Black History Month: Leaders who changed history
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), civil rights leader
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a renowned Baptist minister and social activist who worked to bring about equality for African-Americans through nonviolence. His leadership was key to the success of the civil rights movement, and in ending the legal segregation of African-Americans. King learned about Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence while a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn. In 1964, at age 35, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the civil rights movement.
He is perhaps best remembered for the inspirational message he gave on from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. An interracial crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered to hear King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. by James Earl Ray. The night before he died he told a crowd at the Mason Temple Church, "I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931), physician
Williams is one of the best-known black physicians in American medical history. On July 10, 1893, he completed the first successful cardiac surgery.
A graduate of Chicago Medical College (in 1883), Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1891. This hospital was America’s first interracial hospital and training school for black nurses and interns. Williams also founded a nursing school for black students at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Williams’ groundbreaking surgery took place after a Chicago street fighter suffered a chest wound in an artery near his heart. Williams opened the man’s chest and repaired a tear in the pericardium, which is the sac surrounding the heart. He gained worldwide recognition for this surgical accomplishment.
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Marshall was a civil rights activist, lawyer and the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served as a justice from 1967 to 1991.
As an attorney, Marshall successfully argued before the Supreme Court the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. This historic case said the segregation of public schools in the United States was unconstitutional.
Among Marshall’s many legal victories was the case of Murray vs. Pearson in 1935, where Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying a black applicant admission to their law school on the basis of race. In 1936 Marshall became a staff lawyer for the NAACP; four years later he was named chief of the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Marshall was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1967, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), spokesman, abolitionist
Born into slavery, Douglass helped lead the U.S. movement to abolish slavery. Douglass was the first African American to hold a high-ranking federal position in the United States.
As a baby, Douglass was separated from his slave mother. He never knew his father, a white man. He lived on a Maryland plantation until he was 8, when his owner sent him to live with Hugh Auld. Although Douglass worked as a servant in Auld’s home, Auld’s wife taught him to read. He escaped from slavery in 1838. His life story, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," published in 1882, is considered a classic. Douglass published an antislavery newspaper called the "North Star." During the Civil War, he helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. He went on to serve as the U.S. minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of Tuskegee Institute
Born into slavery, Washington moved to Malden, W.V. after emancipation and went to work at the age of 9. Later, he attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, cleaning the school to help pay for his studies.
In 1881, Washington was appointed the head of a new vocational school for blacks. He began with only 31 students, and they had to meet in an old, abandoned church and a shanty.
He devoted his life to the development of his school. At the time of his death, in 1915, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had more than 100 buildings, 1,500 students, 200 teaching faculty and an endowment of $2 million. It’s now known as Tuskegee University.
Washington was one of the most influential black leaders of his time, advising both President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft. He received honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College. His autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” (1901), has been widely translated.
Malcolm X (1925-1965), black militant leader
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little and later took the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He was a militant leader who, in the early 1960s, spoke eloquently on the subjects of racial pride and Black Nationalism. His early childhood was traumatic. The Ku Klux Klan burned down his family’s house; two years later, his father was murdered and he lost his mother after she was placed in a mental hospital.
In 1946, while in prison for burglary, he converted to the Black Muslim faith. He changed his last name to "X," a custom among the followers of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X rejected the ideas of integration and racial equality and promoted black pride and separatism.
Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, and later that year converted to orthodox Islam. He was shot to death at a rally at a Harlem ballroom in 1965. Three Black Muslims were convicted of the murder. After his assassination, the story of his life, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” written by Alex Haley and based on interviews with Malcolm X, became a best-seller. In 1992, Spike Lee made the movie "Malcolm X," starring Denzel Washington, which made a new generation familiar with this historical figure.
Rosa Lee Parks (1913-2005), civil rights activist
On Dec. 1, 1955, history was made when Rosa Lee Parks, a seamstress, protested segregation by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Parks, who was riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for violating a city law that required blacks to sit in the back of public buses. This incident precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott, which ignited the U.S. civil rights movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior led the boycott of the bus system. On Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court said Montgomery’s segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. The boycott of the buses ended on December 21, 1956.
In later years, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), evangelist, abolitionist
Sojourner Truth’s birth name was Isabella Van Wagener. She was the daughter of slaves and spent her childhood as an abused slave of several masters. A man named Isaac Van Wagener set her free just before New York abolished slavery in 1827. By then, she had five children.
She moved to New York City in 1829 with her two youngest and began working with missionary Elijah Pierson. She worked and preached in the streets.
For many years she claimed to hear voices and seen visions which she attributed to God. She heard a supernatural call, she said, "to travel up and down the land," and in 1843 left New York City (and changed her name) to preach and sing at camp meetings and churches throughout the country. Her charisma and powerful speaking style drew large crowds.
The newly-christened Sojourner Truth became a well-known speaker for the abolitionist cause. She continued to speak and travel for many years, promoting the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
In 1864 she went to Washington, D.C. and met with President Abraham Lincoln. In the last years of her life she lived in Battle Creek, Mich.