Demonstrators from the 1963 March on Washington sit cooling their feet in the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial originally taken by Warren K. Leffler; photo via Unseen Histories/Unsplash.
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Trailblazers in Black Resistance You Need To Know About

The theme for Black History Month in the United States this year is ‘Black Resistance’; a chance to discover and celebrate those who advocated for and defined how liberty, justice and equitable living should nurture and protect Black lives in this country. There’s much progress yet to be made in the fight against ongoing racial discrimination; this is why it’s essential we learn (all year round) from the trailblazers who’ve shaped this work so far.

Black resistance has been a significant thread throughout the history of the United States; all seeking to eliminate systemic racism and the power structures that fuel discrimination, oppression and hatred. This defiance in the face of enormous odds has been a constant through some of the most shameful aspects of America’s past and present — an ongoing history that even today is being suppressed from being taught by political maneuvering that wants to rewrite, whitewash and bury it. The path of Black resistance has travelled through the late 17th century to modern day; all fuelled by resilient, courageous and dynamic Black Americans who lead the way. The refusal to accept inhumanity, injustice and inequity has journeyed through slavery; the Civil War; the Reconstruction Era; Jim Crow’s segregation and disenfranchisement laws; the Civil Rights movement; the Black Power movement — and beyond.

A title graphic for a post available on Transatlantic Notes called, ‘Trailblazers in Black Resistance You Need to Know About’. The background image shows a photo taken by Warren K. Leffler of demonstrators from the 1963 March on Washington cooling their feet in the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial.

There are many ways in which the power of resistance has been utilized to ensure Black American’s rights and successes are protected and uninhibited. Unified action that generates systemic change has included things like sit-ins, strikes, boycotts and protests; all alongside building strong Black communities and organizations that fight to ensure representation and longstanding social progress. Examples of this include the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955; the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960; the Stonewall riots of 1969; the Black Lives Matter movement of 2013 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. Each of these examples demonstrates the power and importance of standing up for what’s right. They also demonstrate how people from all walks of life can come together to fight for justice and equality.

African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores. […] Black people have sought ways to nurture and protect Black lives, and for autonomy of their physical and intellectual bodies through armed resistance, voluntary emigration, nonviolence, education, literature, sports, media, and legislation/politics. Black led institutions and affiliations have lobbied, litigated, legislated, protested, and achieved success. | Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Learning about all the diverse aspects of Black history in the United States (and worldwide) is to be committed to understanding and not hiding from the truth; that America was founded on White supremacy that oversaw Indigenous genocide to “claim” the land while building its wealth on the forced labour of enslaved people. Celebrating Black resistance is about recognizing the struggles and essential accomplishments and contributions that Black Americans have had — and continue to have — in shaping a country that works to live up to its purported ideals of freedom, equality and progress.

Through recognizing Black resistance, we gain insight into some of the most significant social and political movements in history; using this knowledge to build a more equitable society for the future. By honouring the lives, words and work of those who pioneered radical change; we can gain a broader appreciation for how the culture and social structures of this country can continue to move forward. Here are six trailblazers in Black resistance you need to know about …

Robert Smalls

A black and white photo of Robert Smalls from between 1870 and 1880 from the Brady-Handy Collection at the Library of Congress.
Robert Smalls via Brady-Handy Collection/Library of Congress

Born into slavery in 1839 on a plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina (owned by John McKee), Robert Smalls spent his early years working in the McKee household as well as labouring in the plantation’s fields. When he was about twelve, the McKee family moved to Charleston where they hired him out to work on the docks and wharves of the harbour. Robert quickly became an adept longshoreman, rigger and sail maker; eventually becoming a skilled wheelman (a title used instead of ‘helmsman’ for enslaved people).

At age seventeen he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid and mother of two daughters (Clara and Charlotte). Robert and Hannah went on to have two of their own children; a daughter named Elizabeth and a son, Robert Jr. who sadly died aged two from smallpox.

In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Robert Smalls was conscripted into the Confederate army to become a pilot of a war ship (the Planter); transporting weapons and vital strategic documents to different forts and places along the Charleston harbour. In 1862, during an extraordinary show of planned resistance; Robert and the other enslaved crew members of the Planter hid their families onboard and stole the vessel to sail it into Union controlled waters. As the captain of this escape, Robert navigated through dangerous checkpoints (offering the correct signals to pass through) and transported himself, his wife and daughters and the crew and their families into safety — all sixteen people on board were freed from slavery for the first time in their lives.

After the war, Robert Smalls became a commissioned brigadier general in the South Carolina militia and was able to purchase his former owner’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina; even taking in some members of the McKee family who had become destitute. He also opened a general store and started a school for Black children and a newspaper. With his new-found success and well established Civil War heroism, Robert soon found a place in politics — he ended up serving five terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Ella Baker

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1903, and growing up in North Carolina; Ella Baker’s keen sense of social justice and civil rights was often inspired by her grandmother, who recounted what life had been like as an enslaved person. Living on land her maternal grandparents bought and cultivated from part of the plantation on which they were formerly enslaved; Ella encountered firsthand generational experience of the difference social progress could make. Her family became successful farmers and could build independent wealth — which remains a cornerstone principle of ending racial inequity.

Studying at Shaw University in North Carolina, Ella began exercising her advocacy skills by challenging unfair school policies. After graduating in 1927 and moving to New York City, she extended this work by joining local social activist organizations. Her commitment to securing Black economic power and justice subsequently led her to join the Young Negroes Cooperative League in 1930; a group focusing on these key principles by building collective networks.

From 1938 to 1953, Ella joined the NAACP where she maintained various positions, including working as a field secretary and director of branches (1943-1946). Following this, in 1955, she co-founded an organization called In Friendship which raised money to fight against Jim Crow laws that had taken hold in the deep South. A few years later in 1957, this experience introduced her to Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Building on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama a couple of years prior; Ella was one of the three leading organizers of the SCLC’s Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, its first major public appearance as a civil rights organization.

Her work moved in a slightly new direction by April 1960 when she became inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in protests held two months before in February. Started by four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (who refused to leave after being denied service because of their race); Ella helped create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to more widely organize sit-ins as a form of civil rights action across the then still segregated South.

Coretta Scott King

A black and white photo of Coretta Scott King taken by Warren K. Leffler at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
Coretta Scott King at the 1976 Democratic Convention via Warren K. Leffler Collection/Library of Congress

An activist in her own right, Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) made numerous, significant contributions to social justice and the American Civil Rights movement throughout her lifetime. Married to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; one of the most recognisable Civil Rights icons since the 1950s, Coretta was one half of possibly the greatest social justice partnerships of the 20th century. 

Born near Marion, Alabama, Coretta attended a local private school where she developed a passionate interest in music; taking formal vocal lessons, becoming lead soprano in the senior chorus, reading music and learning to play piano and trumpet. Initially attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (the same place her sister Edythe had attended as the first African American student), Coretta transferred in 1951 to the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, where she met her future husband. After marrying in 1953, the couple returned to their respective colleges to complete their degrees; Coretta received a bachelor of music in 1954. 

While her husband was still alive, she became a devoted supporter of the Civil Rights movement, often accompanying Dr. King on marches and rallies. After his assassination in 1968, she became an even more active advocate for social justice; fighting to keep her husband’s legacy alive and spearheading a successful campaign to make his birthday a national holiday. Coretta also founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and served as the center’s president until her death in 2006. Her legacy of activism and leadership continues to be celebrated today.

Pauli Murray

Important note regarding pronouns: Currently, the Pauli Murray Center chooses to use he/him and they/them pronouns when discussing Pauli Murray’s early life and she/her/hers when discussing Dr. Murray’s later years. When discussing Pauli Murray in general, we interchangeably use she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs pronouns, or we refer to Pauli Murray by their name and title(s).

Pauli Murray (1910 to 1985) was an American Civil Rights and gender rights activist, lawyer, writer, poet, and priest. As a vitally influential figure in the Civil Rights movement, Pauli led prominent initiatives such as the 1947 bus protest in Virginia and the 1961 Freedom Rides.

After enrolling in Howard University Law School in 1941, Pauli graduated first in their class in 1944 then went on to attend UC Berkeley School of Law; achieving a Masters of Law degree and passing the California bar exam in 1945 — becoming the state’s first Black deputy attorney general the next year. In 1951, Pauli wrote their seminal law compilation States’ Laws on Race and Color, which became known as the ‘bible’ of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, it was this work that heavily influenced the NAACP’s legal arguments in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that struck down segregation in American schools.

As if that wasn’t trailblazing enough; Pauli became the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Yale Law School in 1965 and became a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 — an organization active today that fights to further advocate for women’s rights.

There is so much to learn about Pauli Murray it felt all but impossible to summarize their life’s work. I encourage anyone who has not heard of them before to follow the links provided here to find out more.

Angela Davis

A half-length portrait photo of Angela Davis from 1974 by Bernard Gotfryd; colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd.
Angela Davis by Bernard Gotfryd [colourized by Jordan J. Lloyd] via Unseen Histories/Unsplash

Angela Davis is a political activist, scholar and author who has been deeply involved in the civil rights, Black Power and prison abolition movements for decades. Born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, she was exposed to the realities of racism and segregation early on; including homes being bombed across the street from where she lived because they had been purchased by Black people who were moving into a White neighbourhood. Davis also knew two of the four girls killed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

It was during her time at Brandeis University and UC San Diego that Davis immersed herself in multiple civil rights and anti-war activism efforts. In 1969, she was fired from her teaching position at UCLA for her affiliation with the Communist Party USA; however, she continued advocating for social justice and work on behalf of prisoners.

In the 1970s, Davis became increasingly well-known in the media due to her involvement in the Soledad Brothers case; including her arrest and subsequent trial on charges of conspiracy and murder and her activism in support of the Attica prison uprising. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972, but remained a target of both the FBI and the US government. After her acquittal, Davis continued her work advocating for the rights of inmates, speaking and writing widely on the issue.

Davis is currently a distinguished professor emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments at UC Santa Cruz. She has authored several books, including Women, Race & Class; Abolition Democracy and also Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. She continues to represent a powerful voice for social justice and prison abolition; her work has been an inspiration to countless people around the world.

Colin Kaepernick

Born in 1985 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Colin Kaepernick is a professional athlete and human rights activist. In 2011 he embarked on his National Football League (NFL) career with the San Francisco 49ers as their quarterback; however, it’s his protests against police brutality and racial injustice (peacefully kneeling during the playing of the national anthem) that he is most known for.

Following his quiet protests there was swift and relentless backlash; politicians (mostly on the right) falsely equated his actions with disrespecting the anthem, flag and military. Social media then fuelled this deliberate misinformation; aiming to discredit and discourage anyone else from speaking out against the realities of racism in America. He lost his job with the NFL and has not played for them since 2016. 

However, Kaepernick did not let one career ending prevent him from finding his purpose. Straight after leaving the NFL he co-founded the Know Your Rights Camp (KYRC); an organization aimed at raising up Black and Brown communities with higher education awareness, self-empowerment and instruction on how to properly interact with law enforcement. In 2020, KYRC set up its nationwide Legal Defense Initiative and donated $1.75 million to various grassroots organizations that fight to protect communities impacted by racial injustice.

Kaepernick has received numerous awards for his activism work; including the ACLU’s Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award and the Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Black History All Year Round

Black history is American history; it’s integral to understanding and celebrating who and what has shaped this country. Black American contributions should never be overlooked or relegated to a historical (or modern day) sidenote. History repeatedly places present-day issues into valuable context, encouraging us to learn and move forward. No matter how hard some people in positions of power try to silence or obfuscate Black history from being taught; we can still follow the trail lit up by so many who came before us.

If you found any of the information interesting and would like to learn more; I encourage you to read up on any of the people and events featured in this post. Their lives and work are, of course, far more complex and full than I could include here; I highly recommend reading as much as you can about each person. 

Did you learn about someone you hadn’t heard about before? What are you doing to celebrate Black History Month?

Further Info:

16 Queer Black Trailblazers Who Made History – NBC News

Profiles in Perseverance: Little-Known Black Figures – CNN

31 thoughts on “Trailblazers in Black Resistance You Need To Know About”

  1. I’m always absolutely astonished by these posts from you. They must require so much thought and research and they’re always so helpful, inspiring and informative. Thank you for sharing these wonderful people with us; I’ve only heard of one in the past.


  2. I have to confess I don’t know anywhere near as much about black history as I probably should do. This was a very interesting post, although I’m sad to hear about Colin Kaepernick not being able to play for the NFL any longer, that’s very unfair and short-sighted of them.


  3. Thanks for highlighting some of the many people who made contributions to the black liberation movement. I personally think that black history should be taught in every school across every race. This will help most people to learn and appreciate the inhumane struggles that blacks endured and are still experiencing.


  4. This is a fantastic post, and I didn’t know about most of these trailblazers, so it was great to learn more about them. As you said, black history is American history, and black history should be taught in schools because you learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but not his wife Coretta and the contributions she has made.


  5. Thank you for highlighting some of the strongest and inspirational people in history. There’s so much that’s overlooked or not taught in schools and it’s a huge loss. As always, thank you for sharing such a beautifully written and informative post!


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