The civil rights movement gave birth to prominent leaders, whose narratives and accomplishments left an indelible mark on American history. People like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks have become synonymous with civil rights, and rightfully so. Their contributions to American race relations are unparalleled. However, there is a litany of men and women who have had an enormous impact on the movement. Yet, historically speaking, their stories have been omitted or reduced to footnotes. The following entries bring a few of the many civil rights heroes which time has forgotten to the forefront.
Number Five: Victor Green
Victor Green was a Harlem mailman during the era of racial segregation. However, he wasn’t just your everyday, run of the mill postal worker. Green authored a travel guide that helped African-Americans elide some of the atrocities engendered by Jim Crow. Aptly named the Green Book, the state by state guide gave Motorists detailed information pertaining to a state’s racial climate. Readers were able to learn the whereabouts of black-friendly restaurants and hotels. They were provided with knowledge about new laws and legislation that worked for or against them. If a location did not have any hotels that welcomed African-Americans, the Green Book contained listings of homes that would serve as safe havens.
Through advertisements, essays, and listings Victor Green’s guide paints a poignant picture of life during Jim Crow America. Its clear-cut depiction of race relations has made it the consummate source for a myriad of movies. In fact, there is a documentary about the book currently in development.
Number Four: Robert Smalls
Civil rights hero Robert Smalls is a man whose contributions to the advancement of African-Americans are unheralded. A former slave, Smalls transcended the woes of subjugation and became a ship pilot, sea captain, and politician. His ascension to prominence began when he couldn’t afford the $800 fee required to buy his families freedom. Instead of lamenting his lack of funds, Smalls did what any man would do in his situation. He commandeered a Confederate warship, used a hat and the cover of darkness to impersonate a white boat captain, circumvented confederate security by executing all of their furtive signals perfectly, and then proceeded to sail his family to freedom.
Smalls exhibited a level of cunning and deft so vast it changed America’s sentiments toward African-Americans serving in the military. During the Civil War, he would go on to help recruit thousands of African-American soldiers as well as become one of America’s first African-American war heroes.
Number Three: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a provocative literary piece that changed the way slavery was viewed in America. The tragic tale of a pious, incorruptible black man scared the life out of racist southerners. This news may come as a shock to some, especially since the term “Uncle Tom” is a colloquialism used to describe weak, subservient black men, but Uncle Tom was not the sycophantic slave we think of him as. Today’s perception of Stowe’s hero stems from gross re-appropriations that depicted the character as a bumbling idiot whose sole purpose was to serve “massa.”
In actuality, Uncle Tom was a strong man who adamantly adhered to his beliefs. In the novel, he is painted as a martyr after he sacrificed his life in order to liberate two fellow slaves. Stowe’s eponymous hero galvanized the nation; the story allowed readers to empathize with subjugated persons. It played such an integral role in the rally against slavery that during a meeting in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln greeted Stowe by stating “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war. For those who don’t know, the “great war” Lincoln was referring to was the one responsible for the cessation of slavery in the United States: the Civil War.
Number Two: The Harlem Hellfighters
The 369th infantry unit was a U.S. infantry regiment comprised of only African-American soldiers. Better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, this cadre of axis slaying badasses spent more time in combat during WWI than any other American unit. They were given their moniker by the Germans due to their undeniable toughness and deft on the battlefield.
The unit never lost a man to imprisonment, never allowed the enemy to push forward, and never lost a trench. Henry Johnson (a.k.a Black Death) was a seminal leader in the group and the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French. He was awarded for his efforts after he and a comrade, Needham Roberts, fought off a German patrol unit with nothing but an empty gun and a bolo knife. During the fight, the duo expended all of their ammunition but remained undeterred. Needham continued to fight with his empty firearm, wielding it like a club while Johnson killed four German soldiers and injured up to 30 more with his trusty knife. All in all, the Harlem Hellfighter’s harbored two Medal of Honor recipients and a myriad of Distinguished Service Cross recipients. Their valor and commitment to excellence helped redefine public perception of African-Americans and paved the way for diversity in the military.
Number One: Civil Rights Hero Lieutenant Uhura
In the 1960s, American actress and singer Nichelle Nichols became a bona fide sensation for her role as Lieutenant Uhura on the hit series Star Trek. Nichols was the first black woman in American history to be featured on a television series in a position of power. In those days, roles for African-American actresses tended to be relegated to servant but Nichols’ portrayal as Lieutenant Uhura made her a vanguard for progression. She is cited as an influence for a myriad of high profile entertainers and forerunners that include astronaut Mae Jamison, actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg, and civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dr. King actually persuaded the actress to keep her role on the show after she expressed interest in resigning to pursue a career on Broadway. Nichols has stated that King made her more aware of the paradigm shift her character catalyzed. He told her that she was a role model for black children and young women and her character conveyed the message of empowerment. She was a constant reminder that blacks can and should be seen as equals. In an episode which aired in November of 1968, Nichols would again push boundaries by sharing a kiss with actor William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk. The kiss would go down in history as the first example of an on-screen interracial kiss. Nichols now helps NASA recruit females and minorities for space travel initiatives, and through her work, both off screen and on, she has embodied the phrase “to boldly go where no woman has gone before.”