The Importance of Standing Up and Speaking Out:
African American Activists Who Have Changed Society
by Tracy Yu
All throughout history, there have been many examples of activists who have spoken out against social injustices and fought for their rights. In honor of Black History Month, here is a list of African American activists who have stood up, spoke out, and invoked social change.
Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the best-known example of an African American rights activist. During a strike in Memphis, Tennessee, where black sanitation workers were protesting the terrible working conditions and low pay, which were obvious discriminations against African Americans, King gave a speech in support of the workers’ second march. The protest became recognized on a national level and eventually, the city of Memphis succumbed to the workers’ demands. In Montgomery, Alabama, King protested segregation by leading a boycott against city buses which forbade blacks from sitting in the front of the bus. King was arrested as a result of his actions; however, the boycott was a success and the discriminatory law was changed. His most famous endeavor in the fight for civil rights was when he led a march for equal rights in Washington, DC in 1963. During the protest, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. This push for civil rights gained national attention and put ongoing pressure on the government to act against discrimination.
Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights lawyer who fought hard to end discrimination. He became a legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), winning a multitude of cases where he struck down many different forms of legalized racism. His greatest achievement came when he filed a lawsuit on behalf of black parents in Topeka, Kansas, whose children were forced to attend segregated schools. The case would later become the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, where Marshall challenged the court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed segregation because it was “separate but equal.” Marshall secured a victory when the Supreme Court ruled that the racial segregation of schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment, providing legal ground for the desegregation of schools. Later in his career as a civil rights lawyer, he became the Supreme Court’s first African American justice, where he continued fighting for the rights of African Americans.
Ida B. Wells was another African-American who spoke out for social change. In 1881, she bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, but was ordered to move to the all-black car. When she refused, she was removed from the train. This experience led her to write about the issue of racism in the South. Her articles were published in a variety of newspapers and she eventually became the owner of the newspapers Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and The Free Speech. She later launched an anti-lynching crusade after an incident where three African-American grocery store owners were lynched. In her effort to denounce lynching, she wrote a report on it for the newspaper New York Age and published A Red Record, where she recounted personal observations of lynching in America. Her writings created widespread awareness on the issues of racial discrimination and social injustice, creating pressure to enact social reform.