Fifty years ago the United States Congress passed the historic Voting Rights Act, which formally ended racial discrimination in voting. While a landmark achievement in its own right, the legislation would not have been possible had it not been for the decades of backbreaking work on behalf of civil rights activists around the country.
We take some extra time each February to commemorate those who have fought for civil and economic equality in the U.S. and around the world, but for the most part the same people tend to come up in coverage: namely Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Here are some black leaders whose names are not as recognizable to many, but should be.
Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was an enslaved African American assigned to steer the Confederate transport ship CSS Planter during the American Civil War. On May 13th, 1862–and while the ship’s three white officers were spending the night ashore–Smalls dressed as a Captain (along with most other enslaved crewmen) and sailed the Planter out of the Southern wharf.
Smalls then sailed the ship to another nearby wharf, where he retrieved his own family–along with the families of the other crew members–before sailing the ship past Fort Sumter and surrendering it, its cannons, and the Confederate code books to the Union-controlled United States Navy.
It was Robert Smalls’ heroics that convinced President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army. Smalls would go on to become a ship’s pilot and sea captain for the Union forces, and eventually a member of the United States House of Representatives for the state of South Carolina. When Smalls left office in 1887, he would be the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th congressional district until 2010.
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) was an African-American author who dedicated her life to social change, becoming an abolitionist speaker and a reformer after escaping slavery. To do that, Jacobs hid in her grandmother’s attic for seven years and then fled on a boat to Philadelphia in 1842.
In 1861 and under the pseudonym of Linda Brent, Jacobs published her lone work, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which was one of the first narrative autobiographies about the sexual harassment and abuse of female slaves and their struggle for freedom. Jacobs had to change the names of everyone in the book to protect herself and those that she loved.
Claudette Colvin (1939-current) is a civil rights activist from Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2nd, 1955 (a full nine months before the Rosa Parks incident), Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. She was arrested and became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
At only 15 years old, Claudette Colvin was told by the city bus driver to give up her seat to a white woman – to which she responded, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” Colvin would later tell Newsweek that she “felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”
Colvin’s bravery would be a catalyst for many future examples of rightly public disobedience, including the famous ride of Rosa Parks.