From Maya Angelou to Spike Lee, explore how these history-making legends broke societal boundaries and fought for a better future.
Modern politics, education, activism, and culture as we know it today were shaped by Black leaders. The achievements of storied legends like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, alongside those of modern vanguards like Spike Lee and Vice President Kamala Harris are proof that the impact of their accomplishments have transcended generations. While Black History Month isn’t the beginning or end of acknowledging the long-lasting importance of their speeches, movies, and place in the civil rights movement, it’s a good place to start.
With Black History Month serving as the springboard for specialized lesson plans in the classroom and educational after-school programs, Shutterstock’s bundle of illustrations depicting modern and historical Black leaders make for a unique look back at history.
However, each person has a story that solidified their place in history for a reason. Read on to explore how these history-making figures broke societal boundaries and fought for each other.
What’s in the Pack: Ten Leaders Who Have Shaped Modern and Historical Black History
1. Satchel Paige
Baseball great Satchel Paige’s skills on the field in the Negro League and in Major League Baseball keep him in the public’s eye as one of the sport’s best players. Paige began his career as an all-star pitcher in the Negro Leagues in 1926 at the age of twenty. For two decades, he made his name as a Negro World Series Champion and five-time Negro League All-Star before making his MLB debut in 1948, at the age of forty-two.
Paige dazzled as a member of the Cleveland Indians his first year in the major leagues when the team won the World Series. He also earned the All-Star title twice in 1952 and 1953 while pitching for the St. Louis Browns. Paige made history as one of the first Black players in the MLB, and later became the first player on the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
2. Angela Davis
Following her own arrest while advocating for the release of the Soledad Brothers in 1970, activist Angela Davis has dedicated her life to working in prison reform and against the prison industrial complex. Davis first came into the public eye in 1969 at the age of 25 when she lost her position as a philosophy professor at UCLA for her Communist beliefs. That would ultimately put Davis on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and have her wrongly jailed for sixteen months.
After her release in 1972, Davis used her platform to speak against prison culture in the U.S., as well as pen essays and books covering themes like feminism, Marxism, race, and popular culture. Advocating for prison reform and the eventual abolishment of prisons—for women, in particular—notably inspired Davis to create Critical Resistance, an organization fighting for those goals, in 1997.
3. Marsha P. Johnson
LGBTQ rights activist Marsha P. Johnson is remembered today for her role as a fixture of the early days of the gay liberation movement in New York City. Johnson—who used she/her pronouns, identified as a drag queen, and referred to herself as the time-appropriate term “transvestite”—fought back against police officers at the Stonewall riots of 1969 and was the creator of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with fellow activist Sylvia Rivera. STAR provided food and housing to homeless queer youth and sex workers.
As a sex worker herself, Johnson championed the rights of her colleagues throughout her life. She also worked with ACT UP to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Following her untimely death in 1992, the importance of Johnson’s life work was resurrected in the 2010s and she remains a historic LGBTQ icon as a result.
4. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pastor and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has, in the decades since his death, remained the face of the Civil Rights Movement and equality in the U.S. King spearheaded the movement in 1955—which fought to achieve racial equality for African Americans during the Jim Crow segregation era of the 1950s and 1960s—and carried out his message in his many marches, protests, and speeches.
King’s celebrated words on equality in the work, voting, and social spheres famously resulted in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, drafted after his attempt to bring integration to Birmingham, Alabama, and his famed “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. King was also the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. His efforts to unify people, regardless of race and gender, directly led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
5. Rep. John Lewis
Longtime congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis advocated for the Black community, both politically and socially, throughout his life. In his youth, Rep. Lewis fought against segregation on public transportation as a Freedom Rider in 1961, was one of the “Big Six” leaders that led the 1963 March on Washington alongside activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins. he was also among the protesters beaten during Bloody Sunday in 1965.
Of his activist days as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which included sit-ins at segregated businesses and bus boycotts, Rep. Lewis always noted that he and his peers were causing “good trouble,” the kind that leads to societal change on a larger scale. It was a phrase he reiterated the importance of for the rest of his life. As a politician, Rep. Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020.
6. Harriet Tubman
Living during the days of American slavery in the 19th century, abolitionist Harriet Tubman risked her life, time and time again, to help slaves escape their plantations and head north to freedom. Tubman, herself a slave, was born in 1820 and first escaped Dorchester County in Maryland in 1849 after fears that she would be sold. Following the North Star, she made it to Philadelphia on foot. She made the city her home before traveling back to Maryland multiple times to help her loved ones and friends escape.
The routes Tubman used to get to free states, as well as the homes offering shelter along the way, was famously dubbed “The Underground Railroad,” and she was known as a conductor. Tubman, dubbed “Moses” for freeing her loved ones, made nineteen trips back down south over the course of eleven years, and advocated for the abolishment of slavery at meetings and talks in-between trips.
7. Vice President Kamala Harris
As the 49th Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris made history in 2020 by becoming the first female politician to win the title, as well as the first Black and South Asian woman to do so. Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, was the attorney general of California and a senator prior to holding the second highest title in the U.S.
Harris graduated from the historically Black college Howard University in 1986 and studied law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where she graduated with her JD in 1989. During her decades-long political career, which began as a district attorney, Harris has advocated for undocumented immigrants, more accessible healthcare for Americans, and the decriminalization of marijuana, among others.
8. Kathleen Cleaver
Cleaver made history as the first woman to hold a major leadership position within the Black Panther Party. Cleaver’s activism predated her joining the Black Panthers, most notably as a secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After her marriage to Eldridge Cleaver, who was the minister of information for the Black Panthers, Kathleen became the communications secretary.
The couple’s involvement with the political party, at one point, caused them to leave the U.S.—from 1969 to 1975—and when they returned, Kathleen set her sights on law. She earned both her undergraduate history degree (1984) and her law degree (1989) from Yale University, and divorced Eldridge Cleaver between degrees in 1987. Kathleen has worked as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia and was a lecturer at the Emory University School of Law until 2020.
9. Maya Angelou
Poet, author, and essayist Maya Angelou was praised as one of poetry and literature’s greatest during her lifetime. While Dr. Angelou worked extensively within the creative field, working as a cabaret singer and a stage actor, it’s her novels and autobiographies that solidified her place in literary history.
Among her most famous works is the 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work now extensively studied in schools and colleges across the U.S. As a poet, Dr. Angelou penned classics like “Still I Rise,” “Phenomenal Woman,” “On the Pulse of Morning,” and “Caged Bird,” among others. She was also a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
10. Spike Lee
If there’s valued commentary to be made on Black people and their place in society and culture, director Spike Lee will be the one to capture it on the big screen. Lee is the mind behind critically acclaimed films like She’s Gotta Have It, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, 4 Little Girls, BlacKkKlansman, and more, works that deal with themes including racism, politics, crime, sexuality, and family.
A New York City cultural staple, the borough of Brooklyn, which has a historically large Black population, is a running backdrop in Lee’s films. Lee’s catalog of works, which have earned him a plethora of awards, have been praised for their raw and real depictions of issues regularly faced by Black people.
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For every turning point in integration that’s led to diverse schools and workplaces, there was Black leadership behind that. For every step forward taken to advance social causes, Black feet were on the ground. The beginnings of giants like Martha P. Johnson and John Lewis were that of everyone else—regular people who wanted to be the change they saw. Black History Month reminds us every year of the greatness that was yesterday, and the possibilities of tomorrow left to discover.
All illustrations by Shutterstock contributor Sabina Kencana.
Cover image by Sabina Kencana.
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