Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Daisy Bates.jpg

Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

In 1983, 15 years after Dr. King’s assassination and the immediate calls for a holiday in his name, President Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law. The holiday was first observed federally in 1986 and (finally!) in 2000, was officially observed in all 50 states.

Many observe this day and honor the memory and healing work of Dr. King by volunteering to serve their school or community. At HaE, we close our office to encourage our team to take the opportunity to serve their community(ies).

In addition, this year, we’d like to acknowledge some of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, specifically, those whose sacrifices and efforts—while less recognized—significantly advanced the excruciatingly slow progress of equality in America.

For a fully immersive experience, check out our MLK Day 2019 Spotify playlist. A curated list of songs in chronological order to inspire you while you read. *Warning some songs have explicit language, but research seems to indicate swearing like a sailor might not be the worst.*

Octavius Catto


Born: February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina

Civil Rights Achievements: Octavius’s family moved north after his birth in the South, eventually settling in Philadelphia, PA. Catto, along with Frederick Douglass, joined black leaders during the Civil War to form a Recruitment Committee encouraging black men to fight for the Union and emancipation.

90 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would become a national fixture with peaceful protest tactics and Rosa Parks would refuse to relinquish her seat on a bus, Octavius Catto was successfully deploying civil disobedience tactics to desegregate Philadelphia trolley cars. Catto’s work, alongside other civil rights leaders of his era, resulted in the ratification of Pennsylvania’s 15th Amendment, suffrage for black (male) Pennsylvanians.

Died: October 10, 1871, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Two years after securing voting rights for black Pennsylvanians, on a tense election day, Catto was murdered for his efforts in getting black Philadelphians to the polls. His murderer was never convicted of assault, let alone murder. In September 2017, Philadelphia installed a statue in his honor right outside City Hall, called “A Quest for Parity”.

Daisy Bates

“... the kids went in Central; they got in… And they remained there for the full year And that opened a lot of doors that had been closed to Negroes, because this was the first time that this kind of revolution had succeeded without a doubt.”

Daisy Bates.jpg

Born: November 11, 1914 in Huttig, Arkansas

Civil Rights Achievements: Daisy Bates was deeply affected and inspired to fight for equality after learning of the horrific rape and murder of her biological mother by three white men. Daisy was only a few months old when her mother was murdered. Before his death, her adoptive father encouraged her to focus her hate on inequality itself instead of toward an entire race of people.

Daisy married a newspaperman, and together they founded the Arkansas State Press in 1941. They modeled their paper after other periodicals popping up across the country that focused on civil rights and African-American interests. The Arkansas State Press became a galvanizing force for civil rights in the south, a decade before Dr. King led a national movement.

In 1952, Bates assumed her position as President of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. After Brown v. Board of Education, she began to focus on desegregating schools and improving the quality and access to education for Americans of color. Her dedication and tenacity made her the obvious choice to plan, coordinate, and escort the Little Rock Nine, which involved peacefully trying to enroll nine black children in an all-white school. Bates was subsequently arrested.

Died: November 4, 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas

Daisy Bates died 7 days before her 85th birthday, after a lifetime of civil rights journalism and activism. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, and has received over 200 awards for her civil rights work.

Fannie Lou Hamer

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Fannie Lou Hamer.jpg

Born: October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi

Civil Rights Achievements: The youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou Hamer knew a thing or two about persistence. So when, in 1962, she learned about her constitutional right to vote, she and other activists went to Indianola, MI, to register. The registration test at the time was intended to prevent people of color from succeeding. She was asked to explain de facto laws and her registration was rejected.

After returning home to the cotton plantation where she worked, Hamer was fired for her intention to continue fighting for her constitutional right to vote. She was pursued by members of the KKK and shot at 16 times. Nevertheless, she persisted. Hamer told the registrar on December 4, 1962, “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass”.

On January 10, 1963, Fannie Lou took the literacy test and became a registered voter in the State of Mississippi. Upon attempting to cast her vote for the first time that fall, she found that the goalposts had again been moved and more obstacles prevented her from voting.

Hamer continued to organize and fight for civil rights. In 1963 she was brutally beaten by police after entering a café with other activists, and she sustained permanent damage to her kidneys. The recovery to her “new normal” took over a month. Soon after, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, worked and supported early iterations of the Head Start program, and worked to give families of color economic opportunities through land ownership.

Died: March 14, 1977, due to breast cancer and health complications from her brutal treatment by law enforcement years earlier. She was awarded many honorary degrees and wrote an autobiography before she passed. Fannie’s fight for voter rights is continued today by many, like Stacey Abrams. A modern renaissance woman who loved poetry, worked the land, and fought relentlessly to advance civil rights, she also had a musical streak. Listen to her rendition of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” on Spotify (also on our MLK Day 2019 mix).

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

“I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a lawsuit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me.”

Dr. Carter G. Woodson.jpg

Born: December 19, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia

Civil Rights Achievements: Like many disadvantaged children of the time, Carter Woodson was not able to regularly attend school, but he was gifted and tenacious and used his free time to teach himself the common school curriculum. At the age of 20, he enrolled in high school and earned his diploma in less than 2 years. Within 5 years of enrolling in high school, he was appointed principal of the same high school.

Woodson’s thirst for education would not be slaked until he completed his Ph.D. in History at Harvard University in 1912. At this point in American history, Dr. Woodson and W.E.B. Dubois were the only black Americans to ever hold a doctoral degree.

Cartoon by Charles Alston

His devotion to research and his expertise in history revealed to him that the history of African-Americans was largely buried or misrepresented to all Americans. In January of 1916, he started a scholarly publication called Journal of Negro History (now called the Journal of African American History) which has never missed a single issue since it’s founding 103 years ago.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson started “Negro History Week”, which took place the second week in February congruent with celebrations of Abraham Lincoln’s (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass’ (Feb 20) birthdays. In 1970 black students and educators at Kent State University would expand this concept to our present day Black History Month.

Died: April 3, 1950, in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Woodson suffered a fatal heart attack in his home at the age of 74. At the time of his death, his six-volume work titled Encyclopedia Africana was incomplete. His Washington D.C. home has since become a national historic site.

Bayard Rustin

“The principal of factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.”

Bayard Rustin.jpg

Born: March 17, 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania

Civil Rights Achievements: Bayard Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. Julia was a Quaker and their home frequently hosted NAACP leaders and influencers, including W.E.B. Dubois. The concepts of non-violent protest in the face of injustice were germane to his upbringing.

In 1941 he proposed and organized, with others, a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in employment and in the armed forces. President Roosevelt agreed to meet with them in advance of the march and issued Executive Order 8802, or the Fair Employment Act, and the march was canceled.

Bayard Rustin was openly and unapologetically gay during a time in American history when being LGBTQ was criminalized. He was arrested in 1953 and served 60 days in jail for being caught with another man in Pasadena, CA. Having an arrest record changed the nature of Rustin’s engagement in the civil rights movement for years. He was a contributing writer of “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence”, but was not named as an author to avoid damaging the movement and message. He was also forced out or fired from various civil rights organizations after his arrest in 1953.

Rustin was deeply inspired by Gandhi and the peaceful resistance in India. In 1948 he traveled to India to a conference where he learned Gandhian nonviolent civil resistance techniques. In 1956 he brought this knowledge to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and together they would start a nonviolent resistance that spread across the entire country. He continued to work behind the scenes in nearly every major moment of the civil rights movement for the rest of his life.

In 1982, 33 years before marriage equality in the US, Rustin adopted his longtime partner, Walter Naegle, to allow them basic financial and medical protections.

Died: August  24, 1987 in Manhattan, New York

Bayard Rustin passed away from a perforated appendix at the age of 75. Upon his death, President Ronald Reagan issued a statement lauding his work for “human rights throughout the world.”

We hope that the stories of these Unsung Civil Rights Heroes will inspire you and give you strength as Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019 approaches. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free, until everybody’s free”.