for fair housing practices. Her contributions to the success of Civil Rights movement have been increasingly recognized in the years since. In 1995, historian David Halberstam described Nash as “bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis.”
6. Coretta Scott King (1927–2006)
Coretta Scott King attending a ceremony dedicating an engraved marker in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington. (Credit: Allison Silberberg/Getty Images)
Human Rights Activist, Pacifist, Musician
In 1968, just days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife, Coretta Scott King, took his place at a sanitation workers’ protest in Memphis. A few weeks later, she kicked off his planned Poor People Campaign. She had long been politically active, but her husband’s death galvanized her activism.
King earned a bachelor’s degree in Music and Education from Antioch College, and had met her future husband while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the early years of the civil rights movement, she hosted a series of popular “Freedom Concerts,” raising thousands of dollars for the movement.
After her husband’s assassination, King campaigned tirelessly to make his birthday a national holiday, and raised millions to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. An avowed feminist, she was active in the National Organization for Women, and was an early advocate for LBGTQ rights. During the 1980s, she was a vigorous opponent of apartheid.
King understood that she would be remembered as a widow and human rights activist, but, as she once said, she hoped to be thought of a different way: “as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way…much like everyone else.
After watching the documentary People V the Klan and studying about the Lynching of her son and the arduous struggle for Justice I want to place the narrative of Ms. Beulah Mae Donald who struggled for reclaiming Justice and a semblance of Equity by not only supporting the Criminal case successfully pursued by the State she calmly but vigorously and with dignity pursued the individual members of the Klan as well the United Klan’s of America who were responsible the tragic lynching and murder of her 19 year old son.
The People V. The Klan premieres Sunday, April 11, and Sunday, April 18 starting at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
See America’s First Memorial to its 4,400 Lynching Victims
A new memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, challenges the nation to acknowledge its crimes.
BECKY LITTLE UPDATED: MAR 18, 2019; ORIGINAL: APR 20, 2018
Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?
Centuries of prejudice and discrimination against blacks fueled the civil rights crusade, but World War II and its aftermath were arguably the main catalysts.
UPDATED:JAN 31, 2020; ORIGINAL:MAY 22, 2018
The civil rights movement was a fight for equal rights under the law for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. Centuries of prejudice and discrimination fueled the crusade, but World War II and its aftermath were arguably the main catalysts.
A. Philip Randolph’s crusade against discrimination prodded Roosevelt into action.
He spoke famously of Four Freedoms for all: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was an admirable vision, but few American blacks of the era enjoyed true freedom of any kind.
As America prepared for war, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest segregation and discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries.
The threat brought increased attention to race relations and compelled Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 which prohibited, “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
VIDEO: Tuskegee Airmen
Black Americans served admirably in the war.
Prior to World War II, about 4,000 blacks served in the armed forces. By the war’s end, that number had grown to over 1.2 million, though the military remained segregated.
Black Americans served their country with distinction: At first, they worked as support troops, but as casualties increased many became infantrymen, airmen, medics and even officers.
All-black or mostly black units such as the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the 761st Tank Battalion and the Tuskegee Airmen fought their way through Europe and earned reputations as courageous, honorable soldiers.
Yet, according to John C. McManus, Ph.D., Curators’ Distinguished Professor of U.S. Military History at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, “… quite commonly black soldiers found themselves confronted with ugly discrimination and segregation during off-duty hours in military towns, especially in the South.
“Probably the most famous instance of this was when Lt. Jackie Robinson refused to comply with the bus segregation at Ft. Hood. Many other incidents led to confrontations and significant violence and much social activism. At times, there were riots between white and black soldiers, even overseas as well.”
As whites at home went to war, blacks left behind had access to manufacturing jobs previously unavailable to them. They learned new skills, joined unions and became part of the industrial workforce.
Yet, according to John C. McManus, Ph.D., Curators’ Distinguished Professor of U.S. Military History at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, “… quite commonly black soldiers found themselves confronted with ugly discrimination and segregation during off-duty hours in military towns, especially in the South.
Black veterans led the postwar civil rights charge.
Blacks returned home from the war to a life of bigotry and injustice. “[Blacks] had just helped destroy some of the most homicidal, racist regimes in human history and yet they had served in an armed force that was segregated on the basis of race,” said McManus.
“They were victimized by the same sort of racist views that had animated America’s enemies. This made zero sense and it created a powerful moral imperative for domestic change.”
The blatant injustice motivated blacks and unprejudiced whites to fight discrimination. Many blacks moved to large cities to find jobs using skills they’d learned in the military.
Others became civil rights activists and lent their powerful voices to organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the Deacons for Defense and Justice. In 1948, their efforts paid off when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military.
According to McManus, “World War II led to an explosion of racial reform, issues that the Civil War failed to solve and that had been festering for nearly a century. In my opinion, World War II was the most significant event in American history, to a great extent because of the racial change it helped foster.”
When Black Nurses Were Relegated to Care for German POWs
Before President Truman desegregated the U.S. military on July 26, in 1948, Black nurses had fewer—and less desirable—opportunities in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
UPDATED: MAR 10, 2021, ORIGINAL:JUL 26, 2018
On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed an executive order that desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces. The act was long overdue, particularly for African American nurses, who had just served in World War II.
Though the United States had been at war against Hitler’s racist regime, Jim Crow segregation permeated American culture and the entire military—including the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Black nurses who served in the war found themselves in one of two places— segregated bases with Black soldiers or German prisoner of war camps.
At the segregated bases, Black nurses served in all-Black units, lived in “colored” barracks, worked in “colored” hospitals, ate in separate dining areas and socialized in segregated spaces on base. Along with the separate facilities, Black nurses endured racist treatment from local white residents in town, fellow white army officers, and even from German prisoners of war.
During World War II, there were 371,683 German POWs who were captured in Europe and Northern Africa, then shipped to the United States and detained in more than 600 camps across the country.
Prisoners of war, under rules set by the Geneva Convention, could be made to work for the detaining power. And, with millions of American men away serving in the military, there was a significant labor shortage in the United States. Farms, canneries, plants and other industries needed German POWs as workers, and Black army nurses were overwhelmingly assigned to POW camps.
To them, the assignment could be deeply troubling. Black nurses volunteered to serve wounded American soldiers, not the enemy. It had taken decades for Black nurses to be admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, and to be given the task of caring for soldiers in Hitler’s army felt like a betrayal.
The interactions between the POWs and Black nurses were largely civilized, but there were reported incidences where Nazi beliefs of racial superiority were on full display. For example, at Camp Papago Park, outside of Phoenix, a German POW declared he hated Black people in front of a Black nurse. When the commanding officer of the camp didn’t issue any punishment, the nurse filed a complaint, dated August 1, 1944, to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses: “That is the worst insult an army officer should ever have to take. I think it is insult enough to be here taking care of them when we volunteered to come into the army to nurse military personnel...All of this is making us very bitter.”
Long before World War II, Black nurses had been struggling to serve their country. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Black nurses tried to enroll in the Army Nurse Corps but were rejected because of their skin color. A few Black nurses eventually served, but not because the Army Nurse Corps finally accepted them. The flu epidemic wiped out so many thousands of people that a handful of African American nurses were called to assist.
Decades later, after Hitler invaded Poland, the U.S. began an intense war preparedness program, and the Army Nurse Corps expanded its recruiting process. Thousands of Black nurses who wanted to serve their country and earn a steady military income filled out applications and received the following letter:
“Your application to the Army Nurse Corps cannot be given favorable consideration as there are no provisions in Army regulations for the appointment of colored nurses in the Corps.”
However painful, the rejection notice was an honest assessment of how Black nurses were regarded. The military that didn’t see them as fit to wear an army nurse uniform, despite their comparable education and training to white nurses.
The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, (NACGN), — an advocacy organization founded in 1908 for Black registered nurses, challenged the letter. And with political pressure from civil rights groups and the Black press, 56 Black nurses were finally admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1941—all sent to segregated bases in the South.
As the war progressed, the numbers of Black nurses allowed to enlist remained surprisingly low. By 1944, only 300 Black women served in the entire Army Nurse Corps, compared to 40,000 white nurses. Many were relegated to German prisoner of war camps.
Serving at POW camps was considered a second-rate assignment and the camps were isolating and lonely for Black nurses. They were routinely left out of meetings with white officers and weren’t invited to their social functions.
There wasn’t much job fulfillment at POW hospitals either. Most prisoners were in good health, which had been a requirement to make the transatlantic journey to America, so Black nurses weren’t utilized to full capacity. They had typical bedside nursing duties but rarely were there critical cases.
For German POWs, at least from a social standpoint, they fared better than Black nurses. White civilians and military personnel were friendly towards them—a level of respect that Black nurses did not experience with any regularity.
When German prisoners first arrived in the U.S., many were surprised by the segregation and racism in America, according to Matthias Reiss, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter, England. In one train depot in Texas, a group of Black soldiers were denied access to the Whites-Only dining hall, yet saw through a window, a group of German POWs and their American guards sitting at a table together, laughing and eating.
Thousands of white nurses also had POW camp assignments—they had to—there were so few Black women in the Army Nurse Corps. But if a Black unit could replace a white one at a camp, the swap was made. Even internationally, a unit of African American nurses was sent to England to care for German POWs, not American soldiers.
As the war entered its final year, the number of American wounded men had skyrocketed. There was even a threat of a nursing draft, with no acknowledgement of the 9,000 Black nurses who had applied to the Army Nurse Corps—and been passed over.
Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the charismatic minister from Harlem, famously denounced the draft legislation, saying to the House of Representatives on March 7, 1945:
“It is absolutely unbelievable that in times like these, when the world is going forward, that there are leaders in our American life who are going backward. It is further unbelievable that these leaders have become so blindly and unreasonably un-American that they have forced our wounded men to face the tragedy of death rather than allow trained nurses to aid because these nurses’ skins happen to be of a different color.”
The nursing draft never happened and by war’s end, only 500 Black nurses served out of 59,000, a mere 0.8 percent of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Now 70 years later, since the military was desegregated, African American nurses make up 17 percent of the Army Nurse Corps, and the current Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, the highest ranking medical officer, is Lt. General Nadja West, the first Black woman to hold that position.
More than 60 years after the abolition of slavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston made an incredible connection: She located one of the last survivors of the last slave ship to bring captive Africans to the United States.
Hurston, a known figure of the Harlem Renaissance who would later write the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, conducted interviews with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis), but struggled to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they were only released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” that came out in May of 2018.
Hurston’s book tells the story of Lewis, who was born Oluale Kossola in what is now the West African country of Benin. A member of the Yoruba people, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe invaded his village, captured him along with others, and marched them to the coast. There, he and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States.
The Clotilda brought its captives to Alabama in 1860, just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Even though slavery was legal at that time in the U.S., the international slave trade was not, and hadn’t been for over 50 years. Along with many European nations, the U.S. had outlawed the practice in 1807, but Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.
To avoid detection, Lewis’ captors snuck him and the other survivors into Alabama at night and made them hide in a swamp for several days. To hide the evidence of their crime, the 86-foot sailboat was then set ablaze on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (its remains may have been uncovered in January 2018).
Most poignantly, Lewis’ narrative provides a first-hand account of the disorienting trauma of slavery. After being abducted from his home, Lewis was forced onto a ship with strangers. The abductees spent several months together during the treacherous passage to the United States, but were then separated in Alabama to go to different owners.
A marker to commemorate Cudjo Lewis, considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, in Mobile, Alabama.
Womump/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother,” Lewis told Hurston. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”
Lewis also describes what it was like to arrive on a plantation where no one spoke his language, and could explain to him where he was or what was going on. “We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis,” he told Hurston. “Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.”
As for the Civil War, Lewis said he wasn’t aware of it when it first started. But part-way through, he began to hear that the North had started a war to free enslaved people like him. A few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, Lewis says that a group of Union soldiers stopped by a boat on which he and other enslaved people were working and told them they were free.
Cudjo Lewis at home.
Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama
Lewis expected to receive compensation for being kidnapped and forced into slavery, and was angry to discover that emancipation didn’t come with the promise of “forty acres and a mule,” or any other kind of reparations. Frustrated by the refusal of the government to provide him with land to live on after stealing him away from his homeland, he and a group of 31 other free people saved up money to buy land near Mobile, which they called Africatown.
Hurston’s use of vernacular dialogue in both her novels and her anthropological interviews was often controversial, as some black American thinkers at the time argued that this played to black caricatures in the minds of white people. Hurston disagreed, and refused to change Lewis’ dialect—which was one of the reasons a publisher turned her manuscript down back in the 1930s.
Many decades later, her principled stance means that modern readers get to hear Lewis’ story the way that he told it.