An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

The Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Samantha L. Branch
  • 509th Bomb Wing Equal Opportunity
In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed the Executive Order recognizing February as Black History Month. Men and women of all races across the nation take time out in February to celebrate, educate, and honor all contributions made toward African American History.

This year's theme was "Civil Rights in America," chosen by the Study of African American Life and History. The final version of the Civil Rights Act was passed Feb. 10, 1964 by Congress; prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Many know those who threw hard hitting punches in the fight for civil rights, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcom X; but what about the unsung heroes who supported these heavy hitters and took a stand for civil rights?

Ella Jo Baker

Ella Jo Baker was born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Va. Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where as an undergraduate, she challenged discriminatory school policies. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations. She began to embark on the world of political activism in the 1930s.

Ella Baker, and many of her contemporaries, believed voting was one key to freedom. This inspired her to run a voter registration campaign called the "Crusade for Citizenship." Additionally, she co-founded the organization "In Friendship," fighting against "Jim Crow Laws" in the Deep South, and helped organize Dr. Martin Luther King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In April 1960, Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the "Sit-Ins." From this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born. The SNCC worked with the Congress of Racial Equality to organize the 1961 "Freedom Rides." In 1964 the SNCC helped create "Freedom Summer," a voter registration drive designed to dramatically expand the numbers of black voters in the South.

As a result of Baker's guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for civil rights in the country. Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death in 1986.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa., on March 17, 1912. His focus on non-violence and skill for organization made him a key adviser to Dr. King. Rustin began working with Dr. King as an organizer and strategist in 1955. He taught Dr. King about Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. He assisted Dr. King with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.

Most famously, Rustin was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963. One element that suppressed Rustin's fame was the fact that he was an openly gay man, which did not sit well with many leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin refused to hide his way of life. As a result Dr. King's advisers asked Rustin to stand in the shadows opposed to sharing the spotlight.

Rustin also co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The institute served as a labor organization for African-American trade union members. Rustin was also an expert organizer of human rights protests. In 1958, he played an important role in coordinating a march in Aldermaston, England, in which 10,000 attendees demonstrated against nuclear weapons.

Rustin passed in 1987, at the age of 75. On Nov. 20, 2013 Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. President Barack Obama presented the award to Rustin's partner, Walter Naegle, who accepted on Rustin's behalf.

Whitney M. Young Jr.

Whitney Young Jr. was born on July 31, 1921 in Lincoln Ridge, Ky. Young attended Kentucky State Industrial College and then worked as a teacher and served in the Army during World War II. Young's ultimate goal was to gain access for blacks to obtain respectable jobs, education, housing, health care and social services. Young achieved this goal with reason, persuasion and negotiation.

His "Domestic Marshall Plan" was devised to eradicate ghettos and increase spending on education, housing, vocational training, and health services; at a cost of $145 billion over ten years. Young used his excellent negotiation skills in convincing presidents of prosperous companies to hire African Americans into high positions.

Young became president of the National Urban League in 1961. He expanded the organization membership and increased the annual budget from $325,000 to more than $6 million. Young took the lead on equal opportunity for African Americans in the U.S. industry and government services, to include the armed forces.

In thanks to Young's contributions and service to the nation, President Lyndon B. Johnson honored Young in 1968 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Young died in 1971 at the age of 49, however his legacy still thrives today. The house where he was born is now a National Historic Landmark, located on the campus of the Lincoln Institute of Kentucky. The Lincoln Institute campus is also the home of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Training Corps Center.

Ella Baker, a strong and determined woman who fought for voting rights; Bayard Rustin, the modest right hand man of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Whitney Young Jr., the persuasive negotiator who helped make it possible for African Americans today to take leading roles in corporate America.

Throughout all the obstacles, they emerged and made a vast impact on the course of history. Without these individuals the Civil Rights Movement would have remained stagnant, but with their help the march moved on with fortitude, resistance, and power.