The 25 Most Influential Black American Leaders of All Time
24* (three way tie) Langston Hughes
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s more colorful and legendary figures, Langston Hughes managed to frame issues of African-American identity and pride in terms that seemed as much poetic as they were political. Though he contributed to both the NAACP’s The Crisis and the socialist magazine The Messenger, among other publications, falling in and out of various movements, Hughes’s politics, though decidedly pro-black, never overshadowed his strong individualism.
Very in tune with the rhythms and ways of black people, Hughes consistently saw the beauty of black life and culture and not just its problems. Creatively prolific, Hughes left volumes of works, ranging from poetry collections and children’s books to plays, novels and essays. Still, it’s poems like “Harlem,” asking “what happens to a dream deferred?” and “Mother to Son,” where a woman passes on her hopefulness, not her hardships, that still manage to captivate the public imagination so many decades later.
24* (three way tie) Charles Hamilton Houston
Obscure to most people, Charles Hamilton Houston was one of this nation’s greatest legal strategists. Sometimes referred to as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” Houston, the son of a lawyer, masterminded the strategy to dismantle Jim Crow by actively testing the “separate by equal” doctrine in the courts. A mentor to Thurgood Marshall, whom he taught at the Howard School of Law, Houston himself studied at Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude and served on the Harvard Law Review.
Sickened by the Jim Crow military camps he was forced to endure as a soldier in World War I and equally disturbed by the tumultuous race riots that rocked the United States when he returned in 1919, Houston resolved to fight racial injustice. Leading the NAACP’s legal assault, Houston played a critical role in every Supreme Court case between 1930 and the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board decision.
24* (three way tie) Harry Belafonte
Dubbed the “King of Calypso,” the New York-born Harry Belafonte celebrated his Caribbean roots to the top of the musical charts, scoring big with classics like “Day-O.” As an actor, his natural good looks played best in classics like Bright Road and Carmen Jones, where he had significant roles. Distinguishing himself most as a humanitarian and civil rights champion, Belafonte, who was mentored by Paul Robeson, has consistently used his artistic talents to support important causes.
A friend to Dr. King, Belafonte bailed him out of jail as well as supplemented his income. Lending his voice and celebrity status, Belafonte raised thousands to support the movement and even helped bankroll Freedom Summer. Blacklisting during the McCarthy era didn’t diminish his fire. As a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Belafonte paid special attention to African children in Senegal and Rwanda. And, even at his advanced age, he publicly criticized George W. Bush and the Iraq War when it was unpopular to do so.
23) Nat Turner
In the United States, there is no slave rebellion more famous than Nat Turner’s in 1831. Enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was known as a religious man and was said to have prophetic visions. As early as 1828, Turner reportedly received instructions to “slay my enemies with their own weapons” but did not actively begin planning the rebellion until February 1831.
Although initially planned for July 4, Turner became ill. A later sign on August 13 prompted Turner to set August 21 as the new date. Beginning in the darkness of the morning, Turner and about 40 slaves began killing white people on sight. By the next day, the white community was in a state of panic. Eventually, most of Turner’s men were killed and he was captured, hung and skinned. At least 55 white people were killed but many more African Americans were murdered at will. After that, laws governing slaves became even more restrictive.
(Library of Congress)
22) Carter G. Woodson
Known as the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson believed that documenting and sharing African American contributions was essential to cultivating positive self worth among African-Americans as well as garnering respect from other races. Woodson spearheaded the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 specifically to research the African-American past. The very next year, it began publishing The Journal of Negro History.
A prolific historian in his own right, Woodson wrote several books, including A Century of Negro Migration and The History of the Negro Church. Still, The Mis-Education of the Negro remains one of his most popular works. Of all his many contributions, Woodson’s decision to set aside the second week of February, which contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, to launch Negro History Week, now Black History Month, in 1926 is perhaps his most celebrated.
21) Mary McLeod Bethune
Her genuine desire to serve others always distinguished Mary McLeod Bethune. A dedicated educator, Bethune’s constant search for more money for African American educational needs prompted her to form powerful relationships with John D. Rockefeller as well as Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. But Bethune, who founded her own school, now part of Bethune-Cookman College, did not separate education and politics.
Instead, she merged the two, leading voter registration drives as well as heading the National Association of Colored Women. She served as a member of FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” taking a special interest in issues pertaining to minority youth. In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women. Helping black women secure leadership roles in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II was one of the organization’s earliest successes. At the United Nations founding in 1948, Bethune was the only black woman present and, the following year, she served as the US emissary at the induction of Liberia’s president.
20) John H. Johnson
It took a little time for John H. Johnson to tweak his publishing vision with Ebony and JET, which emphasized African American achievement and success, but once he did, their influence eclipsed all African-American publications. A primary chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, the pages of Ebony and JET featured award-winning images of the 20th century’s most tumultuous social change not to mention captivating articles that dug deep into the issues critical to African-Americans.
JET’s 1955 images of the brutally murdered Emmett Till are often cited as the impetus that spurred many to fill the civil rights coffers as well as their membership and volunteer rolls. Recognizing his influence, the government invited Johnson to participate in missions to Russia and Poland as well as represent his country at the independence ceremonies of the Ivory Coast and Kenya. Johnson, who had several businesses, advocated one hundred percent African American ownership.
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
19) Rev. Jesse Jackson
Born to a teenage, unmarried mother in Greenville, South Carolina, Jesse Jackson’s prospects for greatness were slim. After a rocky stint at the University of Illinois, the gifted athlete and bright student excelled at North Carolina A & T. While a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Jackson’s participation in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 resulted in him dropping out to establish a Chicago arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Council as well as him heading the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in 1966 and becoming its national director in 1967.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Jackson clashed with Abernathy and other Civil Rights brass, forcing Jackson to resign and create Operation Push and later Rainbow Coalition. As notable as his civil rights activities, particularly surrounding economic parity, Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids were the first indicators that an African-American could seriously contend.
18) Marcus Garvey
Correspondence with Booker T. Washington convinced Marcus Garvey to come to the United States in 1916. Influenced by his travels to Central America and London, Garvey believed that uniting the African Diaspora was essential to black liberation and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in his native Jamaica in 1914. Establishing the American chapter himself in New York City in 1917 with just over a dozen members, the UNIA grew quickly. By 1920, the organization included more than 40 countries and Negro World, its publication established in 1918, was widely distributed.
An astonishing 20,000 people gathered in Madison Square Garden in 1920 to elect UNIA leadership..To the surprise of homegrown African-American leaders, Du Bois among them, Garvey’s brand of Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and even his “Back to Africa” movement appealed greatly to the masses. A five-year mail fraud conviction, ending with his 1927 deportation, cooled his momentum, but Garvey’s dream of a united race still intrigues some.
17) Fannie Lou Hamer
Born poor and illiterate in the harsh Mississippi Delta, the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper herself, became a key figure in the Mississippi leg of the Civil Rights Movement. Although exposed to homegrown civil rights activities through meetings she attended for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in the all black Mound Bayou, it wasn’t until she answered the call to vote issued by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that her activism took root. Unafraid to be jailed and beaten to exercise her right to vote, Hamer demonstrated tremendous courage, inspiring legions more to join the struggle.
As SNCC field secretary, Hamer was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer. She also served as Vice Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that publicly challenged Mississippi’s all-white, anti-civil rights delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
16) A. Phillip Randolph
One of the key architects of the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph joined the Socialist Party of America when he was just 21. Randolph co-founded the radical monthly magazine The Messenger, which operated from 1917 to 1928. Departing from popular positions, The Messenger criticized Marcus Garvey’s repatriation efforts as well as opposed U.S. entry in World War I and subsequent African-American participation in the war. It also published leading literary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. It was his work as a labor organizer that distinguished him the most, however.
By organizing and presiding over the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which served Pullman Porters, iconic figures in the African-American community who traversed the country as railroad employees, Randolph was a very powerful man. Agreeing to call off the first March on Washington proposed in 1941 resulted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing the Fair Employment Act.
(AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)
15) Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was a renaissance man. An All-American college athlete and a Phi Beta Kappa member at Rutgers, Robeson, who graduated valedictorian, also finished law school but his entertainment career took off. Among his many contributions, he performed Negro spirituals on the concert stage to critical acclaim. An early film star as well, Robeson appeared in race films such as Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul but is perhaps most well-known for the black cast film, The Emperor Jones, as well as the Hollywood production Show Boat.
A co-founder of the International Committee on African Affairs (1937), Robeson was well traveled and very involved in world politics. In the United States, he lent his star power to many civil rights issues, including a crusade against lynching. His refusal to sign an affidavit declaring he was not a Communist made him one of the most famous Americans questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)
On March 6, 1857, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court denied Blacks U.S. citizenship and denied the power of Congress to restrict slavery in any federal territory.
13) James Baldwin
Often recognized as the literary son of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, an openly gay, African-American writer, was an anomaly of his time. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, explored both religious and homoerotic themes. An essayist as well, Baldwin’s first collection, Notes of a Native Son, appeared in 1955. Exploring themes of racial, national and sexual identity was the norm for Baldwin who consciously strived to make sense of his time. Although he lived in France for extended periods, Baldwin was strongly connected to the United States. He publicly lent his support to CORE and SNCC as well as personally knew Dr. King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Even as his novels explored highly personal ideals of freedom and identity, he tried to capture the unrest of the times. As a writer who kept his finger on black America’s pulse, Baldwin was always timely, even writing about the Atlanta Child Murders shortly before his death.
12) Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
The very first African-American elected to Congress from New York, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was a man who defied the times. Even before succeeding his father at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937, Powell had won a hardcore Harlem following as a community activist for jobs and housing during the Great Depression. From picketing the 1939 New York World’s Fair offices at the Empire State Building to organizing a bus boycott of the New York Transit Authority to protest discriminatory hiring practices, Powell was known for standing up to power and winning.
In Congress, Powell didn’t back down either, eventually becoming the head of the powerful Education and Labor Committee, which presided over Medicaid, minimum wage and other important concerns. Allegations of funding misappropriation and absenteeism resulted in Powell being stripped of his powers, which he successfully challenged in the Supreme Court. Powell served in Congress from 1944 until his defeat by Charles Rangel in 1970.
(Photo: James J. Kriegman)
11) Booker T. Washington
Despite being born a slave in Virginia and raised in dire poverty, Booker T. Washington, a Hampton grad, built Tuskegee into a premier African-American educational institution from 1881 to his death in 1915. A tireless advocate of education’s critical role in uplifting the race, Washington wrote his autobiography, Up from Slavery, in testament. Through what was known as the “Tuskegee Machine,” Washington, believed to be the most powerful man of his era, amazingly ruled the national black agenda from rural Alabama. His 1895 speech, known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” encouraging black Southerners to acquiesce to racial segregation and forego political activism, won him praise among white Southerners.
Du Bois’s staunch criticism of the speech almost a decade later, however, divided African-Americans into pro- and anti-Washington camps for most of the 20th century. Still, Washington, who had the ear of the President, worked silently for equality. He also inspired African-American schools all across the South.
10) Ella Baker
Her name may not always be shouted the loudest during a civil rights leaders’ roll call but Ella Baker was a tireless advocate for freedom and justice. Taking a stand for economic justice, Baker, just three years removed from college, began her work with the Young Negroes Cooperative League in New York City in 1930. Hired as a field secretary for the NAACP in 1940, the Virginia-born, North Carolina-raised Baker served as director of branches from 1943 to 1946. A self-starter, Baker moved to Atlanta in 1957, where she helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Impressed with the student sit-ins, Baker convinced SCLC to hold an open call for student leaders at Shaw University, her alma mater, which led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Baker resigned from SCLC to work more closely with SNCC but she also lent her expertise to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Southern Conference Education Fund.
(AP Photo/Jack Harris)
9) Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Best known for her tireless anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who penned the pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record, 1892–1894, refused to bow down to white supremacy, even suing the railroad for demanding she give up her seat in 1884. A daughter of Mississippi, Wells-Barnett, working from Memphis in the 1880s, early 1890s, left her job as an educator to run the Free Speech and Headlight, a paper she partially owned.
When three friends were lynched, she used the paper to encourage Black Memphians to relocate and was herself forced to move to Chicago. Marriage and motherhood slowed her down but did not extinguish her fire for justice. One of the few African-Americans who always spoke her mind, Wells-Barnett opposed Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech immediately and backed away from the NAACP, despite participating in its open-call founding. Her own woman, Wells-Barnett supported black women’s rights and women suffrage.
8) Rosa Parks
Perhaps the most famous woman of the modern Civil Rights era, Rosa Parks possessed a quiet courage that literally re-energized the struggle. Refusing to give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955 to accommodate a white passenger, Parks was arrested and booked. A model citizen, as well as a card-carrying member of the NAACP who even served as secretary to the Montgomery chapter, Parks helped inspire her fellow citizens to boycott the city’s buses, making the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which introduced the world to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ended segregation on public transportation, a pivotal chapter in the modern-era struggle for freedom and equality.
After relocating to Detroit, Parks worked for Congressman John Conyers for many years as well as supported Planned Parenthood. Before her death in 2005, she co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development aimed at helping young people.
7) Harriet Tubman
Without a doubt, the most celebrated runaway female slave, Harriet Tubman’s bravery and selflessness has long inspired generations. Born a slave in Maryland around 1820, Tubman became sickly as a child. Reported epileptic seizures didn’t squelch Tubman’s thirst for freedom. Although she successfully escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, Tubman was not content with just her own freedom.
Dubbed the Moses of her people, Tubman braved bounties on her head to travel from the North back into the danger of the South for over a decade to lead others to freedom. Brandishing a gun, she, as legend has it, turned it on scared slaves who pondered turning back to keep them motivated on freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman didn’t rest, reportedly serving as a nurse and a spy. And, even after that, she was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.
6) Frederick Douglass
There are few celebrated African-American leaders who could authoritatively speak on slavery and freedom as personally and philosophically as Frederick Douglass. A runaway slave and staunch abolitionist, Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, remains one of the most significant slave narratives ever produced. A gifted orator, Douglass spoke out against slavery in the United States and abroad. As publisher of several newspapers, including his most well-known, The North Star, Douglass was an early advocate of the African-American press and a strong believer in education and the written word.
Unlike many in his time, his concept of equality extended to women as well, making him one of the nation’s most prominent male supporters of women’s rights. Following the Civil War, Douglass held several political positions, including president of Freedman’s Savings Bank, chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic, U.S. Marshal and consul-general to Haiti.
4) Thurgood Marshall
Using the law to serve African Americans, Thurgood Marshall tried many cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 out of 32 actually. Still, none have been more critical than 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board victory overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had legally sanctioned a “separate but equal” doctrine since 1896. A 1933 graduate of the Howard University School of Law, the Baltimore native’s action was deliberate as he followed his teacher and mentor Charles Hamilton Houston to the NAACP where they launched the strategic plan to topple Jim Crow one legal challenge at time, slowly chipping away at its infrastructure.
Appointed the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Marshall expanded his role in righting the Constitution in the very hall that he had challenged it, ensuring that liberty and equality applied to all Americans until his retirement in 1991.
3) WEB DuBois
Perhaps the nation’s most well-known black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois’s impact was felt on all fronts. Early work such as his doctoral thesis The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America, The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction set a standard for African-American scholarship.
His role in the Niagara Movement, public leadership as the editor of the NAACP’s Crisis, early advocacy of integration and African-American political activism, not to mention challenges to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationism, framed the African-American agenda for much of the 20th century. His exposition on the “double consciousness” African-Americans experienced in the U.S. in his classic tome, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, resonated with millions. A citizen of the world, Du Bois was a Pan Africanist who saw the problems of Africa’s children beyond the U.S. His legacy as a professor, political activist, prolific scholar and utmost public intellectual remains unparalleled.
2) Barack Obama
When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States in November 2008, “never in my lifetime” was the popular refrain, especially among older African-Americans from the Jim Crow South who remembered grandparents who had been enslaved. Obama’s mixed race background (Kenyan father, white Midwestern mother), Ivy League pedigree (Columbia, Harvard Law), community activism on Chicago’s tough South Side as well as stints as an Illinois and U.S. senator, made him uniquely qualified to guide the nation in a more multiracial and globally-dependent 21st century.
Engaging the youth, Obama, heavily assisted by social media, made “Yes, we can” more than a campaign slogan. As POTUS, he’s been confronted with Tea Party politics full of racist undertones and blamed for spillover from George W. Bush’s presidency. Still, the President, wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha represent African-Americans at their best every day.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
1) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Arguably the most famous African-American of all time and one of the most influential Americans of any race, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement for many. Rising to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal blow against segregation, King, a fiery orator, inspired a nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during 1963’s historic March on Washington, one of the Lincoln Memorial’s largest.
Recognized as an international human rights leader, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, becoming its youngest recipient. His April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, where he traveled to support the Memphis Sanitation Strike, shook the nation, with many cities erupting in violence.
Unwilling to let her husband’s legacy die, Coretta Scott King immediately created the King Center near her husband’s Atlanta birth home and campaigned tirelessly for decades for a national holiday in his honor.
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Even as an African-American sits in the most powerful position in our nation, there are those who ask if African-American leadership is in crisis.
Slavery and Jim Crow were easy targets. Who couldn’t set their mind on freedom? The drama swirled around the method, not the result. There was no pretense of freedom packed with landmines hiding under the age-old labels of racial, gender and economic oppression, to name a few. Still, if great leadership comes with no statute of limitations, what cues should we take from theGrio’s black leaders survey to alleviate our current crisis?
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON THE SURVEY
In assessing our greatest leaders of all time, what statement are we making about the times in which we live? We definitely shouldn’t view this as just a top ten list. Instead, we should really ask ourselves what leaders, if any, would resonate today. Just because a person’s contribution during their era remains undeniable does not necessarily mean that those same tactics are still viable. Regardless of who tops the list or gets overlooked, the overall point is that it’s time for us to turn our full on attention onto leadership.