Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

16 Inspiring Civil Rights Leaders You Should Know

Civil rights protect a person’s access to social opportunities, political participation and protection under the law. Examples of civil rights include the right to vote, the right to public education, the right to housing, the right to a fair trial and much more. When someone is discriminated against based on their race, gender, ethnicity or other characteristic, their civil rights are violated. Throughout history, activists have fought against discrimination even when it puts their lives at risk. In this article, we’ll go over 16 civil rights leaders everyone should know, including the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement.

# Name
1 Martin Luther King Jr.
2 Rosa Parks
3 John Lewis
4 Roy Wilkins
5 James Farmer
6 A. Philip Randolph
7 Whitney Young
8 Malcolm X
9 Fannie Lou Hamer
10 Cesar Chavez
11 Mahatma Gandhi
12 Frederick Douglass
13 Sojourner Truth
14 Nelson Mandela
15 Ida B. Wells
16 Harvey Milk

#1. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He trained as a pastor and fought for equal rights for Black people. Using nonviolent strategies, like the March on Washington, King pressured the US government to end segregation and protect civil rights. In 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

#2. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

Rosa Parks was an organizer and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in Alabama. In 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for white customers. Her act sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which protested segregation of public transport. While the boycott was successful in desegregating buses, Parks lost her job and had to move. She spent her life fighting discrimination and inequality. She’s often called “the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

#3. John Lewis (1940-2020)

John Lewis played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement. In his position as a co-founder and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped organize the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington and the Selma marches. With Martin Luther King Jr. and others, he was one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement. He continued to work as an activist his whole life and served in Georgia as a representative. He passed away in 2020.

#4. Roy Wilkins (1901-1981)

Roy Wilkins was an activist and long-time director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He trained as a journalist and became involved in activism by challenging Jim Crow laws. He joined the NAACP where he became editor of the organization’s official magazine, and then the director. During the Civil Rights Era, he helped organize the March on Washington, the Selma marches and other demonstrations. While Wilkins was the director of the NAACP, the organization was involved in civil rights victories like Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act. Wilkins passed away in 1981.

#5. James Farmer (1920-1999)

James Farmer was one of the “Big Six” Civil Rights leaders and head of the Congress of Racial Equality. He founded the organization in 1942. With this organization, Farmer helped organize sit-ins, Freedom Rides and other nonviolent actions. He resigned in 1965 and went on to work as an assistant secretary of health, education and welfare in Nixon’s administration. In 1998, a year before his death, Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

#6. A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)

Philip Randolph was a civil rights leader and labor activist during the Civil Rights era. Born to a family that valued education, Randolph attended Florida’s first all-Black university. He soon developed a socialist worldview, and in 1925, he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, America’s first major Black labor union. Randolph got involved in racial equality activism, as well, and helped organize many events, including the March on Washington. In 1964, President Johnson gave Randolph the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The activist passed away in 1979.

#7. Whitney Young (1921-1971)

Whitney Young was a civil rights activist and director of the National Urban League. After receiving an education and serving in the army, Young became a social worker and started working for the National Urban League. Under his direction, the League became a major organization during the Civil Rights movement. Young focused on economic empowerment, integration, education and racial equality. With Martin Luther King, John Lewis and others, he’s considered one of the “Big Six.” He died in 1971.

#8. Malcolm X (1925-1965)

Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little, was a prominent activist during the Civil Rights era. As a child, white supremacists burned down his house, and after a stint in prison, he joined the Nation of Islam. He advocated for Black empowerment and independence, and while he was initially critical of the Civil Rights movement, he advocated for the Nation of Islam to participate more in 1963. He also called for a shift from civil rights to human rights and solidarity with people suffering around the world. He was assassinated in 1965.

#9. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights organizer and advocate for equality during the Civil Rights movement. Born into poverty to sharecroppers, Hamer became a dedicated activist at 45 years old. She endured violent discrimination, including an assault for sitting in a white-only restaurant. She continued to organize voting registration campaigns, give speeches and develop economic opportunities for Black people. In 1971, she helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, which is still active today. Hamer died in 1977.

#10. Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)

Cesar Chavez was a labor rights organizer and co-founder (with Dolores Huerta) of the National Farm Workers Association. As a migrant farm laborer and organizer in California, he became one of the leaders of a five-year strike by grape pickers. The boycott went nationwide, leading to solidarity with other laborers and new bargaining agreements. In 1971, the National Farm Workers Association merged with another group and became the United Farm Workers, which is the current labor union for farmworkers in the US. Chavez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

#11. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Gandhi was a civil rights activist and leader of India’s campaign for independence from Great Britain. His time in South Africa influenced his commitment to human rights, and upon returning to India, he organized protests based on his philosophy of nonviolence. The 1930 Salt March, which protested Great Britain’s unjust laws about making salt, is one of the most famous. Years of resistance eventually led to India’s independence. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a fundamentalist who disagreed with Gandhi’s attempts to unify Muslims and Hindus.

#12. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist and writer known for shining a light on the reality of slavery. After escaping slavery, Douglass shared his experiences and advocated for freedom. He published his first autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. Douglass also ran a newspaper, supported the women’s rights movement and fought for civil rights after the Civil War. He died in 1895.

#13. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born into slavery, she became free in 1827. She also became the first Black woman to win a legal victory against a white man when she successfully sued for the return of her five-year-old son. While Truth couldn’t read or write, she dictated The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which raised her national profile. She became involved in the temperance and women’s rights movements, as well as the fight to end slavery. Her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” challenged racial and gender norms. After the Civil War, she fought to end segregation. Truth died in 1883.

#14. Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela was a civil rights activist and leader in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He joined the African National Congress, a political party opposed to apartheid, in 1944. In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for opposing the racist system. His activism continued from jail, and in 1990, he was released. He became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.

#15. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells was an activist, journalist and researcher. She was born into slavery, but once the Civil War ended, her parents became involved in the Reconstruction Era. She worked first as an educator, but following the lynching of a friend, Wells began investigating the brutal practice. Her publications unveiled a pattern of racial violence throughout the South. Wells was also involved in the fight for women’s rights. She frequently criticized white women in the movement for ignoring lynching and racism. Wells died in 1931.

#16. Harvey Milk (1930-1978)

Harvey Milk was a civil rights activist and the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. While he hid his sexuality in his younger years, he became more vocal and progressive with time, especially after moving to San Francisco in the 1970s. He advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, labor rights and community activism. When he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, he helped pass an ordinance that banned anti-gay discrimination in employment and housing. A former colleague killed Milk in 1978. Every year, California recognizes Harvey Milk Day on May 22.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.