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For Centuries Black Leaders Raised Voices for Justice

From Harriet Tubman to John Lewis, they called for change

spinner image Civil Rights Series 1
Civil Rights Series I by Ted Ellis

From the moment the first abducted Africans found themselves enslaved and oppressed on America's shores, freedom became their singular ambition. And through the centuries, for their children and their children's children, that most human desire remained constant and basic: They demanded freedom from bondage and the atrocities of rape, beatings and family separations. Freedom from lynching and political disenfranchisement. Freedom from segregation, redlining, police brutality, discrimination. Freedom, finally, from all the effects of racial hatred, which has long distorted our nation's democratic ideals.

Over the summer, the nationwide protests spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery gave renewed urgency to those calls. They also underscored the grinding nature of progress, for despite the civil rights gains of previous generations, formidable work remains to be done. Yet as our history has shown, Black thinkers and activists —from the poorest of the poor to those with great power and means — have been critical in challenging America to do this work. Their voices mattered.

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Their words — some reflected here — express deep outrage and suffering but also tremendous love and hope for their community and their country. Some of their calls for justice have been answered through legislation or litigation; other demands remain painfully timely. Together, they offer a powerful opportunity to honor the past while working together to create a better, more just future for all.

Activists on Justice 

Then: 1964

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

—Ella Baker, civil rights activist

Now: 2020

Every police killing of an un-armed black man, woman or child damages our country. ... These killings are a tragedy for families and communities. But they are also a stain on our nation's very soul.

—Sherrilyn Ifill, president, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

O, ye nominal Christians! … Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends, to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? … Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty … and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

—Olaudah Equiano, former enslaved person, 1789

I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to: liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive.

—Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, a leader of the Underground Railroad, 1868

My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life. 

—Robert Smalls, U.S. congressman, 1895

Activists on the Right-to-Vote

Then: 1865

I am for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal” enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union. Without this, his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition.

—Frederick Douglass, former enslaved person, abolitionist, author, activist

Now: 2020

The struggle continues. After the 15th Amendment recognized the African American right to vote in 1870, some states responded by using violent intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests as barriers to voting. Today those laws have mutated into voter suppression efforts that target low income and minority communities with disheartening effectiveness. I fight for the real enfranchisement of black people.

—Eric Holder Jr., former U.S. attorney general

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. … One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, sociologist, historian, activist, 1897

Our watchword has been “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. Neither do brave men and women stand by and see such things done without compunction of conscience, nor read of them without protest. 

—Ida B. Wells-Barnett, political journalist, teacher, 1900

The chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded ... and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep. 

—Mary Church Terrell, clubwoman, businesswoman, activist, 1906

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful.

—Langston Hughes, poet, writer, 1926

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Those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.

—Carter G. Woodson, educator, historian, 1933

We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish.

—Richard Wright, writer, 1941

I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being. 

—Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball player, 1954

We will kneel in, we will sit in until we can eat in any corner in the United States. We will walk until … we can take our children to any school in the United States. And we will … lie in until every Negro in America can vote. 

—Daisy Bates, civil rights activist, president of Arkansas NAACP, 1963

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. ... With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together; to pray together; to struggle together; to go to jail together; to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. 

—Martin Luther King Jr., Baptist minister, civil rights leader, 1963

Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud! 

—James Brown, singer, songwriter, bandleader, 1968

Activists on Racism

Then: 1975

The function of racism ... is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. … None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

—Toni Morrison, novelist

Now: 2017

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, essayist, novelist

I am America. Only, I'm the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own — get used to me!

—Muhammad Ali, activist, heavyweight champion, 1975

What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise.

—Barbara C. Jordan, U.S. congresswoman, 1977

Politics, although not perfect, was the best available nonviolent means of changing how we lived. … Politics is not an end; it's a means to an end. 

—Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first Black mayor, 1988

People, I just want to say ... can we all get along?... Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? 

—Rodney King, whose beating by police sparked riots in Los Angeles, 1992

Money makes people listen. When you have it, then you have something others want and need. When you don't, you become invisible.

—Earl G. Graves Sr., founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, 1997

Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? Peace is more than the absence of war. ... Maybe we can finally say, enough is enough, it's time for love.

—Prince, musician, songwriter, 2015

The fight is not just being able to keep breathing. The fight is actually to be able to walk down the street with your head held high — and feel like I belong here, or I deserve to be here, or I just have [a] right to have a level of dignity. 

—Alicia Garza, civil rights activist, cofounder of Black Lives Matter movement, 2015

Activists on Justice 

Then: 1964

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

—Ella Baker, civil rights activist

Now: 2020

Every police killing of an un-armed black man, woman or child damages our country. ... These killings are a tragedy for families and communities. But they are also a stain on our nation's very soul.

—Sherrilyn Ifill, president, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

I am not saying the pandemic is a conspiracy to kill or target Blacks, but it is illuminating the existing racial disparities in this country that reverberate in everything from health care to jobs, housing and more.

—Al Sharpton, Baptist minister, civil rights activist, talk show host, 2020

Sixty-five years have passed, and I still remember the face of young Emmett Till. ... Despite real progress, I can't help but think of young Emmett today as I watch video after video after video of unarmed Black Americans being killed, and falsely accused. My heart breaks for these men and women, their families and the country that let them down—again. My fellow Americans, this is a special moment in our history. Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion, we must do so again.

—John Lewis, U.S. congressman, civil rights icon, 2020

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