Black History Month takes on the privilege of becoming the month where the life and contributions of Blacks in America are freely acknowledged and honored. While this history seems vast and overwhelming, these five activists are a great starting point into the prideful path of equality and justice that African Americans have always sought.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks incorporated her passion for justice in the Black community through many of her pieces. Depictions of her experiences growing up in Chicago or of various colorful characters gave readers a peek into Black life in America. It’s no wonder that she enjoyed the company of other iconic Black writers of her time, such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Brooks was in constant habit of nurturing the community that nurtured her. She sent Black writers to workshop in Africa, donated money to Chicago schools, founded literary awards, and created poetry contests. She firmly believed in using her art for the furtherment of her people, and she never backed down from making the critical points that society needed to hear. In her poem The Lovers of the Poor , Brooks discusses racism through observing wealthy women giving begrudgingly to poor African Americans. This lengthy poem uses this scene to speak on the mistreatment of poor Blacks in the city - even within the seemingly identity leveling experience of being poor. While Brooks was the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, that was just one box checked on the list of the many accomplished she made for Black artistry throughout her life.
Claudette Colvin (1939 - )
Many are familiar with the courageous story of Alabama's Rosa Parks. But, contrary to popular belief, Parks wasn’t the first to cause a stir regarding Alabama's bus system. On May 5, 1955 (months before Parks), Claudette Colvin protested racial inequality by refusing to give a White passenger her bus seat. This resulted in Colvin being arrested and later serving as a plaintiff on Browder v. Gayle, a case that determined Montgomery’s segregated bus laws as unconstitutional. Before the final ruling, Colvin found that many weren’t too happy with her gutsy decision. After the incident, she lived with the negative labels, the bad reputation, and the difficulty of finding a job. In the light of Parks receiving much support for the same fight Colvin put up to injustice, writer Phillip Hoose later tied Colvin’s sacrifice to Park’s praise. In an interview with Newsweek he said, "Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks." Colvin’s bravery started the path for others like Parks to practice their rights as American citizens and be counted as equals to their White counterparts.
John Lewis (1940- )
Alabama native John Lewis was a member of the Civil Rights Movement and a participant of the infamous band of White and Black protesters called the Freedom Riders. This civil rights group would take bus rides through Southern America to protest segregation. On March 7, 1965, Lewis (who was then a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), was chosen to represent the committee in a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. The march was in direct protest to the opposition of Black voter registration in Alabama and received much attention due to avid support from Martin Luther King Jr. While the participants seemingly sailed through Selma, they were met at the bridge over the Alabama River with the ultimate roadblock. State troopers and police refused to let the protesters pass by. After being ordered to turn around, the group refused and stood their ground. The reaction blew up in shots of tear gas and brutal beatings. Lewis himself received harsh blows from the baton of a trooper. The peaceful protestors were treated as if they dealt the same blows law enforcement had given them. Many in the country were outraged. Sit-ins were organized, traffic blockades were staged, and other protests were launched in support of the victims on the day coined as “Bloody Sunday." After the final leg of the march ended on March 21st, August 6th arrived in the sweetness that only justice could bring for African American voters in America. The Voting Rights Act passed as a result of the march that scarred and hospitalized many. Yet, through the bravery of now Congressman Lewis, another stride towards equality was made.
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Soulful singer Nina Simone made huge waves in the music world in defense of civil rights in the 1960s. Much like Gwendolyn Brooks, she used her art as an avenue to tell of the hardships of her people to audiences softened by the beauty in her singing. The New Yorker details a story of the premier of Simone’s song “Four Women" at a club in Holland in 1965. The song gives texture and feel to each woman, telling of their wooly hair and dark skin. The song went on to mention the internalized anger one woman felt, reflected in a manner willing to “kill the first mother" she saw. While these words are dark and quite heavy (and most likely a huge surprise to the Dutch audience), they fearlessly expressed the struggles and beauty of Black women. Because of the song’s vivid imagery, Simone received much backlash in America. Although some might argue that her approach was too bold to properly reach audiences, it can’t be denied that Simone used her platform to inspire equality. Through anger at the injustices committed towards Blacks in America, she put her feelings into her music and used them to give an alternative voice to unlikely listeners and a nod of solitude towards those suffering.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
No list like this would be complete without Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. In her essay, How it Feels to be Colored me , she comments on discrimination in a way that sums up the nature of her activism. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me," she wrote. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me." While you could stop here and let the quote speak for itself, it’s important to note Hurston’s impact as a Black activist in her time. In 1937, her book Their Eyes Were Watching God told the story of a Southern Black woman named Janie Mae Crawford. Through Crawford’s journeys of love and identity, readers find a Black woman fixated on communicating her own voice to the audience. This book is seen as a victory for both feminism and civil rights as it brought color and life to the identities of a person whose opinions and feelings were overlooked by so many outside of the pages of the book in that time. Hurston accomplished much for her community during the Harlem Renaissance. She used her wit and commanding attitude to eloquently tell the stories that spoke of her experiences, which shed light on how they reflected the Black community as a whole.