In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Rolling Out paid tribute to the six men who played the most pivotal roles in the civil rights movement. Some names you may have heard of before, others you may have not. Rest assured that without the sacrifices and courage of these six men, the civil rights struggle would not have been the ground-breaking movement that it turned out to be. Wordondastreet.com salutes the achievements of the “Big Six” and hope that their legacies can serve as inspiration to today’s youth and society as a whole.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) a Baptist minister, activist, and the most famous leader of the Civil Rights Movement. King won the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom before his assassination in 1968. For his promotion of nonviolence and racial equality, King was considered a peacemaker by many people around the world. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968
James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE in 1942. Within a year, CORE had a national membership, and within a few years a roster of more than 60,000 members in more than 70 chapters, coast to coast. Farmer himself risked his life in several demonstrations. He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the United States. Former President Clinton awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 1998 shortly before his death in 1999. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999)
In 1925, Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Serving as its president, he sought to gain the union’s official inclusion in the American Federation of Labor, the affiliates of which, at that time, frequently barred African Americans from membership. Randolph battled on, and in 1937, won membership in the AFL, making the BSCP the first African-American union in the United States. Following the United States’ entrance into World War II, he organized the March on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industry workforce. Randolph called off the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned racial discrimination on government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee. In the 1950s, Randolph served as a principal member of various labor boards, but also began to devote his time to civil rights work. In 1957, he organized a prayer pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to civil rights issues in the South, and began organizing the first Youth March for Integrated Schools. In 1963, Randolph was a main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he would speak to a crowd of nearly 250,000 supporters. He shared the podium that day with Martin Luther King Jr., who would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the event. Randolph and King were among the handful of civil rights leaders to meet with President John F. Kennedy after the march.(April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979)
Congressman John Lewis is the only living member of the “Big Six.” He represented SNCC with a speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington. Lewis has represented the 5th District of Georgia in the United States House of Representatives since 1987, a district which includes almost all of Atlanta. Lewis is still fighting today for the dream of Dr. King. to be fulfilled.
Whitney Young Jr. helped bridge the gap between white political and business leaders and poor blacks and militants after becoming Executive Director of the National Urban League. Young served as President of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), from 1969-71.Young had a particularly close relationship with President Johnson, and in 1969, Johnson honored Young with the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.(July 31, 1921 – March 11, 1971)
In 1955, Roy Wilkins was named executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During his tenure, the NAACP played a pivotal role in leading the nation into the Civil Rights movement and spearheaded the efforts that led to significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He participated in the March on Washington (1963), the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and the March Against Fear in 196).(August 30, 1901 – September 8, 1981)