After the arrest of Rosa Parks on a segregated Montgomery bus just over 65 years ago, a seismic shift in American life began. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the first major event in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s in the U.S.
Since that day, leaders like Parks and Dr. King have become household names, and the changes they helped to institute have shaped life in the United States in innumerable ways. But as 2020 proved, the work of these brave and dedicated civil rights leaders — both those we know and those whose names are lost to history — is also far from over.
As we enter into 2021, in what many are considering the dawn of another civil rights era following the prominence of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the tragic deaths of individuals such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a rising group of powerful and influential activists, leaders and academics are picking up where their predecessors left off. They’re organizing, speaking out, demanding change and working to further reshape and revamp our ideas, our values and even our fundamental understandings of race, identity and justice — both within the United States and around the globe.
The number of modern Black civil rights leaders who are making powerful change in the country ranks in the thousands and is growing every day. While it’s impossible to spotlight everyone currently working to promote a powerful and lasting change, and as we near another MLK Day and look back at his incredible and lasting legacy, here’s a look at 10 other contemporary leaders you should know — individuals who are on their way to the history books.
Tometi is one of the three co-founders of the influential Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, created in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killer being acquitted in 2013. In the time since that tragic event, BLM has grown to be the defining voice of the modern Civil Rights Movement, with the slogan #BlackLivesMatter being featured in street murals across the country and near the White House in Washington, D.C. — the plaza itself was officially renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in June 2020.
Before BLM, Tometi was the executive director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization that helps Black immigrant communities rally behind social and economic justice reform initiatives. At the age of just 27, Tometi was BAJI’s first woman director.
A fervent organizer, Tometi also helped to reunify families after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. She’s spoken on behalf of immigrants to the United Nations, at congressional briefings, at the Atlantic Ideas Summit, Harvard and Yale Universities, on the TED Talks stage and at conferences, town halls and protests around the globe. She also founded Diaspora Rising, a media and advocacy group aimed at empowering the global Black community. Among her many awards and recognitions, she received the 2020 Freedom Flame Award from the Center for Security Policy in recognition of her civil rights service.
Tometi on the BLM Movement…
“Police brutality is the most visible and visceral manifestation of racism, but every day we, as Black people, experience degradation. It was always important for us that people start to understand and learn about those microaggressions. That people now understand that better, is one of the most heartening things to come out of this year. People are now challenging their workplaces or schools; they’re doing it for themselves. They feel more empowered to make that change happen.”
— 2020 Harper’s Bazaar interview
Follow her at twitter.com/opalayo
A co-founder (along with CNN’s Van Jones) of the online activism resource, Color of Change, Rucker has helped to create the largest modern civil rights organization in the United States. Color of Change, which has an estimated 7 million members, focuses on racial justice through social media and web-based engagement and organizing. The group was founded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and aims to impact policy, politics, media and corporate practices at all levels. Many of its campaigns have been successful, including getting bigoted right-wing commentators Glenn Beck (2011) and Bill O’Reilly (2017) ousted from Fox News, as well as forcing finance and tech companies like PayPal and American Express to cut off payments to white supremacist groups.
Some of his other groundbreaking projects include Citizen Engagement Laboratory, an incubator for online organizing efforts; Presente, a Latinx online activism platform; Oil Change U.S. (formerly known as Forecast the Facts and also as Climate Truth), a climate justice-based organization; and UltraViolet, a gender equality organization. He is a veteran in the online engagement space, having originally served as director of grassroots mobilization at MoveOn.
Rucker on using the web for social change…
“We are able to hold corporations accountable. We’re able to hold government accountable. We just have to participate.”
— 2012 interview with the Laura Flanders Show
Follow him at twitter.com/jrucker
A professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, Crenshaw is a scholar and activist focusing on the areas of civil rights, constitutional law, race and gender equality. In the 1990s, Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain and address challenges Black women face as part of two disenfranchised demographics — both race and gender — simultaneously. She has co-authored the reports “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” and “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality against Black Women,” raising awareness for the unique issues Black women face. Crenshaw has lectured widely on race matters, addressing audiences across the country and worldwide. Her groundbreaking work on intersectionality was influential in drafting the equality clause of the South African Constitution.
In addition to a growing list of academic accolades, she’s been featured in Ebony’s Power 100, Harvard Law School’s “Women Inspiring Change” and Diverse Issues in Higher Education’s “Top 25 Women in Higher Education.”
Crenshaw on the power of intersectionality…
“When looking at any interventions, when you know there’s still a problem, it’s important to ask how this problem might affect some people differently than others. That’s what intersectionality asks us to do.”
— Keynote speech on intersectionality at DiversityInc’s 2019
Women of Color and Their Allies event
Follow her at twitter.com/sandylocks
Rev. Dr. William Barber
Rev. Dr. Barber is the co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign, a social justice and anti-poverty organization that uses the slogan, “A National Call for Moral Revival.” The Poor People’s Campaign mission is based on the last wave of the last Civil Rights Movement. After Dr. King’s assassination, activists called for governmental policymakers to ground their decisions in morality. Like Dr. King himself, Rev. Dr. Barber is a celebrated leader both because of his ideologies and because of his incredible oratory skills.
In addition to his work with the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. Barber is the president of the North Carolina NAACP and convener of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly Coalition, a broad alliance of more than 140 progressive organizations that champions an anti-racist, anti-poverty and anti-war agenda. Rev. Dr. Barber and the coalition led the passage of the Racial Justice Act of 2009, which allowed death row inmates to appeal their sentences on the grounds of racial bias in the court system. With the North Carolina NAACP, he’s raised more than $2 million. He’s advocated for voting reforms including same-day registration and has regarded same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue, mobilizing Black churches to support its ballot initiative in 2012.
Rev. Dr. Barber also started the Forward Together Moral Movement in North Carolina, a law, policy and strategy center dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice.
Rev. Dr. Barker on his undying push for change…
“We might’ve been beaten, we might’ve been broken, but justice has never lost. I didn’t say justice hadn’t not been fought, and justice hadn’t never been hurt, but it’s never lost.”
—2019 keynote speech at University of California,
Follow him at twitter.com/RevDrBarber
One of the three co-founders of BLM, Garza is currently the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group aimed at bringing equity for domestic workers across America. Garza is a Black queer woman who also works tirelessly to draw attention to the work of Black queer women in movements throughout U.S. history. She is also the author of The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, a guide to creating movements like BLM.
Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, acclaimed social justice activist and author of Just Mercy, said Garza’s work was “beautiful, important and timely … insightful, compelling and necessary in this critical moment of reckoning with our history.”
Garza is also the director of the Black Futures Lab, which engages and empowers the Black community through its awareness-raising work. Recently, she has started hosting the Lady Don’t Take No podcast alongside influencer, actress, musician and activist Amanda Seales, where she offers both political and cultural commentary. The podcast also features expertise from activists and leaders like Crenshaw and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Garza on the power of organizing…
“Every successful social movement in this country’s history has used disruption as a strategy to fight for social change.”
— 2016 interview with Color Lines
Follow her at twitter.com/aliciagarza
Along with Tometi and Garza, Cullors also co-founded the BLM Movement. She is a prison abolitionist who, in 2012, founded the group Dignity and Power Now to fight for law enforcement reform in Los Angeles County and rights for incarcerated people. Her critically acclaimed memoir When They Call You A Terrorist, which details the founding of the BLM Movement, was an instant New York Times Bestseller. Civil rights leader Michelle Alexander, who also appears on our list, said, “This remarkable book reveals what inspired Patrisse’s visionary and courageous activism and forces us to face the consequence of the choices our nation made when we criminalized a generation. This book is a must-read for all of us.” To help spread the message of the tome even further, Cullors has even adapted it into a book for children in 2020.
In addition to her work as one of the country’s leading activists, Cullors is also an educator and academic mentor at Prescott University. There, she developed and teaches the school’s new Social and Environmental Arts MFA program, a curriculum aimed at helping students create activism-centered art.
Cullors on what drives her advocacy…
“We will not stop fighting until every single Black life is provided the type of love and support we so desperately deserve.”
—2018 article with The Guardian on MLK’s dream
Follow her at twitter.com/OsopePatrisse
Burke founded the #MeToo Movement long before Hollywood co-opted it. While the movement ultimately sent shockwaves throughout the world, holding powerful people accountable, costing Hollywood and other moguls their jobs, reputations and sometimes freedom, it began as a means to offer solidarity to girls of color in underserved communities who survived childhood and sexual abuse.
Originally from New York, Burke moved to Selma, Alabama to work for an organization where she met many young girls who survived sexual violence and abuse. A survivor herself, Burke created safe spaces for these young women to share their stories. In 1996, when she was working as the director of a youth camp, a young girl confided in Burke about her abuse. This encounter ultimately led to her creating the Me Too Movement, which invited survivors of color to share their stories. In 2007, she founded Just Be, Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on the well being of Black and brown girls. The program was adopted by every public school in Selma, Alabama. She’s been involved in other social justice organizations, including with the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center and the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute.
In 2017 when TIME Magazine named the women of the #MeToo movement its “People of the Year,” Burke was mentioned in the article but not featured on the cover, sparking backlash and questions as to why her work was not more prominently regarded. The Pew research group has estimated that the #MeToo hashtag was used more than 19 million times on Twitter alone during the movement’s peak in 2017.
Burke on ending violence against women…
“There has to be a shift in culture. We have to have conversations about systems that are in place that allow sexual violence to flourish.”
— Burke’s quote for U.N. Women’s #OrangeTheWorld
campaign against sexual violence
Follow her at twitter.com/TaranaBurke
Cox is a transgender actor best known for her role in the Netflix hit, Orange is the New Black, where she was the first transgender woman of color to have a role in a mainstream scripted program. Her career began years earlier with pivotal roles on Law and Order, HBO’s Bored to Death and the reality show I Wanna Work for Diddy. These roles were incredibly important for increasing representation of trans-Black actors at a time when they rarely appeared on television.
As Cox’s fame grew, she produced and starred in the VH1 show TRANSform Me, a take on the makeover reality show genre, focusing on helping transgender people find their style.
One of the most high-profile Black and LGBTQ rights activists in Hollywood today, Cox speaks out regularly about issues transgender women of color face in entertainment and beyond. Her recent work of executive producing the Netflix documentary Disclosure sheds light on harmful portrayals of the trans community in media. Some of her accolades include being named one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, one of The Grio’s 100 Most Influential African Americans and one of the Top 50 Trans Icons by the Huffington Post. She was also honored with the Courage Award from the Anti-Violence Project and the Reader’s Choice Award from “Out” Magazine.
In her many public talks, Cox has been very open and vocal about being bullied as a child and once attempting suicide. She now advocates for mental health initiatives and reform, an increase of safe spaces for LGBTQ children and teens, as well as an overall greater ability for queer and nonbinary youth to be able to live and thrive as their authentic selves.
Cox on self-acceptance…
“I am a person of color, working-class, born to a single mother, but I stand before you tonight an artist, an actress and a sister and a daughter, and I believe that it is important to name the multiple parts of my identity because I am not just one thing, and neither are you.”
—2014 lecture at the University of Kentucky
Follow her at twitter.com/Lavernecox
A law professor at Ohio State University, Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a seminal book that outlines how early Jim Crow discrimination still exists in the form of disproportionate incarceration of Black men. The New Jim Crow was named one of the Most Influential Books of the Last 20 Years by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was a winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction and is a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, maintaining a place on the NYT list for more than 250 weeks. The argument Alexander makes in the book — “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” — has also been cited in multiple judicial decisions and inspired a generation of racial justice activists, all of whom have been motivated by Alexander’s unforgettable words.
A wildly popular columnist and voice for progressive change, Alexander has also written articles and columns for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post.
Prior to working at OSU, she taught at Stanford Law School and the Union Theological Seminary. She served as a Soros Justice Fellow in 2005 and was appointed a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation in 2015.
Alexander on the 2020 protests over the death of George Floyd…
In recent days, we’ve seen what it looks like when people of all races, ethnicities, genders and backgrounds rise up together, standing in solidarity for justice … We’ve seen our faces in another American mirror — a reflection of the best of who we are and what we can become.
—2020 New York Times opinion piece
Follow her at twitter.com/thenewjimcrow
Campbell is the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and has worked in the youth and women’s civil rights space for decades. Recognized as one of Washington D.C.’s Top 40 Under 40 Emerging Leaders, she helped create Black Youth Vote!, a youth-focused leadership development program that registered 200,000 voters for the national elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008, as well as trained over 2,000 youth as part of the program.
Her Black Women’s Roundtable with the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation releases an annual report on the status of Black women and offers programs for Black women focusing on civic engagement, leadership and entrepreneurship. She’s been a featured writer for the National Urban League’s “State of Black America” and has been lauded for her activism by ESSENCE and The Washington Post.
When the National Urban League awarded Campbell their prestigious “Woman of Power” honor, Richard Womack, chair of the National Coalition, cited her as a shining example of civic engagement and leadership, continually working to empower youth, young adults and women.
“Melanie has also quietly helped pave the way for more African Americans to assume leadership positions across the country,” Womack said.
Campbell on the importance of Black History Month…
“Racism is a disease. It was invented by people. It’s not a natural state to judge people by color of skin. It’s a function of system created in the 1300s, 1400s. It has to be combatted. The most important thing that white Americans have to do is confront racism among other white Americans. [Black people] are not in those closed conversations where stereotypes play out. Behavior is learned — and we have to unlearn it. People of good will can’t be afraid to confront people of bad intentions.”
— 2020 talk with T-Mobile
Follow her at twitter.com/coalitionbuildr