Looking back on history, many leaders have left an impression on millions of people. Here are 9 of those undefeated dreamers, doers, great geniuses and silent innovators, record-breakers and icons of pride and aspiration who helped change the world.
1. Shirley Chisholm
The first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress was Shirley Chisholm, born on 30 November 1924. Chisholm started working with local political groups as an early educator from New York City. In 1964 she secured a place in the New York State Parliament, representing her Brooklyn neighborhood. She was elected to the United States House of Representatives four years later.
Chisholm was bold and open-minded. She was assigned to the Agriculture Committee where although she performed admirably, followed her true passion and was later reassigned to the Education and Labor Committee. When she decided to run for president (the very first African woman to do so), she was blocked from television debates, but she kept fighting for equal rights for women, minorities, refugees and the poor.
Chisholm, who served in Congress for seven terms (14 years), helped open doors for individuals like President Barack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Regardless of paving the way for others, she did not want to be recognized as the first woman or African American to do something. She wished to be recognized as someone who had the strength to stand up for what is right. She passed away on January 1, 2005.
2. Blanche Kelso Bruce
Blanche K. Bruce was born on March 1, 1841, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. He was an African American senator from Mississippi during the Reconstruction period. Bruce was the first African-American senator to serve a full term in the United States Senate.
Bruce, the son of a slave mother and a white planter father, obtained a good education as a child. Following the American Civil War, he relocated to Mississippi, where he became a supervisor of elections in 1869. By 1870, he was a rising star in state politics.
He was county assessor, sheriff and member of the Board of Levee Commissioners of the Mississippi River. After serving as a sergeant at arms in the state senate, he amassed enough money from these positions to buy a plantation in Floreyville, Mississippi.
In 1874, Mississippi’s Republican-dominated state legislature voted Bruce to the United States Senate. He served from 1875 to 1881, calling for equal rights of Blacks and Indians. He called for stronger race ties and improved navigation on the Mississippi. He dedicated a significant amount of his time and resources to combating bribery and corruption in federal elections.
With the end of Reconstruction regimes in the South, Bruce abandoned his political support in Mississippi. He lived in Washington until his Senate term ended and he was appointed register of the Treasury. He held that position from 1881 to 1885, and then again from 1895 to 1898. He was also the District of Columbia’s recorder of deeds (1889–95) and a trustee of Howard University. He passed away on March 17, 1898, in Washington, D.C.
3. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune, the 15th child of former slaves, was born on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875 and rose from modest origins to become a world-renowned scholar, human rights leader, champion for women and young people and counselor to five U.S. presidents.
She was an American educator who was involved in African American affairs on a global scale, and served as a special advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on minority community issues.
In 1893, she graduated from Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, and in 1895, from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She married Albertus L. Bethune in 1898 and taught in several small Southern schools until 1903.
In 1904 Bethune relocated to the east coast of Florida, where a strong African American population had grown up after the development of the Florida East Coast Railway. In October 1904 she opened her school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, in Daytona Beach. Despite having almost no physical assets, she worked diligently to create a schoolhouse, solicit donations and contributions, and ultimately gained the support of both the African American and white communities. In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville, Florida, to create Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Bethune was the college’s president until 1942, and again from 1946 to 1947. Under her leadership, the college gained full accreditation and expanded to a student population of over 1,000.
Bethune rose to national prominence as a result of her work on behalf of education and better race relations, and in 1936 Roosevelt hired her as the National Youth Administration’s administrative assistant for Negro affairs (a designation that was modified in 1939 to head of the division of Negro affairs), a role she retained until 1944.
She established the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and served as its president until 1949. She was also the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1940 to 1955. She advised Roosevelt on minority issues and supported the secretary of war in recruiting officer candidates for the United States Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
4. Richard Allen
Richard was born on February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a significant American denomination.
Allen’s family was sold to a Delaware farmer soon after he was born. He became a Methodist convert at the age of 17 and was authorized to preach at the age of 22. Allen was considered a gifted candidate for the priesthood of the Methodist Episcopal Church two years later (1784), at the first general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.
In 1786, he gained his freedom and relocated to Philadelphia, where he became a member of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. He was occasionally invited to preach to the church. He also led prayer sessions for Black people. The number of people who could attend these meetings was small. Disappointed, Allen left in 1787 to help establish an independent Methodist church. In 1787, he converted an old blacksmith shop into the United States’ first Black church. His supporters were known as Allenites.
Allen was the first African American to be ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church’s ministry in 1799. The Bethel Society’s formation resulted in the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, which elected Allen as its first bishop. He passed away on March 26, 1831 in Philadelphia.
5. Edward Brooke
Edward Brooke, (real name Edward William Brooke), was born October 26, 1919, in Washington, D.C. He was the first African American popularly elected to the United States Senate, where he served two terms (1967–79).
Brooke graduated from Howard University (Washington, D.C.) in 1941 and went on to serve as an infantry officer in World War II, rising to the rank of captain. Following his discharge, he attended Boston University and received two law degrees, as well as serving as the editor of the Boston University Law Review.
Brooke started practicing law in 1948 and came to fame as a prominent Boston lawyer. In his first step into politics, he was unsuccessful in attempts for a seat in the Massachusetts legislature in 1950 and 1952. He also lost in his attempt to become Massachusetts Secretary of State in 1960. From 1961 to 1962, he was the chairman of the Boston Finance Board, which investigated charges of corruption in city politics.
Brooke, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, was elected Massachusetts Attorney General in 1962. Despite Democrats’ popularity that year, he was reelected by a wide margin in 1964 as an enthusiastic investigator of official corruption (Democratic Pres. Lyndon Johnson captured more than 75 percent of the vote in Massachusetts against Republican Barry Goldwater).
Brooke secured a seat in the United States Senate by almost half a million votes in 1966. The same year, he published The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System, which stressed self-help as a method of solving the social problems affecting the United States in the 1960s. He came to fame as a soft-spoken civil-rights leader on his party’s left-wing.
Brooke returned to the practice of law after leaving the Senate in 1979, becoming chairman of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. He received several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. Bridging the Divide (2007), his biography, examines questions of race and class through the perspective of his views as an African American Republican politician from a historically Democratic state. He died on January 3, 2015, in Coral Gables, Florida.
6. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in 1895 in Ninety-Six, South Carolina, to parents who were born slaves and freed after the Civil War. Mays excelled as a student from a young age, and he was motivated by what he called “an insatiable desire to get an education” in his childhood. In this, he disagreed with his father, who thought Mays’ time would be best spent working on the family farm, but he was consistently encouraged by his mother, who couldn’t read or write.
Beginning in a one-room rural schoolhouse, he learned all he could from a series of local schools. Later graduating from Orangeburg’s State College and enrolling in college at Virginia Union in Richmond, Virginia. Mays enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 1917, determined to continue his undergraduate studies outside of the segregated South. Despite being one of the school’s only Black pupils, Mays faced no racial discrimination and believed that his teachers and peers regarded him fairly. He wrote of his years at Bates, “For the first time…I felt at home in the universe”.
Mays had been inspired by one of his high school professors to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago, and he enrolled in the Divinity School there in 1921. He took several breaks from his graduate studies to take teaching jobs, including one at Morehouse College, as well as positions with the National Urban League and the YMCA, but he still returned to his chosen path, receiving his master’s degree in 1925 and his doctorate in 1935. During this time, he was also ordained as a Baptist minister.
Mays served as dean of the Howard University School of Religion from 1934 to 1940 before taking over as president of Morehouse College, a position he held with distinction for the next quarter-century.
Mays was an outspoken opponent of segregation and an advocate for education. He was a role model for Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his Morehouse classmates, and he served as an unofficial adviser to the young minister. Mays delivered the benediction at the end of the March on Washington in 1963, as well as the eulogy at King’s funeral in 1968.
Among his many books was the first sociological study of African-American religion, The Negro’s Church, published in 1933; The Negro’s God, of 1938; Disturbed About Man, of 1969; and his autobiography Born to Rebel, of 1971. These books demonstrate a keen intelligence, moral devotion, and prophetic faith. Mays received almost thirty honorary doctorates, as well as many other distinctions, including election to the Schomburg Honor Roll in Race Relations (one of the only dozen major leaders to be so honored). He died in 1984 and is buried on the Morehouse campus.
7. Mary Eliza Church Terrell
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Mary Eliza Church Terrell was a well-known African American activist who advocated for racial equality and women’s suffrage. Terrell, an Oberlin College graduate, was a pioneer of the rising Black middle and upper communities who used their power to combat racial discrimination.
Terrell was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. She was the daughter of former slaves. Robert Reed Church, her father, was a wealthy businessman who was one of the South’s first African American millionaires. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, ran a hair salon. She only had one sibling. Terrell’s parents split when she was a child. Terrell was able to attend the Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio, and then Oberlin College, where she received both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, due to her parents’ wealth and interest in the importance of education.
Terrell taught at Wilburforce College for two years before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1887 to teach at the M Street Colored High School. There she met and married Heberton Terrell, a teacher, in 1891.
Her activism began in 1892, when an old friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched by whites in Memphis because his business competed with theirs. Terrell worked with Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching movements, but her life work was centered on the concept of racial uplift, or the idea that Blacks could help end racial injustice by advancing themselves and other members of the race through schooling, work, and community activism.
It was a strategy focused on the influence of equal opportunity to advance the race and her conviction that if one person succeeds, the whole race would prosper. “Lifting as we climb,” her moto became the slogan of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), an organization she helped found in 1896. She served as president of the NACW from 1896 to 1901.
Terrell was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was established in 1909. The College Alumnae Club, later called the National Association of University Women, was founded by her in 1910.
Terrell concentrated on broader human rights since the 19th amendment was passed. She wrote her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, in 1940, detailing her prejudiced experiences. Since winning an anti-discrimination case, Terrell became the first Black member of the American Association of University Women in 1948. She opposed the segregation of public spaces in 1950, at the age of 86, by protesting at the John R. Thompson Restaurant in Washington, DC. She was successful when the Supreme Court declared in 1953 that segregated eating facilities were illegal. It was a significant victory in the Civil Rights Movement. She died four years later in Highland Beach, Maryland.
8. Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was an African American civil rights activist who campaigned to desegregate the Mississippi Democratic Party. She was born on October 6, 1917, in Ruleville, Mississippi, and died on March 14, 1977, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Fannie Lou, the youngest of 20 children, started working in the fields with her sharecropper parents when she was six years old. She only earned a sixth-grade education as a result of poverty and racial exploitation. She married Perry (“Pap”) Hamer in 1942. Her civil rights advocacy began in August 1962, when she responded to a request for volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to counter racist voter registration procedures. After being fired for failing to register to vote (failing a literacy test), she joined SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) as a field secretary. She became a registered voter in 1963.
In 1964, Hamer cofounded and became vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was organized after African Americans were unable to cooperate with the all-white and anti-segregation Mississippi Democratic Party. The same year she appeared before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention, asking that the Mississippi Democratic Party’s delegation be replaced by the MFDP’s.
In her testimony, she vividly explained acts of abuse and injustice committed against civil rights demonstrators, including her own experience of a jailhouse beating that left her permanently disabled. However, at President Johnson’s request, the committee declined to seat the MFDP delegation, instead giving only two at-large seats, one of which went to Hamer. She and the MFDP also declined.
To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography was published by Hamer in 1967. As a member of the Democratic National Committee for Mississippi (1968–71) and the National Women’s Political Caucus Policy Council (1971–77), she strongly criticized the Vietnam War and sought to strengthen Mississippi’s economic conditions.
9. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, and died April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a Baptist preacher and social activist who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. His leadership was vital to the success of the campaign in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other areas of the United States.
King came to national attention as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which argued for peaceful tactics to pursue civil rights, such as the huge March on Washington (1963). In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
King earned a Doctorate of Theology and assisted in organizing the first major protest of the African American Civil Rights Movement, the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He supported civil disobedience and nonviolent opposition to discrimination in the South, influenced by Mohandas Gandhi. The nonviolent marches he led throughout the American South were often met with brutality, but King and his allies continued, and the revolution gained popularity.
The ratification of the 24th Amendment, which eliminated the poll tax, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in jobs and education and abolished racial segregation of public buildings, were two of the Civil Rights Movement’s most significant victories in 1964. Later that year, King became the Nobel Peace Prize’s youngest winner. In the late 1960s, King publicly opposed the United States’ role in Vietnam and shifted his focus to gaining equal justice for poor Americans. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.