As a website devoted to the news, opinions, and contributions of black people in America and around the world, TheGrio.com is interested in understanding what the past teaches us about our current political moment and how it helps us prepare for the future. In this spirit, TheGrio assembled a group of 25 contemporary academics, artists and activists to assess the most impactful African-American leaders in U.S. history. Each is uniquely suited through scholarship, experience, and commitment to black communities to assess the legacy of African-American leadership.
Each member of the expert panel was asked to complete a survey, which asked them to assess 170 black leaders. These leaders are individuals who worked in times as distant as American slavery and moments as recent as our own. The experts made independent rankings of each leader on the list. The expert jury also nominated leaders not included in the original list. An alphabetical list of all 170 leaders and all additional names is included at the end of this report.
Categories of Leadership
African-American leadership has taken many forms over the decades. Our jury of experts considered contributions from political leaders in four broad areas.
1. Elected and Appointed Political Leaders
2. Lawyers, Legal Advocates and Business Executives
3. Civil Rights, Political Organizations and Religious Leadership
4. Politically Relevant Intellectuals, Writers, and Artists
They have chosen the top five most impactful persons in each area. From these responses we have also compiled a list of the top 25 African-Americans in our nation’s political history.
Overall, our experts had widely divergent opinions about this extensive list of leaders, but they shared extraordinary agreement about the few individuals who have had the most impact in American history. According to our experts∗ these are the top 10 African-American political leaders in U.S. history in the order they were ranked:
At first glance this list may not seem surprising. These names are widely regarded as some of the greatest African-Americans to have ever lived. There are some findings here worth noting.
It is fascinating to note that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is clearly the consensus choice of this group. King never held elected office. He was harshly criticized in his own lifetime both by the American public and by some members of his own community. Although he was still a very young man at the time of his assassination, his contributions shine forth as a signal, extraordinary legacy of leadership and achievement.
President Barack Obama is the only living leader included among the Top 10. He is ranked a very close second to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This result is nothing short of extraordinary given that President Obama is a relatively young leader who only became known to a national American audience in the past four years. Many of the experts on this panel have written critically of various aspects of his presidency. All of the experts on this list are deeply knowledgeable of the long trajectory of black struggle in America and the many personalities who have been part of it. His presence among these giants of black political history is indicative of the symbolic and substantive importance of his presidency despite his often-embattled administration.
There are four women among the Top 10. While Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are women who are widely known and whose accomplishments are taught in American grade schools, both Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Ella Baker are less well-known figures for many black Americans. That these experts judged these women as significant contributors to black political efforts is an indication that they should be included in our broader curriculum of black history.
The span of black political leaders included in this Top 10 list includes those who struggled against slavery (Tubman and Douglass); those who were active during the nadir of race relations at the turn of the 20th century (Wells-Barnett and Du Bois); those who led the struggle for Civil Rights (King, Marshall, Baker and Parks); those who insisted on self-determination (X); and a contemporary elected leader (Obama). Such a broad sweep indicates that our experts believed there were many points in American history when leadership was necessary and when black Americans stepped up to provide that leadership. Top 25 Black Leaders
The list of the Top 25 leaders adds interesting diversity to the list of Top 10.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Barack Obama
3. W.E.B. Du Bois
4. Thurgood Marshall
5. Malcolm X
6. Frederick Douglass
7. Harriet Tubman
8. Rosa Parks
9. Ida B. Wells-Barnett
10. Ella Baker
11. Booker T. Washington
12. Adam Clayton Powell
13. James Baldwin
14. Dred Scott
15. Paul Robeson
16. A. Phillip Randolph
17. Fannie Lou Hamer
18. Marcus Garvey
19. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
20. John Johnson
21. Mary McLeod Bethune
22. Carter G. Woodson
23. Nat Turner
24. Harry Belafonte
25. Charles Hamilton Houston
26. Langston Hughes
(There is a three-way tie for Belafonte, Houston and Hughes)
This list includes more living leaders: Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Harry Belafonte.
The list also includes educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Carter G. Woodson, underscoring the extent to which education has been an important site of political contributions for black Americans. The list also includes artists Robeson, Belafonte, and Hughes, which underscores the importance of artistic and literary expressions within black politics. The list includes two additional women, Hamer and Bethune, reminding us that women have made critical leadership contributions to African-American politics. This list also includes two more black Americans who lived as slaves: Scott and Turner. Their inclusion signals the continuing importance America’s slave legacy.
Top Elected and Appointed Black Political Leaders
We asked our expert panel to choose the top leaders in each of four different categories of leadership. In the area of Elected and Appointed Political Leaders these individuals generated the most agreement.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
President Obama received nearly unanimous support as worthy of inclusion among the top leaders. No other candidate in this area generated as much agreement.
Shirley Chisholm and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. are somewhat surprising inclusions. Undoubtedly the heavy representation of New York based jury experts is likely responsible, in part, for their inclusion. Something else is likely at work here too. In the context of an Obama presidency, Chisholm’s unlikely and inspiring candidacy for the American presidency has renewed resonance, as does the ground breaking first that is the Congressional career of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Colin Powell is one of the few conservatives to make the lists of top leadership. Our experts judge his historic leadership positions in the American military and national government as worthy of recognition.
Harold Washington, Barbara Jordan, and John Lewis are all leaders with robust reputations for independence and courageous, outspoken advocacy on behalf of black community interests. They are also recognized as coalition builders who earned broad cross-racial support and respect as a result of their accomplishments. By choosing these leaders our expert panel is signaling an assessment of their capacity to be both fiercely independent and widely respected as the kind of skills necessary to make an impact on black political life.
The chart below shows the top leaders in appointed and elected office. There are two ties in this category. Therefore, seven names are listed.
Top Black Political Leaders in Law, Legal Advocacy and Business
We asked our expert panel to choose the top leaders in each of four different categories of leadership. In the area of Law, Legal Advocacy, and Business, these individuals generated the most agreement as worthy of consideration as most impactful.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Madame CJ Walker
Our experts ranked Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Rosa Parks as the most impactful leaders in issues of law and legal advocacy. Each was critically important in the struggle for integration in America. This is indicative of the continuing assessment that despite the challenges of the past 50 years, the battle to integrate America’s schools, workplaces, public spaces and government remains the defining effort of black politics.
Our experts also include famously unsuccessful litigants Dred Scott and Homer Plessy as among the most impactful leaders. Our experts recognize that failures can be as important successes in setting the tone and direction of black politics.
Our experts chose Madame CJ Walker and John Johnson as the most impactful business executives. Both of these business leaders made extraordinary political contributions. Walker remains one of the most generous individual contributors in the history of the NAACP. In many ways the legal work of the Marshall, Hamilton and others on this list was made possible by Walker’s contributions. Johnson’s black publishing empire had a similarly powerful impact in the modern political era when he magazines offered a primary platform for black political leaders to engage with African-Americans in a national forum.
It is notable that current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is not included in the list of most impactful leaders – despite being the only African-American other than Marshall (who received 92% of votes from experts) to serve on the Supreme Court, and despite being a decisive conservative vote on many issues of social and political significance affecting black Americans.
Top Black Leaders in Civil Rights, Political Organizations and Religion
We asked our expert panel to choose the top leaders in each of four different categories of leadership. In the area of Civil Rights, Political Organizations and Religious Leadership, these individuals generated the most agreement as worthy of consideration as most impactful:
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
A. Phillip Randolph
The leaders on this list are most represented among the top 10 most impactful leaders overall. Six of the seven top leaders in this category were also chosen in the Top 10. Our experts believe that this is the area from which our most important leaders have emerged.
Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are ranked at the top of this list. Despite the many differences in their approach, style, and philosophy, our experts judge them to have made tremendous contributions. It seems that our experts believe robust disagreement among leaders is a point of strength for black communities.
No living civil rights leader was included among the top choices. This might be read as an indication that our experts believe the era of impactful civil rights leadership has passed.
The chart below shows the question top leaders in order. Again, seven are listed just for consistency with the first list and because this list also produced a tie.
Top Black Leaders: Politically Relevant Intellectuals, Writers, and Artists
We asked our expert panel to choose the top leaders in each of four different categories of leadership. In the area of Politically Relevant Intellectuals, Writers, and Artists these individuals generated the most agreement as worthy of consideration as most impactful:
W.E.B. Du Bois
Booker T. Washington
As in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the category above, our experts have chosen both W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington as the top leaders. Many observers of African-American history highlight the turn-of-the-20th century tensions between Du Bois and Washington as indicative of the diversity and contestation within black political thought. The experts have decided that both men and their ideas deserve recognition.
Three living African-Americans are included in this list: Oprah Winfrey, Cornel West and Toni Morrison. This is the largest number of living persons included in any top list.
It is also important to note that more additional names were added by our experts in this category than were added in any other. The wide variety of cultural, literary, and artistic contributions by African-Americans thinkers and artists led to a robust list of potential leaders. These individuals are the ones who our jury saw as making the greatest political (not artistic) impact in black America.
The chart below shows the top leaders. For consistency this list includes seven leaders. However, the distance between the scores achieved by the Top 5 and the rest is much clearer in this case.
Role of Black Leaders
We also asked our experts to assess the most important roles fulfilled by black political leaders in three different historical eras: (1) the decades before the 20th century, (2) the decades of the 20th century, (3) in our present moment
Our experts responded by rating the top three roles fulfilled in each epoch and their responses offer some important insights. In the years before the 20th century our experts believed that black leaders were primarily responsible for teaching and mobilizing black communities for action. This mobilization role was also considered primary during the 20th century, and was joined by role of affecting local and national politics as a critical responsibility.
In one of the most interesting findings in our survey, the experts suggest a new and critical role for black leaders in our contemporary moment. Mobilizing black people for action and affecting policy remain important, but our experts agree that building bridges to other racial communities is more important in contemporary America than it was in the past. Perhaps the perceived importance of this bridging role is part of the reason that President Obama is the sole living leader to make the Top 10.