Martin Luther King Jr. had an extraordinary ability to mentor and motivate young Americans to join together in a campaign for racial equality. He also capitalized on the experience and wisdom of men and women who had been fighting for racial justice for decades. Below are profiles of some of the leading civil rights activists of King's era. (*Asterisks indicate members of the so-called Big Six — activists, including King, who were in particularly prominent positions in the civil rights movement.)
MEDGAR EVERS (Born 1925 in Decatur, Miss., slain by gunman June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Miss.) Evers became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after seeing the dismal living conditions of blacks while working as an insurance salesman in rural Mississippi in the early 1950s. He became a recruiter for the NAACP and was named the group's field secretary for Mississippi in 1954. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Evers led campaigns to register black voters and organized boycotts of firms that practiced racial discrimination. He was killed by Ku Klux Klan member Byron de La Beckwith. Evers' murder became a major rallying point in the civil rights movement, prompting greater and more strident grass-roots activism. Beckwith was tried for his murder twice in 1964 but all-white juries deadlocked in their decision and he escaped conviction. In 1994, Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
*JAMES FARMER — (Born Jan. 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas; died July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Va.) Farmer worked closely with Martin Luther King, and had been a prominent civil rights activist since co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization that was the first in the United States to use nonviolent tactics to protest racial discrimination. In the early 1960s he was a chief organizer of the "Freedom Rides" in which white volunteers traveled on interstate buses with blacks. The black Freedom Riders used restaurants, restrooms, and waiting areas reserved for whites, while the whites used colored facilities. The Freedom Riders, who frequently confronted violent mobs, challenged the federal government to enforce anti-segregation legislation that had recently been passed. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York in 1968, and served in the Nixon administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Farmer wrote about the civil rights struggle in his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (Texas Christian University Press, 1998). President Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
FANNIE LOU HAMER — (Born Oct. 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Miss.; died March 15, 1977.) The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer was born into a life of poverty. Although she received little formal education, she became one of the most dynamic speakers of the civil rights movement. She is widely known for the phrase "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Hamer became active in the movement when members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Mississippi. She worked on voter registration drives in the South. She was among several workers stopped by officials in Winona, Miss., on June 9, 1963. She and other workers were jailed and beaten. SNCC lawyers bailed her and the others out and filed suit against the Winona police. All the whites who were charged were found not guilty. She continued to work on grass-roots anti-poverty, civil rights, and women's rights projects into the 1970s.
*JOHN LEWIS — (Born Feb. 21, 1940, near Troy, Ala.) He grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Ala. In 1961, he volunteered with the Freedom Riders, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis was among the many Riders who were beaten severely by segregationist mobs. From 1963 to 1966, Lewis chaired SNCC, which he helped form. Lewis, just 23 years old at the time, was a planner and keynote speaker at the Aug. 28, 1963, "March on Washington." In 1964, he coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the "Mississippi Freedom Summer." On March 7, 1965, Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Willams led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. State troopers attacked the marchers in a confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." That march and a subsequent one between Selma and Montgomery, Ala., led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Elected to Congress in November 1986, Lewis represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District and is currently serving his ninth term.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON — (Born June 13, 1937, in Washington, D.C.) Became active in civil rights movement while attending Antioch College in Ohio. While a student a Yale Law School, she became active in the SNCC's work in Mississippi in 1963. She was one of the chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Norton was appointed to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, becoming the first woman to hold the post. She is now in her seventh term as the congresswoman for the District of Columbia.
ROSA PARKS — (Born Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala.) Many historians mark the beginning of the modern civil rights movement to Dec. 1, 1955 — the day Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. She was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance. Park's action led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by Martin Luther King Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 382 days and gave new prominence to Parks, King, and the civil rights cause. The Supreme Court in 1956 struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.
*A. PHILIP RANDOLPH — (Born April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Fla.; died May 16, 1979, in New York City) Concerned over the treatment of black workers on railroads, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first union of predominantly black workers granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor. Randolph played a key role in persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941. He wanted to stage a civil rights march on Washington that year, but Roosevelt was concerned about potential violence. Randolph organized the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. The league's efforts prompted President Harry S. Truman in 1948 to issue an executive order banning segregation in the armed forces. Randolph was one of King's closest advisers and was one of the main organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.
*ROY WILKINS — (Born Aug. 30, 1901, in St. Louis; died Sept. 8, 1981, in New York City) The grandson of a Mississippi slave, Wilkins was a tireless activist in the cause of civil rights, leading the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1931 to 1977. He helped lead the legal battle against school segregation that resulted in the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing "separate but equal" public schools. He is credited by many with being the driving force behind the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
*WHITNEY YOUNG — (Born July 31, 1921, in Lincoln Ridge, Ky.; died March 11, 1971, in Lagos, Nigeria) Young became active in the civil rights movement while a graduate student in social work at the University of Minnesota. He joined the National Urban League, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of minorities. He was dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work from 1954 to 1961, and became active with King and other Southern civil rights leaders during his tenure there. From 1961 until his death he was executive director of the Urban League. As an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Young had a major influence on federal antipoverty policies in the 1960s.