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10 Black Leaders and Politicians Who Changed the World

Join us for our ongoing celebration of Black lives. Next, we're honoring the politicians, political activists, and leaders who fought to not just make their own voice heard, but the voices of all Black people.

Sarah Burns · 7 months ago

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These ten individuals saw a problem that needed to be solved and took up the task to find a solution. They led by example and dedicated their lives to helping others, putting everything on the line in pursuit of a more just society for all.

1. Barack Obama

Barack Obama is a basketball superfan, devoted husband and father, and Joe Biden’s presidential-bestie — but he’s best known for being the first African American president of the United States.

Before he was president, he outlined his hope and plans for America’s future in his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. His approach to reaching voters was revolutionary at the time, as he took advantage of a new-fangled social media platform called Twitter, and he spoke directly to his audience in podcasts with a message of positivity; “Yes, we can!”

2. Michelle Obama

She’s a Chicago-native, an attorney, and an author, but Michelle Obama is best known for her role as former first lady of the United States and the first African American first lady in our nation’s history.

Michelle Obama’s tenure as the first lady included efforts towards improving education and a push towards fighting childhood obesity. Her “Let’s Move!” campaign provided a framework to build healthier habits. You can still be a part of the Let’s Move! Campaign; their website offers a guide with helpful tips on eating better and how to start and maintain an active lifestyle.

3. Kamala Harris

She’s Momala to her step-kids, but you can call her Madam Vice President — Kamala Harris is the nation’s first female, first African American, and first Asian American VP. Before she was VP, Kamala Harris was a California Senator. She used her position to champion healthcare reform, a ban on assault rifles, and the DREAM Act, which aims to pave a way toward minors’ legal citizenship.

As a child,  she looked up to superheroes, people who were proactive about helping others and making things better for their communities. There’s a lot to get done, and Kamala Harris believes in rolling up her sleeves and diving right in, a sentiment shared by her book, Superheroes Are Everywhere. Will you don the mask and cape and take her up on the challenge?

4. John Lewis

A legend in his own time, Lewis was a prolific civil rights leader and activist. As a student, Lewis closely followed the Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka trial, which ruled the “separate-but-equal” education system unconstitutional. While the ruling was favorable, he was frustrated by the lack of change in his daily life. Still, he was spurred to create the change he sought by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which swayed the supreme court’s decision to desegregate busses.

Using his skills as a leader and activist, John Lewis ran for Atlanta City Council and was later elected to the House of Representatives. During his time as a congressman, Lewis worked tirelessly to advocate for easily accessible healthcare, education, and poverty-fighting initiatives. If you’d like to honor the memory of John Lewis, consider supporting your local library! Growing up as a Black child in the segregated South, he wasn’t allowed a library card, which doubled his resolve to make libraries and other educational resources available for all.

5. Tamika Mallory

American activist Tamika Mallory is a New York native whose devotion to fighting for civil rights runs so deep, it’s in the roots of her family tree. Born in Harlem, her family moved to the Bronx in her teens, where her parents were among the founders of the civil rights organization, the National Action Network. By 11, she was getting into the action as a volunteer, and in 2011, she became the youngest executive director in the history of the organization. She recently organized the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2019 to put Black women’s issues front and center and create a space for underrepresented voices to be heard.

If you’ve been struggling with proactive ways you can fight for equal rights, the National Action Network’s youth chapters are a fantastic way to gain valuable leadership and networking skills through acts of community service and STEM training.

6. Nelson Mandela

Social rights activist, politician, and one of the most admired leaders worldwide, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 27 years for his efforts to end South African apartheid. After his release, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and was elected to become the first Black South African president.

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested after organizing a three-day national strike. Despite the government’s attempts to squash Mandela’s influence, he became not just the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement but the symbol of resistance itself. Twenty-seven years later, with the people’s resolve as strong as ever and the nation on the verge of civil war, President F. W. de Klerk recognized the only way to begin to heal the scars of apartheid was to free the man who helped galvanize the movement. He inspired a generation to rise up, rid themselves of tyranny and reclaim their country, and his name is sung in celebration and hope all over the world.

Protest songs aren’t all twangy acoustic numbers — hop back in time with The Specials and their song, “Free Nelson Mandela!”

7. Frederick Douglass

Renowned orator, social reformer, and author, Frederick Douglass was an instrumental leader in the abolitionist movement and an ardent supporter of women’s rights. As a former slave, he never shied away from the stance that rights should be equal for all — not just for Black people, but for Native Americans, immigrants, and women — despite the lifelong threat of recapture and persecution.

Born into slavery in 1818 in Cordova, Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was taken from his mother and given to his grandmother to raise until he was six, when he was passed off to a series of slaveowners. He taught himself to read and write in secret and eventually escaped Maryland by disguising himself as a sailor and renaming himself Douglass from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Lady of the Lake.

Throughout his lifetime, Frederick Douglass penned an impressive library, including three fascinating autobiographies. Well known for his commanding public speaking skills, he spoke at abolitionist rallies, worked towards women’s suffrage and equality; he was the only African American man to attend the first woman's rights convention.

No one can tell his life’s story like Frederick Douglass himself. His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is a vivid first-hand account of life growing up under the oppression of slavery, his daring bid for freedom, and his relentless quest for universal equality.

8. Rosa Parks

No conversation about American civil rights would be complete without the name Rosa Parks. On December first, 1955, Mrs. Parks would take the important bus ride in history and became the face of the civil rights movement for generations to come.

It’s often said Rosa Parks was tired that day; she worked long hours as a seamstress and admitted the day had been a particularly long one. But when the bus driver told her to she needed to give up her seat for a White person, it wasn’t just the weariness of the day that kept her in her seat; it was the fatigue of being treated like less than a person, the drain of having to continually defend your right to exist and take up space the same as anyone else. By staying seated, she stood up for her right to be treated equally, and as the police marched her off the bus in handcuffs, she shouted defiantly, “I paid my fare like everyone else!”

Celebrate her story with Little People, BIG DREAMS: Rosa Parks, which features highlights from her life, or paint a lovely tribute to the icon that made fighting for civil rights her life’s work.

9. The Tuskegee Airmen

With World War II in full swing, the Tuskegee Airmen — or “Red Tails” as they became known — had accomplished more than 15,000 individual missions and awarded more than one hundred and fifty Distinguished Flying Crosses to the troops for their heroic actions in battle. These brave fighters paved the way for what would become the United States Air Force, and many went on to have longer careers with the military, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr, the first Black general of the newly formed U.S. Air Force, and Daniel “Chappie” James Jr, the nation's first Black four-star general.

These brave heroes put their lives on the line, only to return to a home where they continued to face bigotry, oppression, and hate. Now you can share the story of the Tuskegee Airmen with pride!

10. Ruby Bridges

Louisiana had a plan to integrate schools; they’d test students, and those who qualified would be able to enroll in the formerly segregated school. Only six students did well enough to qualify, and of those six, only brave little Ruby Bridges enrolled. She spent the first day in the principal’s office as the parents of White students pulled their children out of school, and all but one teacher refused to accept her as a student.

The harassment didn’t end there. Ruby’s dad was laid off, the local grocery store refused to sell to their family, and her grandparents were kicked off their land. She shares her story and her family’s struggles in her memoir, Through My Eyes, which recounts the tense, often frightening days that marked her early years of integrated education.

As an adult, Bridges reflects on the community’s kindness, which helped her family through these dark times. In 1999, she established her namesake organization, the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which strives to create a safe and supportive community for everyone through education and promoting tolerance and unity. She’s currently working on a soon-to-be-released podcast called Ruby’s Podcast. She is also producing virtual lesson plans over Zoom to create a space for students to engage in essential but sometimes difficult conversations about race.

"Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it."

Ruby Bridges

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