The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history
44 African Americans who shook up the world
This is a list of The Undefeated 44, a collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.
A dashing lawyer who redefined fearlessness and broke Jim Crow’s back. The most gravity-defying, emulated athlete the world has ever produced. A brilliant folklorist of fierce independence who was a proudly “outrageous woman.”
This is not a list of The Greatest African-Americans of All Time or The Most Influential Blacks in History. Or even The Dopest Brothers and Sisters Who Matter Most This Week. It is a list — fervently debated among our staff, chiseled and refined — of 44 blacks who shook up the world or at least their corner of it. We recognize that this is not a complete list of jaw-dropping black achievers; we know that such a list would never run out of names. Why limit ours to 44? It’s an homage to the first African-American president, whose own stunning accomplishment was something our mothers and grandfathers and great-grandmothers never thought they’d see in their lifetimes.
You may have favorites we overlooked or thought about and decided against. We’d love to hear from you. We’ll publish some of your picks and critiques of our list. In the meantime, enjoy The Undefeated 44, which includes:
The rawest, most piercingly funny comedian ever. The Olympic sprinter who exploded the canard of white athletic superiority only to be rewarded with low-paying jobs like pumping gas. Oprah — just because “she is, after all, every single thing.”
Let the debate continue. We are The Undefeated. Not Conventional. Never Boring.
The story of the pioneer of the black press involves slaves, Nazis and 25 cents.
Born just five years after the end of the Civil War, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded a weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender, one of the most important black newspapers in history, in 1905. Without Abbott, there would be no Essence, no Jet (and its Beauty of the Week), no Black Enterprise, no The Source, no The Undefeated.
The success of The Chicago Defender made Abbott one of the nation’s most prominent postslavery black millionaires, along with beauty product magnate Madam C.J. Walker and paved the way for prominent black publishers such as Earl G. Graves, John H. Johnson and Edward Lewis.
The son of slaves, Abbott grew up with a half-German stepfather whose relatives eventually joined the Third Reich during the 1930s. Ironically enough, young Robert was taught to hate racial injustice, despite encountering it at every turn in his life, from his early foray into the printing business to his time in law school in Chicago, all the way to religious institutions.
An alum of Hampton University (then named Hampton Institute), Abbott was a catalyst for the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century, when 6 million African-Americans from the rural South moved to urban cities in the West, Northeast and Midwest, with 100,000 settling in Chicago. Like a politician promising tax breaks to out-of-state companies to inspire relocation, Abbott took it upon himself to lay out the welcome mat for the millions of blacks abandoning the Jim Crow South to head to the Windy City, where manufacturing jobs were awaiting as World War I approached.
What started off as 25 cents in capital and a four-page pamphlet distributed strictly in black neighborhoods quickly grew into a readership that eclipsed half a million a week at its peak, numbers that mirror the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel today. The paper’s rise in stature and circulation was due in large part to Abbott being a natural hustler. The Defender was initially banned in the South due to its encouragement of African-Americans to abandon the area and head North, but the Georgia native used a network of black railroad porters (who would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) to distribute the paper in Southern states.
After the influx of blacks in the Midwest following the Great Migration, Abbott and The Defender turned their attention to other issues afflicting blacks in the early 20th century, including Jim Crow segregation, the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the deadly 1919 Chicago riots that mirrored recent-day demonstrations seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took The Defender over in the 1940s, eventually heading black newspapers in Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee, and the historic Pittsburgh Courier. – Martenzie Johnson
Sometimes I play a little what-if game with deceased artists whom I admire. What if so-and-so were still alive? What kind of righteous, glorious, angry, transcendent art would he/she bring forth in our age of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Aleppo, Syria, and Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Trayvon Martin and gay marriage, social media and gun violence?
Fortunately for us, Alvin Ailey, the legendary modern dance pioneer, choreographer and civil rights artist-as-activist, left us his answers. Although Ailey died nearly 30 years ago, many of his best-known pieces have become as emblematic of vibrant, relevant American art as tap dance, jazz, the literature of Toni Morrison and hip-hop. Ailey explored issues of social justice, racism and spirituality in the African-American experience. This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when the notion of black classically trained dancers moving to the music of Duke Ellington, gospel, blues, Latin and African pop was truly revolutionary, if not unfathomable.
Born into poverty in Texas in 1931, Ailey drew from his emotional well of close-knit black churches, rural juke joints, fiery protest songs and a lonely childhood as a closeted gay man to fuel his passion for dance. He befriended many of his fellow mid-century American masters (Maya Angelou, Carmen De Lavallade, Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, to name a few) while living in New York. After Ailey’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, the company and school grew into the premier repository for emerging black choreographers, and is still the most popular dance touring company on the international circuit.
Ailey created “a human dance company and school that didn’t fit any model,” said author and arts and dance patron, Susan Fales-Hill. “His dancers were and are multicultural, and his company was an amalgam of the African and European diaspora. He always addressed the pain of the African-American journey, but he also celebrated the triumph and redemption of the human spirit” in pieces such as Revelations (1960), Ailey’s most celebrated work. The up-from-slavery dance suite finds beauty in the midst of tragedy and pain, celebrates black folks’ resilience and humanity, and allows hope to overcome tribulation. “Ailey understood that the arts are a litmus test for who’s civilized and who isn’t civilized,” Fales-Hill said. “The fact that he raised people of color to the level of great, universally recognized artists was an enormous triumph.” – Jill Hudson
Muhammad Ali is the undisputed president of athletes, taking office on June 4, 1967.
Just over a month earlier, the heavyweight boxing champion refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As Ali awaited conviction for draft evasion and the revocation of his title, several African-American athletes, led by the NFL’s Jim Brown, convened a meeting with him in Cleveland.
Brown, fiercely independent himself, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012, “I felt with Ali taking the position he was taking, and with him losing the crown, and with the government coming at him with everything they had, that we as a body of prominent athletes could get the truth and stand behind Ali and give him the necessary support.”
There is a now iconic photograph of Ali and his newly formed “cabinet.” Flanked by eventual Hall of Famer Brown and eventual Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) the champ also had eventual Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Bobby Mitchell as well as attorney Carl Stokes (who would become Cleveland’s mayor and the first African-American mayor of a major city) behind him.
The united front in Cleveland also proved an inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.
King praised Ali for his courage in one of his own most courageous statements about Vietnam: “Every young man in this country who believes that this war is abominable and unjust should file as a conscientious objector.”
He lost the heavyweight crown in 1971. His religious conversion to Islam only made him more resolute.
Ali’s professional record was 56–5 — but the fight that epitomizes his genius was the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the bout against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali, at age 32, was the underdog. But Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique baited Foreman into throwing wild punches and exhausting himself. In an eighth-round knockout, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title that had been taken from him 10 years earlier.
At the memorial service held after his death on June 3, 2016, his widow, Lonnie Ali, said this: “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world.”
Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, as Cassius Clay, he will be forever known simply as “The Greatest.” – Derrick Z. Jackson
A Feb. 20, 1898, sermon by the Rev. John Palmer on Richard Allen’s place in African-American history reads:
“If true greatness consists in that self-sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a man insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort and advantages; and to deny himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward — we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church, was great.”
Allen is considered the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in America. That church, now with a membership of more than 2.5 million people and 6,000 churches, was the country’s first independent black denomination.
Former slave. Born into servitude in 1760 in Philadelphia, “Negro Richard” earned $2,000 to buy his freedom and that of his brother in 1780. Richard Allen, the name he chose as a freedman, came of age during the American Revolution, just as the antislavery movement and denominational Christianity were gaining prominence.
Allen discovered religion after hearing a Methodist preacher at a secret gathering of slaves in Delaware. In his biography, The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he wrote, “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.”
Preacher. Allen, his wife Sarah and others opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794, on the site of a converted blacksmith shop on Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Allen was ordained the church’s pastor. Driven to establish “Mother Bethel” by white Methodists’ segregation of blacks, Allen brought other black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia together in 1816. They elected Allen bishop, a position he held until his death in 1831.
Abolitionist. Allen focused his sermons on the freedom of slaves, cessation of colonization, education of youths and temperance. He created denominational groups to care for and educate the poor. His home and Bethel AME were stops on the Underground Railroad.
Educator. Recognizing that former slaves and freedmen needed education, he opened a day school for black children and a night school for adults. Allen published articles in Freedom’s Journal attacking slavery, colonialism and organizations that advocated the migration of blacks back to Africa. He authored three pamphlets about escaping the bonds of slavery, including An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice.
Allen’s legacy lives on today in the AME church’s work, whose motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.” – John X. Miller
Maya Angelou lived a life just as remarkable as the poetry and prose she crafted in her 86 years on this earth.
And it was the documentation of Angelou’s life that resonated with her audience and earned her a myriad of accolades, including three Grammy awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a host of honorary degrees.
Despite horrific periods in her life, Angelou rose. At 8 years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After being convicted, Angelou’s abuser was found beaten to death. The once garrulous girl from Stamps, Arkansas, silenced herself for nearly five years, believing that her voice had killed the man because she identified him to her family. Instead, she memorized poetry during her silence, rearranging cadences and reciting Shakespearean sonnets in her head.
With the help of a teacher, Angelou was able to speak again. She used literature to recover from trauma, but got pregnant at 16. She found work as San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor and later worked in the sex trade and as a calypso singer to support her family. Angelou spoke honestly of her experiences, unashamed to walk in the truths of her past.
Later, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and with help from friend and fellow author James Baldwin, went on to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 — the first in what would become a seven-volume, best-selling autobiographical series. Nearly a decade later, Angelou struck poetic gold with And Still I Rise, a collection that remains one of her most important works.
Angelou was also a fearless and determined civil rights activist, serving as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and working with Malcolm X to establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Life tried hard to break Angelou, but in the face of it all, still she rose. – Maya A. Jones
Proof that visibility is not necessary to make an impact, Ella Baker is one of history’s lesser-known civil rights heroes, yet one of the most important. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the head of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker was its backbone.
Born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina, Baker cultivated her passion and desire for social justice at a young age. Her grandmother, who was a slave, once told her a story of being whipped for refusing to marry a man of her slave owner’s choosing — fueling Baker’s desire for systematic change and justice for her people.
In the 1940s, she developed a grassroots approach as an NAACP field secretary to gather and convince black people of the group’s message — a vision that holds true today — that a society of individuals can and should exist “without discrimination based on race.” In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she facilitated protests, built campaigns and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Baker did grow frustrated at the lack of gender equality within the group, and came close to quitting in 1960. But then, on Feb. 1, four black college students sat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. After being denied service, they were asked to leave. Instead, they refused to leave and a movement was born.
A graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, who during her time there often challenged university policies, Baker viewed young people as one of the strongest and most important aspects of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the courageous sit-ins, Baker laid the framework for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC became one of the most important organizations in American civil rights history because of its commitment to effecting change through Freedom Rides and its particular emphasis on the importance of voting rights for African-Americans.
Baker earned the nickname “Fundi,” which is Swahili for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. As a dedicated change agent, Baker taught young people that their spirit was essential to the movement. As long as they had the audacity to dream of a better, equal and brighter tomorrow — through the means of relentless peaceful protest and endurance — a fairer society awaited them. Baker died on Jan. 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday. – Trudy Joseph and Callan Mathis
James Baldwin knew it was his job to reveal the truth. The truth about his race. The truth about his country. The ugly truths of racism, poverty and inequality that plagued the United States during his lifetime — and that continue even now, 29 years after his death. He confronted American racism with fearless honesty and courageously explored homosexuality through his literature and in his life.
And he did it with style. His brilliant prose combined his own experience with the best — and worst — of that of the black life around him: the joy, the blues, the sermons, the spirituals and the bitter sting of discrimination. As he said in his essay The Creative Process, “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
The work of Baldwin, a product of Harlem, New York, and a citizen of the world, consistently reflected the experience of a black man in white America. His travels to France and Switzerland only nuanced his understanding of the social conditions of his race and his country. Although written abroad, his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, illuminated the struggle of poor, inner-city residents and drew on the passion of the pulpit. His collection of essays The Fire Next Time explosively represented black identity just as the country was coming to terms with just how much white supremacy was in its DNA. Giovanni’s Room dove straight into the taboo that was homosexuality — elevating the notion of identity through sexuality and socioeconomic status without ever mentioning race once.
As an impoverished black gay man, Baldwin was asked if he felt he’d had a bad luck of the draw. In fact, he believed he’d hit the jackpot. His identity informed his artistry. And his artistry strove to represent every individual whose access to American civil liberties was hampered by race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
Baldwin knew that as an artist he was among “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead.” So he unapologetically implored a nation to see its true self through the beauty of its most marginalized. The truth of his words is not a history lesson of American culture gone by, it is a reflection of the country alive and in the here and now. – Danielle Cadet
Eight short years. That’s how long it took Jean-Michel Basquiat to secure his legacy as an art world prodigy. He died at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, leaving behind paintings, drawings and notebooks, many of which explored themes of counterculture American punk, the urban plight of the African diaspora, improvisational jazz music and the vagaries of fame during the Ronald Reagan-era 1980s.
Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat dropped out of high school and cut his artistic chops as a graffiti artist in Soho and Manhattan, New York’s Lower East Side. He had his first important gallery show in 1980 and soon befriended the pop in pop art stars Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Basquiat was handsome, fashionable and famously eccentric. He produced vibrant and emotional canvases with a kind of refined cool reminiscent of improvisational jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
The drawing in Basquiat’s best-known pieces may be primitive-looking at first glance, but the images were sexy, complex and sophisticated. While his worldview was undeniably black, urban and hypermasculine, his bold paint-splash technique was influenced more by modern abstract masters Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. But there is a definite through line to early 20th-century African-American greats such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence to contemporary artist Kara Walker. His most recognizable motifs — a black male oracle who wears a bold king’s crown, West African griots and ferocious figures sharing space with childlike scribbles — appeared in many of his most famous pieces.
As influential as Basquiat is, most of his work is privately owned and very few public galleries or museums own or exhibit any of his best-known pieces. His paintings very rarely appear at auction and now attract stratospheric prices when they do. In May 2016, Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled painting shattered his auction world record when it was sold for $57.3 million at Christie’s, making him the most financially successful African-American painter in history. Celebrity collectors of his work include Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, and an entire generation of hip-hop artists — Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Killer Mike, Rick Ross and J. Cole — routinely name-check the Brooklyn, New York-born cool kid. Basquiat fanboy (and collector) Jay Z even bragged in his 2013 song Picasso Baby — It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel. In other words, legendary dopeness and enigmatic brilliance will never go out of style. – Jill Hudson
Though she was able-bodied, Mary McLeod Bethune carried a cane because she said it gave her “swank.”
An educator, civil rights leader and adviser to five U.S. presidents, the “First Lady of the Struggle” has been synonymous with black uplift since the early 20th century. She turned her faith, her passion for racial progress, and her organizational and fundraising savvy into the enduring legacies of Bethune-Cookman University and the National Council of Negro Women. She understood the intersections of education, optics and politics and was fierce and canny in using them to advance the cause of her people.
Bethune, the 15th of 17 children, grew up in rural South Carolina and started working in the fields as a young girl. She hoped to become a missionary in Africa after attending Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, but was told black missionaries were unwelcome. So, she turned to educating her people at home, founding the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and six students, including her young son.
Twenty years later, the school was merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida. In 1924, Bethune, one of the few female college presidents in the nation, became president of the National Association of Colored Women. A decade later, in a move to centralize dozens of organizations working on behalf of black women, Bethune founded the influential National Council of Negro Women.
Bethune helped organize black advisers to serve on the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, the storied “Black Cabinet,” under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt considered Bethune one of her closest friends. Photos featuring her with the president or first lady ran prominently in black publications, helping to normalize the notion of black faces in high places.
Bethune worked to end poll taxes and lynching. She organized protests against businesses that refused to hire African-Americans and demonstrated in support of the Scottsboro Boys. She lobbied for women to join the military. She organized, she wrote, she lectured, and she inspired.
Perhaps her most enduring written work was her last will and testament:
I LEAVE YOU LOVE … I LEAVE YOU HOPE … I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER … I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION … I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER … I LEAVE YOU FAITH … I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY … I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN … I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. – Lonnae O’Neal
When thinking about how contentious things are in Congress today, imagine being the sole black female congresswoman nearly 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement. Shirley Chisholm was relentless in breaking political barriers with respect to both race and gender. She was a pioneer.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12th District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. As both a New York state legislator and a congresswoman, Chisholm championed the rights of the least of us, fighting for improved education; health and social services, including unemployment benefits for domestic workers; providing disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education; the food stamp program; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program.
Chisholm noted that she faced more discrimination because of gender than race during her New York legislative career, while acknowledging the additional struggle that black women encounter specifically because of their race. All those Chisholm hired for her congressional office were women; half of them were black. “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt,” she said.
Before President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan and Hillary’s “Stronger Together,” there was Chisholm’s “Unbought and Unbossed.” In 1972, Chisholm became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for president of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Chisholm remarked in words that still resonate today that “in the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.” The next time you queue up Solange Knowles’ album, A Seat at the Table, be reminded of Chisholm’s words: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” – April Reign
Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American general for the U.S. Army, battled segregation by developing and implementing plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. combat forces in Europe during World War II.
Davis, who was born in Chicago in 1877 and Howard University-educated, began his military career in the trenches of the Spanish-American War as a volunteer grunt. He liked the military’s discipline and order, so when he was discharged as a volunteer, he enlisted after deciding he wanted a military career.
In the throes of segregation for four decades, he commanded troops in Liberia and the Philippines, where his unit was the famed Buffalo Soldiers. He was three times assigned as a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
His duty assignments were designed to avoid him being put in command of white troops or officers. He rose slowly through the ranks, becoming the first black colonel in the army in 1930. All of his appointments were considered temporary, a move designed to limit his exposure to white troops.
During World War II, he headed a special unit charged with safeguarding the status and morale of black soldiers in the army, and he served in the European theater as a special adviser on race relations. In 1940, he was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a move some thought was only because Roosevelt needed black votes in the presidential election. Davis retired in 1948 after 50 years of service.
Following many years of service, he became an adviser for the military on racial discrimination, pushing for full integration of the armed forces. He earned a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal.
Davis’ determined and disciplined rise in the Army paved the way for black men and women — including his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.
Davis Jr. led the Tuskegee Airmen and continued the fight against the establishment and tradition to advance the cause of blacks in the military.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of discriminatory practices in the armed forces, relying on the foundation built by Davis. After his death in 1970, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Black Heritage Stamp to honor his service and contributions. – John X. Miller
A slave. A free person among slaves. A free person who must still fight for full emancipation. Every black person who has called America home has existed in one of these three states. Frederick Douglass endured them all and spoke to these unique human conditions while demanding complete black inclusion in the American experiment.
With his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, Douglass provided arguably the most influential slave narrative. Born in Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave mother and a white father, possibly his owner, Douglass escaped bondage by fleeing North. Through his vivid portrayals of brutality, the severing of familial bonds and mental torture, he documented the iniquity of the peculiar institution and disproved the Southern propaganda of the happy slave.
Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, partly due to his personal experience of having lived as chattel, but also he knew how to enrapture an audience. One observer described him as strikingly memorable. “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”
Particularly relevant today, Douglass leaves behind a blueprint for challenging racism. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House to sell them on the idea of black immigration out of the country. Douglass called Lincoln’s idea “ridiculous” and believed the president showed a “pride of race and blood” and “contempt for negroes.” Through a subsequent friendship with Douglass, Lincoln learned he had erred.
Douglass was not always successful in changing the mind of a president. At the White House in 1866, Douglass told President Andrew Johnson that “we do hope that you … will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.” Johnson continued to oppose black suffrage, yet Douglass taught everyone the small victories to be reaped by simply resisting the shackles of oppression.
He died in 1895, but his spirit in standing before white supremacy and calling it by its name remains. – Brando Simeo Starkey
The blood bank is something we take for granted now, but it wasn’t always so. As a researcher and surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of plasma, the liquid portion of blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be “banked” for long periods of time.
As a young man, Drew was an exceptional athlete, starring in football, baseball, basketball and track and field at Washington, D.C.’s, Dunbar High School. He was an All-American halfback at Amherst College in Massachusetts and captain of the track team. But he couldn’t afford medical school in the United States and attended McGill University in Montreal. He later moved back to the United States and taught at Howard University’s medical school.
After becoming the first African-American to get his doctorate from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world’s leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood.
As medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service, Drew led the collection of tens of thousands of pints of blood for U.S. troops. Some historians say his work might have saved the world from Nazism, since battlefield blood storage and transfusions didn’t exist before he was asked to manage two of the largest blood banks during the war.
Even so, the U.S. military ruled that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated and not used on white troops, although blood has no racial characteristics. Outraged, Drew resigned from the Red Cross and returned to Howard as a professor and head of surgery at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he trained a generation of black physicians.
He died in 1950 at the age of 45 in a car accident in Burlington, North Carolina, while returning from a clinic at Tuskegee Institute in 1950. Today, according to the Red Cross, there are 15.7 million blood donations a year in the United States from 9.2 million donors. – John X. Miller
In the introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.” Though this prophetic remark is perhaps his most indelible, in a career spanning over a half-century until his death in 1963, Du Bois possessed the most perpetual voice on race in American history.
Attentive to both sides of the color line, Du Bois provided the most cogent explanation why whites to this day rebuff interracial political alliances even when sharing economic interests with people of color. In Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, Du Bois observed that working-class whites receive the psychological wage of whiteness. “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers,” he penned, “while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.”
Du Bois also wrote incisively on the black condition, including the observation that blacks have a double consciousness. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — 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.”
This is the legacy of Du Bois — a veritable library of works that were essential reading the moment he finished them because they spoke to the issues of the day and yet speak just as loudly now. – Brando Simeo Starkey
Just as soul music and Motown provided the aspirational soundtrack for the 1960s civil rights movement, swing music furnished the upwardly-mobile score for the mid-1900s Harlem Renaissance. And of all the formidable bandleaders of the era, Edward “Duke” Ellington towered over the competition like a musical Everest. Where Count Basie, Benny Goodman and competing bandleaders favored high-stepping songs with hard-swinging arrangements, Ellington tunes such as “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” seem mysterious by comparison, romantic songs whose world-weary blues melodies helped Ellington earn 11 Grammy Awards, 13 Grammy Hall of Fame nods, and a Grammy Trustees Award.
An economical pianist and canny orchestra leader, music seemed to pour from the D.C.-born wunderkind. Composing original songs at a furious clip, Ellington wrote more than 1,000 tunes, many of which are considered part of the Great American Songbook, including “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Satin Doll,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and more.
He was a pivotal player in jazz music’s metamorphosis into swing, the evolutionary 1930s style that placed more emphasis on syncopated rhythms and hard-driving bass. Ellington and songwriting collaborators, including Billy Strayhorn, excelled at creating arrangements that showcased the orchestra’s most dynamic soloists, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, multi-instrumentalist Ray Nance, and trombonist Joe Nanton, the latter of whom employed a mute to create woebegone “wah-wah” effects. That Ellington was able to manage such a crackerjack touring orchestra while composing hundreds of topflight tunes is testament to his genius and industry.
His original songs rank among the first examples of “crossover” pop. It’s indisputable that Ellington performances such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” “In A Sentimental Mood” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” perfectly captured the essence of the black experience, but his facile reconciliation of street-smart rhythm, tuxedo-clad melody and impressionistic lyricism was also irresistible to white audiences.
One can easily quantify Ellington’s greatness by citing his many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer Prize special citation, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Award, and honorary doctorates from Howard University, Yale and Columbia, to list but a few. But Sir Duke’s legacy transcends mere peer accolades. Play word association with phrases such as “swing” and “big band music,” and Ellington’s name will likely leap first to many people’s minds. In death as in life, he is the embodiment of jazz. — Bruce Britt
Curtsies are absolutely appropriate. Aretha Franklin is undisputed when it comes to pouring gospel-inflected, bluesy wails of love-gone-wrong lyrics over country-fried–yet-pop tracks. She plucked her Pentecostal pipes from the pulpit and applied them to a secular sound, giving us Sunday morning righteousness on any given Saturday night.
Fifty years ago, the daughter of popular Detroit Baptist minister C.L. Franklin scored a No. 1 hit with her remake of Otis Redding’s Respect, a song with a bit of a double entendre that helped soundtrack the civil rights movement. In 1967, when there was racial unrest in her native Detroit, people ran through the streets, daring cops to come near them while they shouted “sock it to me,” her ad-lib from the song, as they protested. Her signature song — and her most noted, as it’s been used many times over in TV and films and is a hot karaoke tune — also served as a sororal call for women, who also were looking for respect and to be taken seriously alongside their male counterparts. All these years later, the single still resonates.
But Franklin is bigger than one track. Her career has spanned five decades, and she also was the first female performer inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 — as she should have been. She’s had more than 100 singles that have reached the Billboard charts, and 17 of them have been top 10 singles. She’s won an impressive 18 Grammys, has sold more than 75 million albums, and she’s one of the most influential voices ever, inspiring and paving the way for acts such as Beyoncé, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Franklin is a musician’s musician — she can bang it on the piano as well as she can on a microphone — and she can sing opera music as effortlessly as she can sing gospel. Few can hold a candle to her four-octave range — many have tried, some have come close, but no one has managed to sustain and strike quite the way Franklin has. All hail the Queen. – Kelley L. Carter
For decades, a belief has taken hold among guitarists — to prove your ability, you must pay homage to Jimi Hendrix.
He was hailed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “the most gifted instrumentalist of all time.” Hendrix’s virtuosity looms so large that many guitarists still vainly attempt to emulate him. Just as whiz-kid classical pianists flaunt their chops by interpreting Mozart, so have guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and John Mayer felt the need to perform Hendrix classics such as “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing” and “Foxey Lady.” That’s why rock’s magazine of record, Rolling Stone, named Hendrix the greatest guitar player ever.
While Hendrix’s guitar artistry is indisputable, it‘s ultimately a puzzle piece of his panoramic talent. He was also a composer of accessibly complex songs, and a poet-caliber lyricist (“a broom is drearily sweeping / up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life …”). The rock legend has posthumously earned multiple Hall of Fame Grammy Awards, including the Recording Academy’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
But just what makes Hendrix rock’s greatest expressionist? His live performances were at times distractingly sloppy, his guitar tone ear-piercing. Curiously, it’s these stylistic eccentricities that make him singular. For Hendrix, music wasn’t about note-perfect performance, but rather a constant search for truth. If that meant playing long, solo-intensive songs illustrating the savageness of war, then so be it.
By the time of his death in 1970, Hendrix had so thoroughly changed musical perceptions that even jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans were taking cues from him. It’s almost impossible to imagine influential jazz-fusion albums like Davis’ Bitches Brew — or acid-funk masterpieces like Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain — without Hendrix having laid the groundwork.
He leaped effortlessly from metallic fury to gossamer balladry and jazzy excursions. Arguably, Hendrix’s freakish talent is best demonstrated on his Woodstock performance of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” where he performs guitar emulations of artillery and air-raid sirens in an audacious condemnation of American militarism.
Since his demise, a horde of guitarists has challenged Hendrix’s primacy, yet none have matched his genius. Sure, Eddie Van Halen is brilliant, but his solos tell us little about him, or his time.
By contrast, a Hendrix masterwork like “If 6 was 9” allows us a glimpse into the mind of a nonconformist and his anti-establishment generation. That’s why in the world of electric guitar, there are two ages — the monochrome era Before Hendrix, and the limitless, kaleidoscopic period After Hendrix. – Bruce Britt
Recently, Salvage the Bones author and Fire This Time editor Jesmyn Ward published an essay rejoicing in the visibility and celebration of Southern blackness and the fact that it had made its way to television in the form of Atlanta and Queen Sugar. Ward is a Mississippian who drank in the words of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker because they spoke to her existence, and she, like so many other black Southern artists and writers, owes a debt of gratitude to Hurston.
Long before Andre 3000 took to the stage at the 1995 Source Awards to famously proclaim “the South got somethin’ to say,” Hurston was laying the intellectual groundwork for such a case. The author of four novels, including the now beloved and celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was dismissed as a southern bumpkin by her male contemporaries, including Richard Wright, Sterling A. Brown, Ralph Ellison and Alain Locke. Even Langston Hughes, who co-founded Fire magazine with her and Wallace Thurman in 1926, called her an “outrageous woman.”
Wright in particular derided her style and voice as “minstrel technique.” Hurston had the pesky habit of writing the way black people in the South — and in particular the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised — actually spoke. Furthermore, she had the nerve not to think anything was wrong with it, not even after spending six years studying at Howard University, from 1918 to 1924, which Hurston regarded as a clearinghouse of “Negro money, beauty and prestige.” While she was a student there, Hurston founded The Hilltop, Howard’s student-run newspaper.
As a folklorist, Hurston is part of a literary tradition that shares its ethos with the blues and with contemporary musical acts such as Alabama Shakes, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and OutKast. You can draw lines from Hurston’s earnest interest in hoodoo to Beyoncé’s embrace of all things Southern gothic in Lemonade. The longstanding divide between Northern and Southern black people, metropolitan vs. agrarian, is one that repeatedly informs our history and culture, even the civil rights movement. It was Walker, who in 1975, brought Hurston out of the American literary hinterlands with Looking for Zora, her essay published in Ms. Magazine.
But Hurston retained a self-assured elegance and wit that didn’t bother worrying itself with outside acceptance. And it’s that sort of thinking that allowed her to gift us with this gem of quotation, and a philosophy we could all stand to internalize, Southern or not: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me,” Hurston once said. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” – Soraya Nadia McDonald
Jesse Jackson laid the foundation for electing a black president, one of the signature achievements of the 21st century. Jackson’s are the biggest shoulders that Barack Obama stands on. This is not conventional wisdom, but it is true.
It begins with Jackson’s decision to run for president himself in 1984, widely seen then as an act of symbolism and hubris. Black leaders had been discussing for years what it would take to seriously compete for the highest office in the land, to build on what Shirley Chisholm did in 1972. After Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983 and with concern mounting about the impact of Ronald Reagan’s presidency on black Americans, some thought the time was ripe. But none of the most prominent black elected leaders would step up — either they lacked courage or a big enough ego. Jackson lacked neither.
That he ran and won five Democratic primaries and caucuses on a minuscule budget shocked the party establishment and elevated Jackson’s stature. With his second presidential campaign in 1988, he established himself as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He won 11 primaries and caucuses and finished as runner-up to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
Before Jackson’s campaigns, blacks had been largely relegated to roles as campaign surrogates on “urban issues” and get-out-the-vote specialists in black communities. Jackson pried open the Democratic Party structure and helped increase black participation in politics. The result was more field operatives, strategists, fundraisers — and candidates for a wider range of offices — than ever before. He pushed for changes in the party’s nominating process that ultimately benefited Obama in his race against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
As Jackson has faded from national prominence, with his image taking a pelting in recent years, it is easy to forget how electric he once was. It is not an overstatement to call him one of the greatest political orators in American history. His ability to inspire farmers and factory workers, maids who “catch the early bus” and teenagers growing up in housing projects was unmatched.
He certainly deserves credit for his civil rights activism — in the Deep South as a protégé of Martin Luther King Jr. and later on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. But Jackson’s most notable achievement was shaking up the American political system by helping reform a major party and demonstrating that occupying the Oval Office really was an attainable dream. – Kevin Merida
It seems fate itself set the stage for Michael Jackson. When the musical wunderkind was born in 1958, television was in its experimental age, Billboard Magazine had just premiered its Hot 100 singles chart and the recording industry was planning the 1959 premiere of an awards show called The Grammys.
Over a career spanning five decades, Jackson would bend all these emerging cultural forces to his will. He arrived on the world stage at age 11, having already sacrificed his youth performing at venues around his Indiana hometown of Gary. Combining the soft-shoed grace of Sammy Davis Jr. with the slip-sliding exuberance of James Brown, Michael and the Jackson 5 topped the Hot 100 with their first Motown Records singles “I Want You Back” and “ABC”.
His 1979 coming-of-age solo album, Off The Wall — featuring the self-penned hit “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” — raised the bar for dance music production. The singer’s 1982 follow-up LP, Thriller, was so successful in assimilating world music styles that it rocketed to No. 1 in most countries, including apartheid-era South Africa. It was the first LP to place seven top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, while nabbing a record-breaking eight Grammys. Thriller remains the best-selling album ever, having moved an undisputed 100 million copies worldwide.
Through his visionary music videos, Jackson established not only his musical mastery, but a quirky fashion sense that incorporated multizippered jackets and a single sequined glove. His videos were so powerful that Epic Records threatened to censure MTV if the fledgling network did not break with its tacit segregationist content policy and broadcast them. Ironically, the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and Thriller not only created unprecedented consumer demand for MTV, they also demonstrated the universal appeal of black music, opening a mainstream entry point for rap.
Jackson shattered so many industry norms and sales records that he justifiably proclaimed himself the “King of Pop.” But greatness came at a price. Through cosmetic enhancements, Jackson morphed into an androgynous, powder-complected waif. He married and divorced Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, followed by marriage to a nurse who bore him two children. He successfully fended off multiple allegations of child molestation, but at the sacrifice of his once squeaky-clean image.
Today, Jackson haunts the charts in the form of The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and countless other acts he influenced. Forbes named him the highest-earning celebrity of 2016. He remains the multiplatinum standard, a symbol of near-unattainable excellence in entertaining. – Bruce Britt
If hip-hop had a Mount Rushmore, there are three men whose faces would be chiseled in granite: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Jay Z. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were both killed in their mid-20s. Jay Z is now 47. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be the best, but that’s what he became. Hov got flow though he’s no Big and Pac, but he’s close / How I’m ‘posed to win, they got me fightin’ ghosts, he rapped on New York City’s Hot 97 radio station in 2006, the same year MTV named him the greatest MC of all time.
Shawn Corey Carter grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York, where his mother, Gloria Carter, remembers he’d be in the kitchen of their apartment “beating on the table and rapping into the wee hours of the morning” until she bought him his first boom box. But he’s never been an artist, he says — always just a hustler. He never graduated from high school and sold crack cocaine until he arrived as Jay Z with his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt.
If Jay Z is the greatest, it’s not just because the only others in his league are ghosts. It’s because when it looked like hip-hop itself was dead, Jay Z brought it back to life. His 13 Billboard No. 1 albums are the most by any solo artist in history. And they’re sprinkled with timeless tracks, from 2004’s “99 Problems,” a look at what it’s like to drive while black in America, to 2009’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” which single-handedly demolished a wave of music, to “N—-s in Paris,” one of the hottest party records in the last decade.
And as he climbed the charts, Jay Z also became an influential businessman with an estimated net worth of $610 million. He is an owner of Tidal, a streaming music service. He co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records, served as president of Def Jam Records, founded entertainment company Roc Nation, and became part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets before giving up his stake in the NBA franchise to found his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports.
Oh, and his wife is Beyoncé. He has lived the American dream of reinvention and second chances. I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. Now let me handle my business, damn! That’s hip-hop. – Aaron Dodson
Every American kid — by the time he or she reaches fourth grade — has studied the important history of this country’s space missions. The significance of NASA being able to send John Glenn around the earth three successful times is well-documented, well-reported on and appropriately looked at as one of the more important gains in air and space. The critical nugget that always was missing was the unseen black female force that helped him get there.
Thankfully, we now know better. Katherine Johnson, 98, was a physicist and mathematician who helped launch the first use of digital electronic computers at NASA, the independent federal government agency that handles aerospace research, aeronautics and the civilian space program. Her wisdom with numbers and accuracy was so highly regarded that her sign-off was paramount for NASA to modernize itself with digital computers.
Be clear, Johnson wasn’t alone — many black women were hired by NASA in the early 1950s to work in the Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson came on board in 1953 — a year before the civil rights movement kicked into high gear — and she initially worked in a pool of black women who all were performing math calculations. But it was Johnson who was plucked out of the pool to work with an all-male flight research team. It was Johnson who helped calculate the orbit for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. And it was Johnson who co-authored 26 scientific papers, which NASA still links to via its archives.
Her story — our story — was told in grand Hollywood fashion. Oscar-nominated actor and Golden Globe winner Taraji P. Henson brought her life to the big screen in the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures, and Henson boldly helped to tell a story that so many of us never knew existed. Finally.
Johnson is a genius. She was a math prodigy who was 14 years old when she graduated from high school, 18 years old when she earned a double degree in math and French from West Virginia State College. And she helped to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University — where she was one of three black students and, ahem, the lone woman — after a Supreme Court ruling. Yes, she has a story worth telling. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work that led black women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. – Kelley L. Carter
So many words can be used to describe the influence of Quincy Jones, but let’s start with innovator. Others that work: producer, writer, arranger, composer and humanitarian. The Chicago native (who came of age in Washington state) has been making an impact on music and popular culture for six decades — he’s scored and soundtracked the majority of our lives, contributing to and producing some of the best-selling albums of all time.
Jones is responsible for a number of “firsts,” and also paved the way for other African-Americans in the entertainment industry. Along with his music partner, he was the first black composer nominated for an Academy Award in 1968. In 1971, he was the first black musical director and conductor for the show. And in 1995, Jones was the first black person to be honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Musically, Jones is a wonder. He’s earned 79 Grammy nominations, collected 27 Grammys and was honored with a Grammy Legend Award in 1991.
He produced all three of Michael Jackson’s iconic albums — Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller — the last of which sold more than 32 million copies in the United States alone. Those albums have inspired a generation of pop stars, including Chris Brown, Usher and Justin Timberlake. A song he produced in 1985 sealed his reputation as a humanitarian. He gathered 37 of the biggest names in music at that time together in one studio to record the Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie-penned track We Are The World and support famine relief in Africa. The album sold more than 20 million copies and the song is one of the highest-selling singles of all time.
Jones’ influence extends across many media: He founded Vibe magazine in 1993, an entertainment publication that gave urban Generation Xers a periodical that reflected themselves. And Jones — who turns 84 in March — isn’t done. A monthly vinyl subscription service announced Jones as an upcoming curator for its record of the month, and a new headphone collaboration looks to give Dr. Dre a run for his money. – Kelley L. Carter
Michael Jordan operates on his own terms. The ruthless competitor in him has made sure of that. Over the years, he molded himself into this lauded beast in reaction to what perhaps only he considers failure. It all began in 1978, during his sophomore year at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, when Jordan was not selected for the varsity basketball team. A relentless nature and a growth spurt ultimately got him to a level of athleticism and bravado he’s yet to descend from. He dominated on varsity and received a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, he hit a game-winner to clinch a national championship and was named the national college player of the year. In the 1984 NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls selected him third overall. Many have wondered why he didn’t go No. 1 or No. 2.
Debates could — but shouldn’t — be entertained regarding his place in the history of the game. Jordan is the greatest player to ever touch a basketball and it’s not even close. His six NBA titles in six NBA Finals appearances with six NBA Finals MVPs are among the greatest feats sports has ever seen. Five league MVPs, 10 league scoring titles, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, two NBA Slam Dunk contest trophies — remember the free throw line dunk? — and the list goes on. The NBA told him not to wear the sneakers Nike made for him, but he still did, eventually turning Air Jordan into an entire commercial collection and billion-dollar brand. His Jumpman logo is likely more recognizable than the NBA logo’s silhouette of Jerry West. At the peak of his playing career, Jordan entered an early retirement to play Major League Baseball. When he failed this time, he did so on his own terms, announcing his return to the NBA with a two-word fax that read, “I’m back,” before winning three more championship rings. Another retirement led to another comeback, and a 51-point game at the age of 38.
When his playing days ended, Jordan turned a minority stake in an NBA franchise to principal ownership of the Charlotte Hornets. And in 2016, in a rare public statement on social justice, the only African-American majority owner in major professional sports said he could “no longer stay silent” about the killings of African-Americans and targeting of police officers.
Ruthless, relentless and peerless. That’s the Jordan way. – Aaron Dodson
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”
Pick up a pencil. And write me a letter. Show the racial and economic apartheid facing the Negro in the United States. Rouse the fearful souls who feel certain it cannot be overcome. Dismiss the ones who say it shouldn’t be done. Calm the ones who seek to kill to see it done. Set aside the certainty that your life is in mortal peril — when has it not been?
Of course we are speaking of Martin Luther King Jr., and the challenge is Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Why is it so hard now to see the blood and sweat behind the monument King has become? Perhaps peaceful resistance feels so passive in these pugnacious times? But when was it ever not so? Perhaps his eloquence lulls the senses with its beauty. Perhaps martyrdom puts his exhortations out of reach of the normal person.
Certainly, he was a man of incredible achievement: seminal leader of the civil rights movement, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a key figure in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. And after his assassination, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a federal holiday, a monument in Washington, D.C., a coloring book page on every refrigerator in every house with a child under 6 during Black History Month.
The key to that achievement? Here’s a hint from the man himself:
“We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.”
Note the precision of the planning, the cunning in the details: King was waging a war. This was not about turning the other cheek. He would not answer violence with violence but would fight until he died. It is hard now to see the movement behind the movement. What we glaze over as a glorious fight for our inalienable rights was for him to put “pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.”
He is still etched in marble. But remember this: The tools he used are within your possession. He asked for more than nonviolence. He asked that you use them. – Raina Kelley
Doctors stole her cells. Henrietta Lacks was an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine; her cells are saving lives today even though she died in 1951.
Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sliced pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumor without her consent — in effect, stealing them. It was another instance of decades of medical apartheid and clinical practices that discriminated against blacks. Lacks was not a slave, but parts of her cancerous tumor represent the first human cells ever bought and sold.
Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests. Lacks’ cells — now worth billions of dollars — live in laboratories across the world. They played an important part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases and appendicitis.
Lacks’ story is an example of the often-problematic intersection of ethics, race, and medicine, a link to the dark history of exploitation of, and experimentation on, African-Americans that ranges from the Tuskegee syphilis study to a 19th-century doctor experimenting with gynecological treatments on slave women without anesthetics. – Kelley D. Evans
Malcolm X was royalty. He was the American Dream whether America wanted him to be or not. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X overcame drug addiction and a life of crime to become one of the country’s foremost civil rights leaders and champions of black pride in the 20th century. Malcolm X converted to Islam while serving a six-year prison sentence for burglary in Massachusetts. In just two years after his 1952 release from prison, he became a minister at Nation of Islam temples in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
In 1957, Malcolm X founded the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks. The paper remains one of his lasting legacies as it was the medium for him to spread his revolutionary message. His philosophies on black pride, black beauty and black power spread widely across the country — for a time in the 1960s it was the most widely read black newspaper in the United States, boasting a circulation in the 100,000s. Malcolm X’s theories became the blueprint for the black power movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Malcolm X also receives credit for cultivating the notion that “black is beautiful.” From 1952 to Malcolm X’s murder in 1965, the Nation of Islam’s membership grew from around 1,000 to 20,000 (though estimates vary).
By 1963, Malcolm X had become the second-most sought after speaker in the United States and was interviewed by Mike Wallace of CBS News. His Unity Rally in that same year was one of the biggest civil rights gatherings at the time. His friendship with Muhammad Ali is one of the more storied relationships of the ’60s, and they set the world on fire with their beliefs and willingness to speak out.
Malcolm X took a more diplomatic stance with regard to race relations after leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964. Previously he’d been known for segregationist views and acceptance of violence in the quest for equality. He began though to preach peaceful resistance, and the benefits of integration and unity. However, his break from the Nation of Islam would be short-lived, as he was assassinated in New York City in 1965. He was 39.
Malcolm X’s legacy was cemented posthumously, as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley, only expanded his influence. The paperback version of the book sold 400,000 copies in its first year and is essential reading for any American. He also became part of a Black Power movement in the early ’90s as director Spike Lee’s adaptation of the autobiography reignited interest in the leader and his ideals of Pan-Africanism. His most famous quote, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything” is as important in 2017 as it was in the 1960s. – David Dennis Jr.
By the time Thurgood Marshall was nominated to be a Supreme Court justice in 1967, few lawyers in history had argued — and won — more cases before the nation’s highest court. He racked up 29 wins (against just three losses), including his most famous victory, Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark decision that forced public schools to desegregate.
Marshall is arguably the most pivotal figure in the destruction of Jim Crow, and the most consequential lawyer of the 20th century. While other civil rights leaders organized strategically vital sit-ins, marches and boycotts, Marshall attacked inequality and racism where America had legally sanctioned it. As the NAACP’s lead attorney and first director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he traveled the South filing briefs in local courthouses, representing poor black defendants in criminal cases, doing battle against racist white juries and judges, and establishing grounds for appeals to higher courts.
Marshall traveled 50,000 miles a year, often alone in some of the nation’s most dangerous cities and towns. He stayed in the homes of appreciative black folks who took elaborate steps to keep him safe and a step ahead of marauding Klansmen. His courage was remarkable. He managed to maintain his gravitas and fortitude amid daily death threats, sipping bourbon and telling stories.
He feared no one — not his colleagues on the Supreme Court, whom he occasionally pricked during his 24 years there, not even the national reverence for the Constitution, which he labeled “defective from the start” on the occasion of its bicentennial. He took shots at Malcolm X and Clarence Thomas alike.
It was fitting that he was called Mr. Civil Rights. Gilbert King, in his book, Devil in the Grove, notes the reverence for Marshall among blacks who saw him get case after case overturned by the Supreme Court.
No wonder that across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruins of mob-torched homes, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope:
“Thurgood’s coming.” – Kevin Merida
“You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” That penultimate line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved — her fifth novel and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction succinctly explains the significance of what Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, has contributed not only to literature but to the understanding of the history of black people in the United States.
Many writers used fiction to tell the story of our people, to reveal the physical and mental burden of half a millennium of systemic dehumanization. But it was Morrison who told you straight up – from behind a lectern at Princeton University or in her writings: Her “word-work” was not meant to “battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost,” she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She wrote for a reader who whispered to her, “Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”
It was not her prose’s job to teach you the horrors of slavery. If you didn’t know, she’d already told you in The Black Book, the seminal 1974 collection of primary evidence documenting the joy and pain of the Africans brought to America and the generations they begat. Morrison did not plumb the depths of our history to prove to anybody, not even ourselves, that we were human. The power of her novels lives in the voices of characters who are given their own stories — to hell with you if you’re too scared to look.
There are no lectures in her novels. Not even in her magnum opus, Beloved, about Sethe, a woman haunted by the child she killed instead of returning her to slavery. Sethe’s story of survival in the face of breathtaking brutality is her own. Her thirst for freedom for her children and for a future was not written to make you feel grateful for yours. Her rage and sorrow may mirror our own, but it is not ours. To read Morrison is to be reminded that each of us has our own journey. We need only crack open one of her books at any page to find the strength of fellow travelers. To be one with the last utterance in Beloved. “Me? Me?” – Raina Kelley
Barack Hussein Obama’s stride into history has been as confident as it has been unlikely.
He announced his candidacy for president on Feb. 10, 2007, a black first-term U.S. senator who previously had served just seven years in the Illinois Senate. He had little support from established politicians, and many black voters did not even know who he was. But his campaign became a movement. His soaring speeches promising hope and change inspired millions. Less than two years later, a record crowd gathered on the National Mall to witness what was once unthinkable: the inauguration of the first black president of the United States.
It was a singular achievement by a man with a singular history. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and white mother. As a child, he lived in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii to be raised by his white grandparents.
As a teenager, he began to discover his black identity largely through basketball. He admired and emulated the loose-limbed swagger of the guys who played the game. He saw black as cool, and embraced the virtues of blackness while managing to sidestep much of its complicated baggage.
All along, he behaved like a man unconstrained by stereotype. He married a black woman from Chicago’s South Side, gushing in one of his books not only about her beauty and intelligence but also the warmth and strength of her family. Asked to name television shows he liked, he mentioned the gritty urban drama The Wire, adding that his favorite character was Omar, a gay stickup man.
Through two terms as president, he tamed the Great Recession, rescued the struggling auto industry and enacted a health care reform law that had eluded Democrats for decades. He was disciplined and deliberative, even-tempered and level-headed. He was often described as the smartest person in the room, which everyone knew he knew.
Overall, Obama governed as a moderate. Republicans were annoyed when he punctuated his positions by saying “elections have consequences.” Black progressives grumbled when he answered their pleas for programs targeting black problems by saying, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.”
Obama remained confident even after voters chose as his successor, Donald Trump, a man who in both style and substance is his polar opposite. Speaking to the nation in his farewell address, Obama reprised the slogan that accompanied his history-making rise to the White House:
“Yes we can,” he said. “Yes we did. Yes we can.” – Michael A. Fletcher
One of racism’s tragic ironies is that black athletes once needed to prove themselves athletically equal to whites. Heading into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, before the world fully recognized Adolf Hitler’s genocidal ambitions, the German dictator’s popular theories claimed that no dark-skinned person could compete with the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Aryan master race.” Hitler’s lunacy was aided, a few months before the Olympics, when Germany’s Max Schmeling knocked out the undefeated black heavyweight champion Joe Lewis.
Enter James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens. He almost didn’t make it to Berlin — the United States considered boycotting the Olympics over Hitler’s treatment of Jews, which had not yet reached its incomprehensibly horrific nadir. But many African-Americans opposed a boycott, yearning for validation on a truly level playing field. Owens already owned several world records and was recognized as the fastest man alive. He emerged in Berlin as the unquestioned star of the Olympics, setting or equaling records in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter sprint, the 400-meter relay and long jump.
German crowds enthusiastically applauded his performances, deepening Hitler’s humiliation. It’s unclear whether Hitler directly snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand, which has become part of the Owens legend. Olympic organizers told Hitler to either shake all the winners’ hands or none — he chose none.
Racism’s ironies have no end. Owens returned home to the oppression of Jim Crow. “I wasn’t invited up to shake hands with Hitler,” he said, “but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.” Lacking a college degree, forced through back doors and to the back of buses, he subsisted on low-paying jobs such as pumping gas and demeaning public appearances such as racing horses. Later, he established himself as a public speaker. As a believer in pursuing equality through economic rather than political means, he initially criticized the civil rights movement and the raised-fist 1968 Olympic protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside,” Owens said. A smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1980.
Owens’ victories not only shattered the myth of white athletic superiority, but established a black man as a heroic standard-bearer for America amid boiling geopolitical conflict. In many ways, he was the first black sports hero for all Americans. It took decades for another to rise. – Jesse Washington
From some of his earliest professional photographs of Ella Watson holding a mop and broom with an American flag draped behind her, to fashion spreads for Vogue magazine, Gordon Parks used the camera and the world around him to show not only the state of African-American life, but also to bring attention to the creativity of his people.
Born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks first made a name for himself while working at the Farm Security Administration. He went on to become the first African-American photographer on the staff of Life magazine and produced some of the best photo essays the world has ever seen, from showing the world what it meant to be black in America to the story of 12-year-old Flavio in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. These images resonated with readers and helped propel Life to a level of photojournalism that many say has not been seen since.
Outside of Parks’ documentary work, there was a lighter side that didn’t get as much recognition until later in his life. Parks’ work for Vogue in the 1950s changed the expectations of what an African-American photographer should be doing. This path took Parks to Paris, Cuba and the streets of New York City, creating pictures that showed the beauty of design, colors and creativity of places that few people of color were able to reach.
Parks was the first African-American director of major motion pictures, starting with The Learning Tree in 1969 and Shaft in 1971. The latter movie helped define the blaxploitation era, while simultaneously expanding the identity of African-Americans in films, from actors in front of the camera to producers and directors behind it. Parks, who died in 2006, was a Renaissance man, with nearly two dozen books ranging from autobiography, poetry and photography, as well as 12 films he wrote or directed.
His work transformed how generations of black artists, photographers and musicians saw themselves and the world, opening their imaginations to the possibility of storytelling through images of the black experience. – Brent Lewis
We all really should put the courtesy title “Sir” in front of acting legend Sidney Poitier’s name.
He’s earned it.
In 1964, the legend became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, an important piece of cinema about a black handyman who encounters a group of German, Austrian and Hungarian nuns who believe that he’s been heaven-sent. Some may say the same about Poitier’s career.
At a time when black folks were about to see the fruits of the civil rights struggle, the Oscar-winner challenged the American box office — and thus, the average American — about what a movie star looked like. He was undeniably black, and in 1967, the year that Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Poitier was one of the year’s most successful movie stars. Change was a-coming.
The films that he created in 1967 were seminal — they all centered around race and race relations and tapped into conversations everyday black folks were having around their dinner tables. To Sir with Love dealt with racial and social issues inside of a school in London’s East End. In the Heat of the Night introduced us to a black detective who is investigating a murder in a small Southern town and the much-referenced Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner addressed interracial relationships the same year that a landmark Supreme Court civil rights decision invalidated laws prohibiting interracial unions.
Poitier grew up in his parents’ native Bahamas, though he was born in Miami, and he came back to the States when he was 15. After a brief stint with the Army during World War II, he found his calling. He earned a spot as a member of the American Negro Theater after a successful audition, and by the end of the 1940s he was dipping his toe in film. And we’re all the better for it. Perhaps the most important thing Poitier pulled off was to understand the importance of having someone who looked like him step behind the camera and direct. Visual presence is paramount, and power comes at the hands of those who can shape it. He helmed a number of important cinematic moments for black folks, including Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, both of which he also starred in, and the iconic comedic ebony-and-ivory pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.
Poitier has established a lane that an actor like Denzel Washington — who is currently being celebrated for acting in and directing the poignant adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences — can comfortably walk in. Poitier’s pioneering presence helped make that happen. And now the cycle continues. – Kelley L. Carter
Pain was always Richard Pryor’s comedic easel of choice. Look no further than his chillingly still relevant 1974 bit, “Niggers vs. Police,” from the Grammy-award winning album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor’s jokes were a therapeutic soundtrack for black America and a no-holds-barred crash course for those who failed to understand what it meant to be an outsider in one’s own country a century after the abolition of slavery. That same year, Rolling Stone caught up with Pryor as he purchased a Walther .380 and Colt .357. At checkout, Pryor had but one question for the gun shop owner: “Like, how come all the targets you ever see are black?”
Born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Pryor III’s art reflected his life — hard, vulgar, sensitive and, of course, hilarious. He was molested at 6, abandoned by his mother, a sex worker, at 10, and was raised in his grandmother’s brothel.
No comedian has used the black experience more effectively to express its complexities to diverse audiences. His was a comedy that black folks usually heard in private, that sometimes made white folks squeamish — yet appreciative of the reality check. The recipient of one Emmy and five Grammys from 1974 to 1982 — the last of which was for Live At The Sunset Strip, arguably comedy’s greatest standup routine ever — Pryor also had a number of exceptional movie roles, including credits in Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wiz, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, and Harlem Nights.
His life and career are a vision board of incredible highs, debilitating lows, tumultuous relationships and the ever-present demon of drug addiction. Later, there was multiple sclerosis. Comedy legends such as Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart are direct beneficiaries of Pryor’s flawed genius. – Justin Tinsley
When considering Jackie Robinson, think about the basics, about the justification for Jim Crow, which existed not because whites did not want to live among blacks, just as the reason for segregation in baseball wasn’t because white players and fans did not want to compete against blacks or watch them play.
The justification lies in the basics, in the bones, that fundamental belief that African-Americans were sociologically and scientifically incapable of joining white society. The best way to consider Robinson is to consider the victory of his opposition had he failed.
Joe Louis and Jesse Owens came before Robinson, but each participated in an individual sport, where whites could appreciate black talent, but not have to dine with them, share a cab with them, and yes, take a shower next to them. Blacks were enjoyed without having to remove the invisible wall of segregation as a national belief system or even consider the logic of its construction.
The African-American athlete is the most influential and important black employee in American history. Robinson leads the list and always will because of the colossal stakes of his failure. His opponents would have used him as proof African-Americans could not walk and live among whites, not just because they were black, but because they were convinced that blackness disqualified African-Americans from cultivation, dignity, refinement, responsibility, leadership, discipline and manners — the very foundations of Jim Crow and total black subjugation. A Robinson misstep in performance was one thing, but in temperament would have been catastrophic.
Certainly another black player would have been given a chance to integrate, but when? The dominoes of his failure alter the entire remainder of the 20th century. On the small scale, Robinson’s failure would have certainly eliminated or curtailed the legendary careers of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente in baseball, and probably Jim Brown in football, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in basketball, as both the NBA and NFL integrated after Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On the larger scale, a Robinson social failure likely keeps the military from integrating its units, which it did in 1948, three years after Robinson was signed, or allowing blacks to stay in major hotels in several cities, as Robinson forced in St. Louis in the 1950s. Instead of being immortalized on a stamp, Robinson would have been the symbol for his enemies and his likely cowed white allies, the face not of why segregation couldn’t work, but why it needed to remain. – Howard Bryant
Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave who lost her family, her first love and children to the peculiar institution, turned her pain and Christian faith into triumph by helping others — especially women — recognize their worth.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!”
That was the message that caught the attention of attendees during her spontaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in May 1851. Although she is famed for that speech, it’s unlikely the words are exact: They come from a version published years later using a stereotypical Southern dialect, while Truth grew up in New York and Dutch was her first language.
Regardless, she was a prominent and frequent speaker on women’s rights and abolition. Born Isabella Baumfree in New York around 1797, she was the ninth child born into an enslaved family. She gave herself the name “Sojourner Truth” in 1843 after becoming a Methodist and soon began a life of preaching and lecturing.
Truth pursued political equality for all women and spoke against other abolitionists for not pursuing civil rights for all black men and women. As the movement advanced, so did Truth’s reputation. Her memoirs — The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave — were published in 1850 and she toured and spoke before ever-larger crowds. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, which granted her the opportunity to speak with President Abraham Lincoln.
Truth died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. Four decades later, the constitutional amendment extending the vote to women was ratified. – Kelley D. Evans
Harriet Tubman, the influential “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, will be the first African-American woman to appear on U.S. currency when her likeness appears on the $20 bill beginning in 2020. She led hundreds of slaves out of the South to freedom and each journey and every person mattered. “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t,” she said. “I never ran a train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Born into slavery, she endured physical violence nearly every day in her early years. In one such incident, Tubman encountered a slave who left the fields without permission. When she refused to restrain the runaway, the overseer hurled a two-pound weight at her, striking her in the head. The episode left lifelong episodes of headaches and seizures.
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, using the Underground Railroad to make the 90-mile trip from Maryland to Philadelphia. But her individual safety wasn’t enough. Hearing that her niece and her children were going to be sold, she went back to the South and led them on the path to Philadelphia. Soon she came for her siblings. Then for her parents. After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which dictated that slaves who escaped to the North could be recaptured and returned to slavery, Tubman changed her route to end in Canada, a country where slavery was outlawed. Even though there was a bounty for her capture, she made at least 19 trips.
During the Civil War, she became a nurse and spy for the Union government. She tended to the sick and wounded, caring for soldiers both black and white. After the war, she cared for her parents and the needy, and turned her house into the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes. Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 and was buried with military honors. – Callan Mathis
At first, it was all about hair and an ointment guaranteed to heal scalp infections. Sarah Breedlove – the poor washerwoman who would become millionaire entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker – was trying to cure dandruff and banish her bald spots when she mixed her first batch of petrolatum and medicinal sulfur.
But what began as a solution to a pesky personal problem quickly became a means to a greater end. With the sale of each 2-ounce tin of Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, she discovered that her most powerful gift was motivating other women. As she traveled throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Central America, teaching her Walker System and training sales agents, she shared her personal story: her birth on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved, her struggles as a young widow, her desperate poverty. If she could transform herself, so could they. In place of washtubs and cotton fields, Walker offered them beauty culture, education, financial freedom and confidence. “You have made it possible for a colored woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could in a week working in white folks’ kitchens,” one agent wrote to her.
The more money Walker made, the more generous she became — $1,000 to her local black YMCA in Indianapolis, $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund. Scholarships for students at Tuskegee and Daytona Normal and Industrial institutes. Music lessons for young black musicians.
In 1917 at her first national convention, Walker awarded prizes to the women who sold the most products and recruited the most new agents. More importantly, she honored the delegates whose local clubs had contributed the most to charity. She encouraged their political activism in a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson, urging him to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime.
Walker was labeled a “Negro subversive” by Wilson’s War Department because of her advocacy for black soldiers during World War I and her support of public protests against the East St. Louis, Illinois, riot.
By the time she died in 1919 in her Westchester County, New York, mansion, she had defied stereotypes, provided employment for thousands of women and donated more than $100,000 to civic, educational and political causes.
As a philanthropist and a pioneer of today’s multibillion-dollar hair care industry, she used her wealth and influence to empower others. One could say she was woke a hundred years ago. – A’Lelia Bundles
The task was like building a snowball factory in hell: launching a black college deep in Alabama amid the burning embers of the Confederacy. The state asked for a white man to lead Tuskegee Institute. Instead, Booker Taliaferro Washington got the job.
Washington, born into slavery on a plantation just before the Civil War and educated at Hampton Institute, started Tuskegee in 1881 with 30 students, $2,000 and a one-room shack. An educated Negro was a dangerous Negro, so Washington told whites his students did not want equal rights, but to learn trades and contribute to Southern prosperity. Tuskegee was allowed to grow. Donations from Northern whites poured in.
In 1895, Washington was the only black speaker to address a mostly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His speech, critically dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise,” made Washington the most influential black person in America. He advised his brethren to work with their hands, “cast down your bucket” in the South, accept white supremacy and wait patiently for real freedom.
Washington hosted President William McKinley at Tuskegee, visited President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and became an adviser to both on racial matters. He lectured around the country, helped start the National Negro Business League, and in 1901 published a best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery. Black intellectuals chafed at his practice of maintaining influence by flattering and cajoling whites. Washington used that power to place African-Americans in patronage positions across the country and secretly fund challenges to Jim Crow laws.
His sway waned in the face of criticism over his seeming compliance with racism, leveled by Harvard graduate W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk and fortified by the 1909 establishment of the NAACP. In 1915, Washington died at Tuskegee and was buried on the campus, which had grown to 1,500 students, 100 buildings and a $2 million endowment.
Washington is remembered as much for accommodating white supremacy as uplifting his race. Was there another way forward when lynching was the law of the land? Another path from Alabama shack to national university? Today, Washington’s strategy can feel shameful. But it echoes in today’s race-neutral approach by some black politicians as well as debates over respectability politics. As much as Tuskegee itself, Washington’s legacy is the choices he introduced — pragmatism or pride, self-improvement or social change — to the black freedom struggle. – Jesse Washington
It’s too bad there isn’t more crossover between journalism and the practice of writing comics, because if there was, surely Ida B. Wells would be rendered with a superhero’s cape by now.
Known as a “Sword Among Lions,” Wells faced down threats of death and torture for bringing international attention — not to mention shame — to the lynch mob terror that afflicted post-Reconstruction black communities in the United States.
Our reluctance to believe the worst about fellow human beings, especially those we deem most familiar, is one of our most persistent shortcomings. Less than 100 years ago, many could not bring themselves to believe the atrocities committed in World War II concentration camps without journalistic evidence. Just a few decades before, Wells was sounding the alarm about the barbaric acts of her countrymen in the pages of the Memphis Free Speech, the newspaper she co-owned. She pushed for action in the face of widespread denialism.
Documenting the epidemic of lynching was miserable, disheartening work, but Wells also found time to advocate for the suffrage and civil rights of black women like herself. She wasn’t much concerned with being polite about it, either. For her troubles, black men criticized her for being unladylike and The New York Times labeled her a “slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”
Still, Wells rose to represent the best of the American journalistic tradition, and in doing so wasn’t just an advocate for those most afflicted and least comfortable, but a defender and protector of democracy, justice, and freedom for all. She dared America to confront its hypocrisies head-on and live up to the ideals upon which it was founded.
Wells’ crusade lives on, perhaps most directly, in the work of journalists who document the killing of unarmed black people by the nation’s police forces and the comparatively infinitesimal consequences for the officers behind those killings. It’s not just journalists, though — Wells’ work continues in the form of ordinary citizens who risk their own well-being to document fatal police violence with cellphone video, in much the same way Wells was spurred to raise the alarm about lynching after three of her friends were murdered by a Memphis, Tennessee, mob in 1892. She lives on in black women who not only exercise their right to vote but take it upon themselves to run for office (Wells ran for a seat in the Illinois state Senate). She lives in the words and deeds of the NAACP, which she co-founded, and in the practice of intersectional feminism itself. – Soraya McDonald
Let’s have a conversation about the best — strike that — the greatest. This isn’t an Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady conversation, or Michael Jordan vs. Magic. One name rises to the top — a name whose resume dominates in ways that no other athletes can measure up to. Serena Williams.
Her resume boasts 23 Grand Slam titles (the record), six U.S. Opens, seven Wimbledon titles, seven Australian Opens, three French Opens, four Olympic gold medals, 23 doubles titles, and a career Golden Slam. Williams has won enough awards for several lifetimes.
Born Sept. 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised in Compton, California, Williams is the youngest of five daughters. Her father, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, learned from tennis books and videos how to coach his daughters Serena and older sister Venus. In daily two-hour practices, the Williams sisters worked themselves to the bone on a concrete court, avoiding potholes and often practicing without nets. Growing up in Compton meant developing a sense of fight — the same fight that would characterize their game on and off the court.
Williams transcended tennis, a historically white and demure sport, by being herself — with solid curves, a signature Afro-style ponytail, and an energetic style of play. What makes Williams’ career, spanning more than two decades, so remarkable is not a spotless record, but the spirit to rise above the criticism of her age, game, and body and set the standard for accomplishment in sports.
Whether she’s serving tennis balls at 128 mph, designing affordable fashion, or teaming up with Beyoncé in music videos, Williams’ lengthy resume solidifies her place among sport’s all-time greats. – Trudy Joseph
“You don’t sing to feel better,” says the title character in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life. You get that understanding and you done got a grip of life to where you can hold your head up and go on and see what else life got to offer. The blues help you to get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else out there in the world. Something’s been added by that song.”
Of all the lyrical, poignant and heart-stopping passages that Wilson wrote in his career as a playwright, that one may serve best as his mission statement. Wilson made his life’s work and his world-class art out of the drive to document, explain and ratify the everyday lives of African-Americans and to treat those experiences with epic ambition.
Between 1984, when Ma Rainey premiered to rapturous reviews at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and 2005, when he died tragically young at age 60 in 2005, Wilson produced what he called the American Century Cycle. It consisted of one play for every decade of the 20th century, a trajectory that went from the aftermath of slavery through the Great Migration and the civil rights movement to the dawn of gentrification.
Wilson’s body of work stands as one of the greatest, aside from Shakespeare, in the history of dramatic literature. For artistic fertility and consistent excellence, he is the only American playwright worthy of comparison to Eugene O’Neill and the only African-American writer in any genre who belongs in the company of Toni Morrison. His two Pulitzer Prizes and multiple Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards merely formalize the recognition of his talent.
Born in 1945 and raised in Pittsburgh, self-educated since his teens and inspired by the black arts movement, Wilson set nearly all of his work in his home neighborhood of the Hill District. Yet it was only when he moved to largely white St. Paul, Minnesota, in his 30s that he began to fully hear and channel the spoken-word poetry of the musicians, preachers, gamblers, jitney drivers and sanitation workers among whom he had lived.
With the American Century Cycle, Wilson transmuted their voices into art for the ages. And in 2016, Denzel Washington directed and starred in the film adaptation of Wilson’s first Pulitzer-winning play, Fences, bringing that masterpiece to its largest audience ever and starting the process of putting the entire cycle onto the screen. Something indeed has been added by Wilson’s song. – Samuel G. Freedman
A few days after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Oscar-winning director Michael Moore urged the Democratic Party to finally get real and nominate Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey for president in 2020. “Why don’t we run somebody that the American people love and are really drawn to, and that are smart and have good politics and all that?” Moore asked.
If only it were that logical. Oprah is, after all, every single thing. First African-American female billionaire. Academy Award-winner for her international humanitarian efforts. Host of one of the most celebrated and longest-running daytime talk shows in television history. Owner of a self-named 24-hour cable network. Broadway musical producer and screen actress. Book publishing and literary guru with a best-selling Midas touch. Star maker of countless television hosts and self-help gurus (Dr. Phil, Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Nate Berkus, Rachael Ray, Bob Greene and Gayle King). Cover girl on every single issue of O, The Oprah Magazine since its debut in April 2000 (making her one of the most influential cover models in publishing history).
Had Oprah gotten into the TV business 10 years earlier, the Mississippi-born philanthropist wouldn’t have been let anywhere near the throne: She wasn’t white, blonde, thin or male. When The Oprah Winfrey Show went into national syndication in 1986, she yanked Phil Donahue’s self-help ball and turned TV into something new.
Broadcasting chops aside, Oprah’s secret superhero talent turned out to be getting people to really, really like her. Women are used to keeping secrets, and Oprah had a laundry list of her own. She was so potently self-confessional that owning your shame suddenly felt modern and chic. Savvy marketers and A-list sponsors were quick to buy in early on the Winfrey-approved gravy train. Who can forget the scenes of screaming studio audience members who got new Pontiac G6s, free trips to Australia or boatloads of holiday gifts? She was the first mass media TV star to commercialize postracial wellness, spirituality and best-life striving. But Oprah didn’t just lead black people; she became Pied Piper of “Best You” agitprop.
With success comes an inevitable cascade of hateration, most of which Oprah manages to side-eye. Her generosity, especially for educational endeavors, is legendary. Mama Oprah, who is famously never-married and childless, funded a girls-only private school in South Africa and tuition gifts to more than 415 Morehouse College students. She even used her televised bully pulpit to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, and was rewarded with great ratings and close relationship with the president and first lady Michelle Obama that paid off handsomely over the eight years of their White House stay. – Jill Hudson
Since 1961, when the blind 11-year-old musical prodigy auditioned for Motown Records, Stevie Wonder has composed a catalog of unmatched love, compassion, justice and unity — and his instrumental virtuosity fills dance floors to this day.
Born Stevland Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan, and dubbed “Stevie Wonder” by Motown founder Berry Gordy, his first No. 1 hit came in 1963 with Fingertips, Part 2, which referred to Wonder’s infectious bongo rhythms. In 2016, he released “Faith” with Ariana Grande. In between came dozens and dozens of timeless songs, melodies and moments.
Where to start? Maybe with Wonder’s head swaying in rapture, sunglassed eyes fixed on a world of music only he could see but we all could feel. Or with his 1966 cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which became an anthem of the civil rights movement. There’s the song that helped make a recalcitrant America accept a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the stern rebukes aimed at President Richard Nixon. Wonder wrote, produced and played multiple instruments on The Spinners’ 1970 hit “It’s A Shame,” and created his own hits such as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Superstition,” “Living For The City” and “Sir Duke.”
No other musician has pulled so many heartstrings with a harmonica while simultaneously jamming so ferociously on the piano. No other artist has inspired a legendary annual series of dance parties where only Stevie Wonder music is played. All along, he has maintained an unrelenting social consciousness. As some stars flitted in and out of the struggle, Wonder remained, writing about the unrelenting problems facing those on the bottom. But we are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong, he sang in 1974. Cause if you really want to hear our views / You haven’t done nothing!
Always, there was love. With Wonder, black love was nurturing and empowering, a continuous source of validation and strength. For once in my life I have someone who needs me / Someone I’ve needed so long / For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me / And somehow I know I’ll be strong, he sang in 1968. Half a century later, in an era when most black music superstars dwell on earthly obsessions, Wonder’s inner visions continue to elevate us to higher ground. – Jesse Washington