24 Famous Black Activists Who Transformed Society

Three Pictures of African Americans Activists: Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, and Anita Hill

Much of the freedoms we have and enjoy today are thanks to the tireless efforts of Black activists who put their lives on the line in pursuit of a future that embraces and celebrates the rights of all individuals. 

With their powerful voices and unwavering commitment, these extraordinary individuals have taken a stand against oppression, inequality, and systemic racism. 

From the civil rights movement to where we find ourselves today, their courageous actions have disrupted the status quo, shattered stereotypes, and championed the fundamental principles of justice, dignity, and human rights.

Activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, and Amanda Gorman are some of many (which we’ll dive more into) who are paving the way for future generations of leaders leaving their marks on society, sparking movements, shaping legislation, and igniting hope. 

Whether advocating for voting rights, education, criminal justice reform, or addressing environmental justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and intersectionality, their activism has set the stage for a more just and equitable future.

Pioneers of Progress: Black American Activists Fighting for Justice

Martin Luther King Jr.

A Black And White Picture Of Martin Luther King Posing In Front Of A Plane
Photo by Cees de Boer / Photo courtesy of Noord-Hollands Archief (CC0 1.0)

Martin Luther King Jr. was an influential civil rights leader and Baptist minister. He’s best known for his role in advancing civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. King became a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, advocating for racial equality and ending racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S.

Dr. King gained national recognition for his leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a successful campaign that aimed to end racial segregation on public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. He also played a crucial role in organizing and leading the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his iconic speech known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech called for an end to racism and envisioned a future where people would be judged by their character and not the color of their skin.

Throughout his years of activism, he believed in peaceful protests, civil disobedience, and active resistance against racial injustice. Dr. King led many protests, marches, and boycotts to bring attention to racial inequality, voting rights, and economic injustice.

Dr. King was tragically and senselessly assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. His death sparked outrage and led to a wave of deep mourning and unrest across America. 

In recognition of his contributions to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a national holiday in 1983, observed annually on the third Monday in January. Dr. King’s legacy continues to inspire people around the world in the ongoing struggle for equality, justice, and social change.

Coretta Scott King

A Photo Of Coretta Scott King
Photo courtesy of Coretta Scott King (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Coretta Scott King may be widely recognized as the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., but her legacy goes far beyond that.

Notably known as the chief architect of Martin Luther King’s legacy, Coretta Scott King spent her life fighting against racism, war, homophobia, and any other form of violence and inequality — all through peaceful advocacy. 

Born in Marion, Alabama, King attended Antioch College and the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied singing and violin. She met Dr. King while studying in Boston, and they married in 1953. 

Following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, King founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (also known as The King Center) in Atlanta, Georgia, as a memorial to her husband and a center for promoting social justice, human rights, and nonviolent activism.

King was also an accomplished author and public speaker. She wrote and published a collection of her speeches, writings, and interviews titled “Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy.”

King passed away in 2006, but her legacy as a civil rights leader and advocate for justice and equality continues to inspire generations of activists.

Rosa Parks

A Photo Of Rosa Parks Smiling
Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rosa Parks was an influential civil rights activist best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Parks became a symbol of resistance against racial segregation in the United States.

On Dec. 1, 1955, the then-42-year-old seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus. Her refusal to comply with the segregation laws of the time sparked a wave of protests and ultimately led to a citywide boycott of the bus system by Black Americans. 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for over a year, was a significant turning point in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination.

Parks’ act of civil disobedience inspired and energized the civil rights movement. The boycott resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional — marking a major victory for the civil rights movement.

Parks’ courageous act and her involvement in the civil rights movement brought national attention to the issue of racial inequality in the U.S. She became an iconic figure in the fight for civil rights and continued her activism throughout her life. Parks worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and dedicated herself to promoting equal rights, fighting for voter registration, and combating racial injustice.

Parks received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to the civil rights movement, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. Her legacy serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of how individual resistance and collective action in pursuit of equality and justice can move the needle forward for all.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist known for her fierce advocacy for voting rights and her efforts to combat racial inequality in the U.S. — especially when fighting for economic opportunities for Black Americans.

Born in rural Mississippi, Hamer faced the long-term effects of polio throughout her life. In 1961, during a surgery to remove a uterine tumor, a white doctor performed a hysterectomy on her without obtaining her consent. In 1963, she faced further adversity when she endured severe violence while incarcerated in a Mississippi jail for daring to exercise her right to vote. 

These harrowing experiences left her physically disabled, yet they fueled her determination to fight for justice and equality.

Her involvement in activism began when she attended a meeting about voting rights in 1962. Inspired by the meeting, she became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and dedicated herself to registering Black Americans to vote in Mississippi, where discriminatory practices and violence against Black voters were widespread.

Throughout her life, Hamer dedicated herself to fighting for social justice and advocating for the rights of marginalized communities. She worked tirelessly to register Black American voters (through campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964), organized voter education programs, and fought against voter suppression tactics. 

Despite facing threats, violence, and other forms of intimidation, Hamer remained steadfast in her mission to create a more equitable society.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Black and white photograph of W.E.B Du Bois
Photo by Addison N. Scurlock / Photo courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, ca. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and writer. Widely regarded as one of the most influential intellectuals and leaders in the early civil rights movement, Du Bois’s work played a significant role in shaping the civil rights efforts of the early 20th century.

Born in Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois was the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He chose to focus on studying and documenting the social conditions and experiences of Black Americans and challenged the prevailing racist narratives of the time.

Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and served as the editor of its magazine, The Crisis.

As a scholar, Du Bois produced groundbreaking works, including his book “The Souls of Black Folk,” which explored the psychological and social impacts of racism on Black Americans. He also conducted extensive research on the history and experiences contributing to the fields of sociology, history, and African American studies.

In his later years, he and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, traveled around the globe supporting anti-colonial and antimilitarist movements. Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, in 1963.

He left a lasting impact on civil rights activism, scholarship, and the pursuit of racial equality. His writings and teachings continue to inform ongoing efforts for social justice and racial progress.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer, civil rights activist, and jurist who made significant contributions to the advancement of civil rights in the U.S. — becoming the nation’s first Black United States Supreme Court Justice.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1933. He dedicated his legal career to fighting against racial segregation and discrimination, particularly in the area of public education. Marshall was a prominent figure in the legal team of the NAACP and argued several landmark civil rights cases before the Supreme Court.

Marshall played a crucial role in shaping the Court’s decisions on various civil rights issues, including voting rights, affirmative action, and criminal justice reform. He’s also best known for arguing the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional in public schools. 

In 1967, Marshall became the first Black American to be appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson. During his tenure — which spanned from 1967 to 1991 — Marshall consistently supported and advocated for equal protection under the law and challenged discriminatory practices.

His lifelong commitment to equality and justice continues to inspire generations of lawyers, activists, and jurists who strive to uphold and expand civil rights for all individuals in the U.S.

Ida B. Wells

Portrait of Ida B. Wells Taken in 1983
Photo courtesy of GPA Photo Archive (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ida B. Wells was an influential journalist, suffragist, researcher, and civil rights activist. She is best known for her fearless crusade against sexism, racism, and violence, pioneering efforts in investigative journalism.

Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells became a teacher after the Civil War and eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she began her career as a journalist. Wells used her writing to expose and challenge racial injustice, particularly the brutal practice of lynching that targeted Black Americans. 

Through her investigative efforts, Wells documented and publicized the grim reality of lynching, countering narratives that portrayed these acts as justified responses to alleged crimes. She revealed that many lynchings were actually racially motivated acts of violence and tools of white supremacy. 

Wells co-owned and wrote for several Black American newspapers, including the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her writings eventually angered locals, forcing her to move away from Memphis to Chicago, Illinois. 

Beyond her powerful journalistic endeavors, Wells was also an active member of the women’s suffrage movement, fighting for the voting rights of Black American women. She co-founded and served in leadership positions in organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP.

Her relentless activism and writings were instrumental in mobilizing public opinion against lynching and challenging the status quo of racial oppression.

She died on March 25, 1931. In 2020, Wells was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was an influential civil rights activist and strategist best known for his instrumental role in organizing, planning, and executing the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rustin was born in Pennsylvania and became involved in activism at a young age. He was deeply committed to nonviolent resistance and drew inspiration from his Quaker background. 

One of Rustin’s notable contributions was his mentorship and guidance to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin introduced King to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and advocated for nonviolent protest as a powerful tool for social change. He helped organize critical campaigns, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Despite his significant contributions to the civil rights movement, Rustin faced discrimination and marginalization as an openly gay man — putting him at odds with the cultural norms of that day. This often led him to work behind the scenes. Nevertheless, he remained committed to his activism.

In addition to his civil rights work, Rustin was also a vocal advocate for other social justice causes, including labor rights, international peace, and economic equality. He worked tirelessly to promote equality and justice for all marginalized communities.

John Lewis

John Lewis
Photo by Lorie Shaull / Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0)

John Lewis was a politician, civil rights leader, and advocate for social justice. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of equality and played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Born in Alabama, Lewis became inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent activism, eventually becoming involved in the civil rights movement as a young man. Lewis was a Freedom Rider, the youngest speaker at 1963’s March on Washington, and led a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, known as Bloody Sunday.

As a key member of SNCC, he was instrumental in organizing sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives, often facing violent opposition and arrests.

Lewis’s diligent efforts eventually catalyzed national support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.

After the civil rights movement, Lewis turned his attention to public service. In 1986, he was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives, a position he held until his death in 2020. 

During his tenure, Lewis continued his fight for equality and social justice, championing voting rights, affordable healthcare, and immigration reform. His philosophy of “getting in good trouble” has inspired a generation of activists to stand up against injustice. 

Ruby Bridges

A Picture Of Ruby Bridges Smiling
Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ruby Bridges gained national attention as a young child for her pioneering role in desegregating schools in the U.S. At just six years old, Bridges became the first Black American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.

Bridges was chosen to integrate the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her enrollment in the previously all-white school was met with hostility from some white parents.

Despite facing daily threats, verbal abuse, and even having to be escorted to school by U.S. Marshals for her safety, the young activist remained steadfast in her pursuit of education and equal rights — becoming a symbol of courage and resilience and inspiring many with her bravery.

In the years following her historic enrollment, Bridges continues to advocate for equality and education.

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan was a lawyer, educator, and politician who became the first Black American woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first Black American from the Deep South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Jordan overcame racial and gender barriers to succeed in her career. She earned a law degree from Boston University and became a prominent attorney — specializing in civil rights and constitutional law.

In 1966, Jordan was elected to the Texas Senate, where she focused on improving education, welfare reform, and racial equality. She played a pivotal role in creating the state’s first Fair Employment Practices Commission, which aimed to eliminate employment discrimination.

In 1972, Jordan made history by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her time in Congress, she distinguished herself as an eloquent speaker and a champion for social justice. Jordan served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon, where she gained national recognition for her powerful speeches.

After leaving Congress in 1979, Jordan taught at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. Jordan died in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 17, 1996, from pneumonia, which was a complication of leukemia. 

Folks across the country celebrated her legacy, her defense of the Constitution, and her role in inspiring generations of minority women in politics. 

“She left Congress after only three terms, a mere six years,” the editors of the New York Times wrote. “No landmark legislation bears her name. Yet few lawmakers in this century have left a more profound and positive impression on the nation than Barbara Jordan.”

Marsha P. Johnson 

Marsha P. Johnson — the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” a phrase that became her motto — was a prominent figure of the gay rights movement in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Holding intersecting identities as a Black trans woman, she was a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, particularly for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, those affected by H.I.V. and AIDS, and transgender people. 

Johnson was an active participant in the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising, a series of demonstrations and clashes between LGBTQ+ individuals and the police, marking a turning point in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and the catalyst for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

While she was a fervent advocate for these movements, she was also an outspoken critic of the early gay rights movement, speaking out against the transphobia her community experienced. As a reaction, she and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R), which later opened the STAR House in 1972 — a shelter for gay and trans homeless youth that provided food, clothing, emotional support, and a sense of family.

Tragically, Johnson’s life was cut short when she was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992. She was only 46 years old. Her death was initially ruled as a suicide, but many activists and supporters believe she was a victim of violence due to her activism and identity.

Today, Johnson’s efforts are at the center of numerous documentaries and even inspired New York City to commission its first transgender monument honoring Johnson. 

Decades after her passing, she is still one of the most influential figures in the gay liberation movement and remains one of the most recognized and admired LGBTQ+ advocates. Her legacy lives on as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ equality and the importance of intersectional activism.

The Mother and Father of Environmental Justice

Hazel M. Johnson and Robert Bullard, Ph.D., also known as the “mother” and “father” of environmental justice, are renowned scholars and activists to whom we owe much of today’s environmental progress.

Johnson was a longtime environmental activist from the South Side of Chicago. When her husband passed away from lung cancer at the age of 41, she was convinced it was due to environmental injustice and was intent on following her curiosity. Shortly after launching her investigative journey, she discovered that a toxic waste facility surrounded the area — a community built for Black World War II veterans — and her pursuit for true environmental justice was set.

In 1979, Johnson founded People for Community Recovery and was later pivotal in creating the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, which she helped present to Congress in the ’90s.

Robert Bullard, Ph.D. — who coined the term “environmental racism” in 1979 — was also empowered by his spouse in his fight for environmental justice. His wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard,  brought a lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management for its plans to put a municipal landfill in a Houston neighborhood where 82 percent of the residents were Black. 

This — as Bullard’s first-of-its-kind study uncovered — was not the only city-owned garbage dump located in Black neighborhoods. In fact, all five were located near Black communities. 

This lawsuit ended up becoming the first in U.S. history leading to a charge against a corporation for racial discrimination in its environmental practices.

Bullard was brought in as an expert witness and quickly became the leading voice for environmental justice research. He wrote and published a number of research papers and books and later helped plan the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. 

It was at this summit that the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice were developed, and Johnson and Bullard’s work overlapped. 

While these two leaders are only two of the many Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander, people of color, and Asian activists who shaped this movement, Johnson and Bullard were pivotal figures in defining, leading, and empowering a movement for generations. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw

A Photo Of Kimberlé Crenshaw Giving A Speech
Photo by Mohamed Badarne (CC-BY-SA-4.0) / Photo courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

​​Kimberlé Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar, lawyer, and feminist scholar known for her groundbreaking work on intersectionality (you may have seen her amazing TED Talk on intersectionality). Crenshaw furthered what the women in The Combahee River Collective were diligently fighting for by coining the term intersectionality in 1989.

The term effectively put a name to the interconnected nature of social identities, such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, and how they intersect to shape individuals’ experiences and systemic oppressions. 

Her work highlights the importance of recognizing and addressing the unique challenges faced by individuals who belong to multiple marginalized groups.

As a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, Crenshaw has written extensively on critical race theory, feminist legal theory, and civil rights. Her influential work has shed light on the ways in which systems of power and oppression intersect and how marginalized individuals often face compounded discrimination.

Beyond her academic work, Crenshaw has been actively involved in advocacy and organizing efforts. She has worked with various organizations dedicated to advancing racial and gender equality, including the African American Policy Forum, which she co-founded.

Her work continues to influence scholars, activists (like Gen Z intersectional environmentalist Leah Thomas), and policymakers, challenging dominant narratives and advocating for more inclusive and equitable societies.

Anita Hill 

A Photo Of Anita Hill Giving A Speech
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Anita Hill is an attorney, academic, and advocate for women’s rights. Nearly three decades before the #MeToo movement, Hill testified before an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she faced from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. 

Hill was born in 1956 in Oklahoma and attended Yale Law School, later becoming a law professor, teaching at the University of Oklahoma and Brandeis University. It was during Thomas’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court that Hill’s testimony brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the national spotlight.

Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, describing instances of alleged sexual harassment by Thomas when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her testimony and the subsequent hearings sparked intense public debate and scrutiny.

Despite Hill’s detailed and compelling testimony, Thomas was ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court. However, Hill’s bravery and willingness to speak out paved the way for other survivors to speak out against workplace abuse and harassment — leading to new legislation protecting the rights of people with similar experiences. 

Since then, Hill has remained engaged in her advocacy efforts, teaching gender, race, and law at Brandeis University and chairing the Hollywood Commission, which fights harassment in the entertainment industry. 

Her contributions have had a profound impact on the ongoing fight for safe and inclusive work environments and have inspired countless individuals (like Tarana Burke of the #MeToo movement) to stand up against harassment and injustice.

Audre Lorde

A Photo Of Audre Lorde Smiling
Photo courtesy of  350 Vermont on flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Audre Lorde was a prominent writer, poet, and activist known for her contributions to feminist theory, intersectional feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights. She was a powerful voice in addressing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class in her work.

Born in New York City, Lorde used her poetry and writings to explore and confront issues of social injustice, discrimination, and identity. Her work delved into themes of love, empowerment, and the experiences of marginalized communities.

Lorde’s writings, including her collections of poetry such as “The Black Unicorn” and “Coal,” explored the complexities of being a Black woman in a society marked by racism and sexism — seeking to amplify the voices of those who were often silenced and overlooked.

While she’s known and celebrated for her literary works, Lorde was an outspoken activist. She was involved in many social justice movements, including the civil rights movement, feminist movements, and LGBTQ+ activism. Lorde emphasized the importance of intersectionality and advocated for solidarity among different marginalized groups.

She believed in the transformative power of language and encouraged folks to use their voices to effect change. Lorde’s writings and activism continue to inspire generations of feminists, writers, and activists to fight for equality and liberation.

Mari Copeny

Mari Copeny — also known as Little Miss Flint — is a youth activist and advocate for clean water in Flint, Michigan. At the age of eight, she gained national attention when she wrote a letter to former President Barack Obama, urging him to visit Flint and address the water crisis that had plagued her city.

The president’s eventual visit ultimately led to him approving $100 million in relief for Flint. 

Born in 2007, Copeny became a prominent figure in Flint’s fight for clean water after the city’s water supply became contaminated with lead in 2014. 

The crisis disproportionately affected low-income, BIPOC communities. Copeny’s letter to President Obama helped draw attention to the issue and brought it to the forefront of national conversation.

Since then, Copeny has continued to raise awareness about the ongoing water crisis and advocate for the rights and well-being of Flint residents. The young activist also partnered with Hydroviv to produce her very own water filter for low-income families across the country — to date, she’s raised over $600k to produce and distribute her filters. 

Her advocacy serves as a reminder that using your voice and fighting for the rights and well-being of marginalized communities can create widespread impact — regardless of age or experience. 

Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones

Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones is a political commentator, author, and activist known for his work in the fields of environmental advocacy, criminal justice reform, and social justice.

Born in rural Tennessee in 1968, Jones graduated from the University of Tennessee and Yale Law School. He has worked for economic justice, both as a civil rights attorney and environmental activist.

At the age of 27, Jones convinced the California State Bar Association to let him provide lawyer referral services for police abuse victims, which led him to found the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The nonprofit agency works to reform California’s youth prison system, to create opportunities in the “green” economy for poor communities and communities of color, and to support victims and survivors of police abuse and their families.

Jones gained national recognition as a commentator and television host, appearing on CNN as a political contributor and hosting his own show, “The Van Jones Show.” 

Though he’s a household name for his media presence, Jones has used his platform to raise awareness around pressing issues, leading him to co-found several organizations, including Dream.org (previously known as the Dream Corp), which offers programs working toward an America with fewer people behind bars, less pollution, and more opportunity for kids.

Jones has stewarded several bipartisan legislative and advocacy efforts. His most recent victory was for the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, which the New York Times called “the most substantial breakthrough in criminal justice in a generation.” 

Jones — attempting to be a bridge builder in a time of extreme polarization — has worked across party lines on landmark criminal justice reform and a more humane response to the addiction crisis (you can watch his journey in the 2023 documentary “The First Step”).

Tarana Burke

A Photo Of Tarana Burke
Photo by Jon Tadiello / Photo courtesy of MIT Media Lab (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Tarana Burke is an activist, advocate, and the founder of the #MeToo movement. Born in 1973, Burke has dedicated her life to fighting against sexual violence and supporting survivors  — highlighting the importance of listening, believing, and supporting those who come forward with their experiences.

Burke initially developed the phrase “Me Too” as a means to connect with and support survivors of sexual assault — particularly young women of color. She began using the phrase in 2006 as part of her work with Just Be Inc., an organization focused on empowering and uplifting young women.

The “Me Too” movement gained widespread attention and recognition in 2017 when the hashtag #MeToo went viral on social media, following revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against famous figures in the entertainment industry. The movement became a global phenomenon, inspiring survivors to share their own stories and sparking a global conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.

Burke has been an advocate for survivors of sexual violence for over two decades, working to amplify their voices, provide resources, and promote healing and empowerment. 

In addition to her activism, Burke has served as a consultant and advisor to various organizations and initiatives focused on ending sexual violence and supporting survivors.

Burke’s dedication to fighting against sexual violence and her creation of the “Me Too” movement has had a profound impact on survivors, igniting a global movement for accountability, healing, and social change.

Stacey Abrams

A Picture Of Stacey Abrams speaking with attendees at a conversation at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stacey Abrams is a politician, lawyer, and voting rights activist who has dedicated her career to advocating for social justice and equitable access to the democratic process. 

Born in 1973, Abrams rose to prominence through her impactful work in Georgia and unwavering commitment to addressing systemic issues hindering marginalized communities.

As a politician, Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017, becoming the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly. In 2018, she made history by running for Governor of Georgia as the Democratic candidate. Although she narrowly lost the election, her campaign garnered national attention and highlighted the importance of fair elections and voting rights.

Abrams is widely recognized for her tireless efforts to combat voter suppression and expand access to the ballot box. She founded organizations such as the New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action, which aim to address voter suppression, promote voter registration, and advocate for fair election practices. 

Through grassroots organizing, legal challenges, and policy advocacy, she has fought to dismantle barriers that disproportionately affect communities of color, low-income individuals, and other marginalized groups.

Beyond her activism for voting rights, Abrams has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform, affordable healthcare, and economic equality. Her multifaceted approach to activism encompasses not only addressing immediate issues but also striving for systemic change and empowering marginalized communities to become active participants in the democratic process.

Her vision, determination, and ability to mobilize communities across the U.S. have inspired countless individuals to be active participants in the political process, challenge existing power structures, and advocate for a more inclusive and equitable society. 

Amanda Gorman

A Photo Of Amanda Gorman
Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II / Photo courtesy of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CC BY 2.0)

Amanda Gorman is a young poet and activist who gained international recognition for her powerful poetry and captivating performances — particularly “The Hill We Climb,” which she performed at the January 2021 U.S. presidential inauguration. 

The historical performance called for Americans to “rebuild, reconcile, and recover” from deeply rooted divides and racial inequities, particularly during a time of unprecedented illness, death, political strife, and calls for racial justice across the country.

Gorman grew up in Los Angeles and began writing to cope with a speech impediment. By age 16, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of LA, and at 19, she became the first National Youth Poet Laureate while studying sociology at Harvard University. 

Gorman’s poetry explores themes of identity, social justice, and the power of words — uniquely weaving together imagery, rhythm, and impactful language to convey powerful messages. 

After her book was banned from elementary-aged students at Bob Graham Education Center after a single complaint from a parent in Miami Lakes, Florida, for promoting a message of “confusion and indoctrination,” Gorman, who was “gutted,” decided to quickly fight back by raising over $50,000 for PEN America, an organization that promotes free speech and fights book bans across the country. 

Gorman continues to advocate for literacy, arts education, and social justice, using poetry as a means of storytelling and mobilizing communities to articulate complex emotions and ideas as a powerful tool for activism, artistic expression, and hope.

Cori Bush

Cori Bush is a politician, activist, and former nurse who currently serves as a U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 1st congressional district. Born in 1976, she made history as the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Bush rose to prominence as a leader in the Ferguson protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. She was actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating for police reform and racial justice. Her experiences as an activist and her firsthand knowledge of the healthcare system propelled her to run for public office.

Now, as a member of the House of Representatives, she has been an outspoken advocate for policies focused on issues such as criminal justice reform, affordable housing, healthcare access, and climate justice.

Bush’s own experiences with homelessness, poverty, and the healthcare system inform her legislative priorities. She has been a champion for marginalized communities and has fought to address systemic inequalities and uplift those who have been historically marginalized or overlooked.

RuPaul

A Picture Of RuPaul Giving A Speech At The 2019 California Hall of Fame Ceremony
Photo Courtesy of the State of California (Public Domain)

RuPaul is a fierce drag performer, TV host, recording artist, and activist. He’s widely recognized for hosting the Emmy-winning reality competition show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — a show that has transitioned the obscure subculture of drag into the mainstream. 

Born in 1960, RuPaul has become an iconic figure in popular culture and is often referred to as the most successful drag queen in the world. RuPaul gained mainstream acclaim in the 1990s with the release of the dance-pop single “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which became a hit and established RuPaul as a prominent figure in the music industry. 

Most of us know RuPaul, though, as the host of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The series — which first premiered in 2009 — has become global phenomenon, introducing audiences to a diverse group of drag performers and showcasing their talents in a variety of challenges.

Beyond his vibrant, barrier-breaking entertainment career, he’s been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights (becoming the first “Viva Glam” ambassador for M.A.C. cosmetics’ AIDS fund, which helped raise millions for the cause) and sharing his experiences as a gay man. He has used his platform to promote inclusivity, self-acceptance, and the importance of celebrating individuality.

RuPaul’s larger-than-life persona and charisma have helped drastically change the way millions of people view and appreciate the fabulousness of drag culture — and most importantly provided financially sustainable futures for drag queens.

Article Details

September 28, 2023 3:59 PM
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Diptych of fathers being affectionate with their children

Fatherhood Researcher: Nurturing dads raise emotionally intelligent kids and foster a more equitable society

When fathers are caregivers — when they provide emotional support and act affectionately toward their kids — the effects go well beyond growth, development, good health, and solid grades.
7 Indigenous Activists You Should Know

7 Indigenous Activists You Should Know

Indigenous activists have always been at the frontlines of global issues to preserve the sacredness of Earth and stand for human rights. Here are seven activists to follow from North America, South America, and Australia.
Portraits of six of the disability activists included in this article

12 Disability Activists You Should Know (and Follow!)

These disability activists challenge societal barriers, dismantle ableism, and showcase the power of their community.

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