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Who Were the Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?



Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. - Photo by Unseen Histories from Unsplash

The Civil Rights Movement was a series of social actions in the United States to secure equal rights for African Americans.


As an educator, ally or informed global citizen, understanding the history of racism and the Black experience in North America is essential to any DEI work or social justice movement. Critical Race Theory is one way of putting this history in context with wider American society, and the Civil Rights movement was a very important time in this history that should be examined and understood in any educational curriculum geared towards being anti-racist or inclusive.

The Civil Rights Movement timeline

The Civil Rights Movement was set in the 1950s and continued through the 1960s. The movement sought to end racial segregation and discrimination against Black Americans. During this period, there were various civil rights leaders with different philosophies and strategies, but their beliefs were the common denominator: anti-black racism needed to be addressed and ending racial segregation and discrimination against Black Americans was the way.


Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and those he inspired voiced their opinions on racial inequality. Many legislative actions that helped to create opportunities for Black people and pave the way for equality can be traced to this era and the work of the big 6 civil rights leaders.


But what is the difference between civil rights and human rights? Why did an entire race of people have to fight for rights that were already expected to be protected and outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?


Human Rights and Civil Rights

Human rights are based on the principle of respect for all individuals' inherent dignity and worth. They include the right to life, liberty, and education. They also include the right to freedom of speech and religion, to work and earn a living, the right to not be treated unfairly by the law and in general to be treated equally in all aspects of life.


Civil rights overlap human rights but are specific and pertain to matters of legal justice and public policy, such as the right to vote, equal access to public accommodations, and a fair and speedy trial. These specific rights are essential to ensure social cohesion, integration and inclusion in one's community.

Some of the most influential civil rights leaders also know as the Big 6 include:

Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo by WikiImages from Pixabay

Martin Luther King Jr. was crucial to the American Civil Rights Movement. He is widely recognized as one of the most important Black activists and one of the two main leaders of the Civil Rights Movement alongside Malcolm X.

King became a key leader and spokesperson for inspiring equality through his speeches, including the famous “I Have A Dream” speech. He travelled across the country, organizing protests and boycotts to bring attention to the plight of African Americans and to demand change.


James Farmer

James Farmer was a civil rights leader and co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the leading civil rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s. CORE was a non-violent, direct action group instrumental in the American Civil Rights Movement.

CORE was involved in several important civil rights campaigns, including the Freedom Rides of 1961.


John Lewis

Painting of John Lewis. Photo by Robin Jonathan Deutsch from Unsplash

John Lewis was a civil rights leader and politician who played a vital role in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Lewis was known for his dedication to non-violent resistance and was also a key figure in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A. Philip Randolph

Randolph was a leader in the labour movement and a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labour union. He was one of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, along with Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.

Randolph was involved in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which became the first successful African-American-led labour union. In 1963 he helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


Roy Wilkins

Roy Wilkins was a civil rights leader and head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1955 to 1977.

As head of the NAACP, Wilkins was involved in many of the key campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, including the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. He was also a strong advocate for civil rights and social justice, and he received numerous awards and honours for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Whitney Young

Young worked closely with other civil rights advocates, including Martin Luther King Jr. Born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, in 1921, Young witnessed the segregation and discrimination against African Americans. He went on to attend Kentucky State University, where he became involved in civil rights issues.

He became a civil rights leader and head of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization that worked to bridge the gap between the Civil Rights Movement and the mainstream of American society.


Towards Freedom and Justice

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a pivotal time in American history, as individuals and groups across the country fought for equal rights and treatment for African Americans.

Led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., the movement brought about significant changes. It has also unearthed a deeper look at colonization, white supremacy and the racist and unethical foundations of the Americas. While there is still work to be done to achieve true equality, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a crucial step towards a more just society and a catalyst for the DEI work we're doing today.


It's our duty to ensure we are supporting organizations and institutions that value the work of Black community members in the social justice arena so that we can all benefit. Learn more about the past work and current efforts by attending one of Tough Convos or connect with us to set up an educational experience for your team.

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