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Highlighting Unsung Heroes in African American History

Jan. 29, 2020 • Studies Weekly

Without the bravery, labor, and successes of many, many African Americans, our nation would not be where it is today.

Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement ensured the voting rights of all citizens, and paved the way for the human rights and equality measures taken in the years since. While Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X are some of the most well-known proponents from that era, many lesser-known heroes worked in the background to organize and bring about the movement’s success.

Ella Baker

“There is a lesser-known civil rights figure without whom Dr. King’s work — and nothing less than the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s — may not have succeeded, and whose absence from the iconography of American history is a disservice to all citizens: Ella J. Baker,” said Julie Scelfo in a January 2017 Time article.

Ella Baker worked tirelessly behind the scenes through all of the Civil Rights era — organizing events, protests, and campaigns, and training individuals to lead them. Baker recognized the power of grassroots organizations, and she was a driving force behind these movements.

Her work directly led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the success of the Freedom Rides. One of her first organizations, In Friendship, was instrumental in fundraising for legal fees and vehicles for carpools during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Born in 1903, she worked for human and civil rights until her death in 1986.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917, was a Mississippi sharecropper until she was about 45. In 1962, she attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting and was inspired to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

For her work trying to secure voting rights for African Americans, she was kicked off the plantation she farmed, shot at, and severely beaten. Of her experiences, she said, “The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

To gain better representation for African Americans in Mississippi, in 1964, she organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, “an alternative to the state’s white-controlled Democratic Party.” Speaking at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in New Jersey, Hamer told of her experience with racial prejudice. Her account of her 1963 beating resounded with those watching the convention on television.

Later that same year, she spoke at The Negro Baptist School in Indianola, Mississippi, and rallied listeners.

“You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap,” she said, before concluding, “I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Honey, I’m behind you.’ Well, move, I don’t want you back there. Because you could be two hundred miles behind. I want you to say, ‘I’m with you.’ And we’ll go up this freedom road together.”

Hamer rallied, marched, and sang for equal rights tirelessly until her death in 1977.

James Meredith

Despite rejection, violence, and threats, James Meredith was the first African American to integrate the University of Mississippi, also known as “Ole Miss.”

Born in 1933, Meredith served in the United States Air Force for nine years after high school. He applied for Ole Miss and was accepted, but when the university registrar found out his race, they withdrew the acceptance. Meredith took them to court, and eventually the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

When he stepped on campus to enroll in classes in 1962, he was blocked, and riots broke out. It took the intervention of the federal government — with 500 US Marshals sent by Senator Robert Kennedy and Mississippi National Guard troops sent in by President John F. Kennedy — before Meredith could attend the school.

Meredith graduated and continued his efforts to work for civil rights. In 1966, he started a solo March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage African Americans to register to vote.

A white gunman shot him the second day, and others took up the march while he recovered in the hospital. He re-joined them near the end of the march, “just before some 15,000 marchers entered Jackson on June 26. During the trek, more than 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote.”

Meredith continues his work for equal rights for all people today.

Even before the Civil Rights Movement, though, African American men and women made significant contributions, despite society’s limitations.

Garrett Morgan

Born in 1877, Garrett Morgan was a lifelong inventor whose innovations are credited with saving many lives.

Morgan Safety Hood

After watching firefighters in his home struggle with smoke inhalation, Morgan created a safety mask that supplied wearers with clean air. By 1914, he had a patent for the safety hood, and about 500 cities purchased the hood for their firefighters.

In 1916, he and his brother each donned a hood to help rescue men who were trapped under Lake Erie after a pocket of natural gas exploded during a construction project.

Traffic Signal

After witnessing a horrible vehicle collision while living in Cleveland, Morgan invented a T-shaped traffic signal. Signals at the time had signage for Stop and Go, but Morgan’s version had “three positions: Stop, Go, and an all-directional stop position.” [link] The warning light — the precursor to the modern yellow light — allowed vehicles time to exit the intersection and pedestrians to finish crossing the street.

Morgan’s invention, patented in 1923, is said to be the precursor to the modern traffic light.

G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company

While working with sewing machines in his tailor shop in 1909, Morgan discovered a lubricating oil solution that straightened hair fibers. After successfully testing it on a neighbor’s dog and then himself, he started selling the solution, G.A. Morgan’s Hair Refiner. He created other hair products, and the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company thrived.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker became the first self-made female millionaire at a time when opportunities for African American women were minimal.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she was the first African American in her family born free. Orphaned at a young age, she grew up picking cotton in Mississippi. She moved to St. Louis when she was about 22.

While working there as a laundress, she started losing her hair due to a scalp condition. After treating it, she developed her own line of hair care products. In 1907, she began touring the South as Madam C.J. Walker (from her husband’s name) to promote her products.

She opened a factory to manufacture her line of scalp care, straighteners, and combs. She was so successful that she created a training system so other women could sell the products as licensed sales agents. According to the National Women’s History Museum, Walker employed 40,000 African American women and men across the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Walker’s total worth was more than  $1 million, and she was very generous with her wealth.

“She was a standard-bearer for black self-help, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating large sums to the NAACP, the black YMCA, and dozens of black charities,” wrote the editors of

All these women and men paved the way for the many successes all Americans experience today. As we teach during Black History Month and beyond, we should remember and honor their contributions.

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