Unsung heroes: 5 lesser-known figures in black history


An unidentified "Freedom Rider" sticks his head out of a chartered bus window in Jackson, Miss., having arrived from New York, Aug. 14, 1961. These black and white riders were testing a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation.

Associated Press
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 3:25 p.m.

When students are taught about black history and America's civil rights leaders, there are several immediately recognizable faces — Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to name a few.

Often at their side, and sometimes behind the scenes completely, were figures you might not recognize.

This list will add those little-known black leaders to your knowledge. These leaders and activists had a profound influence on the advancement of African-Americans.

BAYARD RUSTIN

According to his 1942 essay, at least a decade before Rosa Parks, Rustin refused to give up his seat at the front of a Tennessee bus. When police tried to drag him from his seat, he pointed to a white child across the aisle and said, “If I sit in the back of the bus, I am depriving that child of the knowledge that there is injustice here.”

Rustin, a pacifist who traveled to India to study Gandhi's teachings of non-violence, is often credited for bringing the pacifist protest techniques to the civil rights movement. He also helped launch the first wave of Freedom Rides in 1961 where black passengers, called freedom riders, would stage sit-ins on public transportation, a tactic aimed at desegregating trains, buses and the like throughout the South

He was the right-hand man and advisor to several well-known black leaders like King. Rustin led the organization of the 1963 March on Washington, during which King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rustin was openly gay, a stigma that may have been the reason he stayed out of the spotlight.

IDA B. WELLS

Wells helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, but is well-known for other things. The daughter of former slaves, Wells became a teacher, journalist, newspaper editor, public speaker, women's suffragist and anti-lynching crusader. Writing under the penname “Iola” for a black newspaper she co-owned in Memphis, Tenn., The Free Speech and Headlight, she wrote against violence against blacks, revoking their right to vote, poor schools and the failure of black people to fight for their rights.

As a result, she was fired from teaching. Some friends were lynched in 1892 after defending themselves against an attack by whites. Wells began writing about lynching in her newspaper and encouraged the black residents of Memphis to leave town. While out of town, Wells' office was destroyed by a mob, and her life was threatened if she returned. So she took her anti-lynching campaign to England. She then helped organize the National Association of Colored Women, married and continued her fight for black civil and political rights until she died in 1931.

JOHN LANGSTON

Langston was an organizer of the National Equal Rights League in 1864, of which he was also the first president. His dad was a white planter and his mom was a slave. His bi-racial background led him to emancipation at 5 years old. As a free black, he attended school in Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College in 1849. In 1855, Langston became the first African-American ever elected to public office in the United States and was later a Republican candidate from Virginia for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888. After a challenge of the election returns that took almost two years, he unseated his Democratic opponent and served in Congress from September 1890 to March 1891.

Langston was one of only five African-Americans elected to Congress from the South before the former Confederate states passed laws that eliminated the black vote. After that, no blacks from the South were elected until 1973, roughly a decade after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforced constitutional rights.

W.E.B. Du BOIS

Du Bois became the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University when he earned his degree in history in 1895. He wrote the first case study of a black community in the United States, as well as papers on black farmers, businessmen and black life in Southern communities. A sociologist, DuBois hoped social science could help eliminate segregation. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and elevate themselves through hard work and economic gain to win the respect of whites.

In 1905, Du Bois helped found the short-lived Niagara Movement, intended to advocate for civil rights for blacks. Although the Niagara Movement didn't last, it was a precursor to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. DuBois served as the group's director of research and the editor of its magazine.

BESSIE COLEMAN

Coleman was the first black licensed aviator. She became interested in aviation at the beginning of World War I. She traveled to France in 1921 to earn her international pilot's license because of the country's acceptance of women of color. When she returned to the United States, she became a well-known instructor and stunt flyer. Before she died in 1926 during an air show practice, she started work to begin a flying school for blacks, but died before it could happen. Her gravesite refers to her as “Brave Bessie,” and she's honored annually with a flyover.

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