Multicultural List of Civil Rights and Social Justice Activists

The civil rights leaders and social justice activists who helped change U.S. society in the 20th century came from a variety of class, racial and regional backgrounds. While Martin Luther King was born to a middle class family in the South, Cesar Chavez was born to migrant workers in California. Others such as Malcolm X and Fred Koremastu grew up in Northern cities. Learn more about the eclectic mix of civil rights leaders and social justice activists who fought to change the status quo.

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12 Facts About Cesar Chavez

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A photograph of Cesar Chavez. Jay Galvin/Flickr.com

Born to migrant worker parents of Mexican descent in Yuma, Ariz., Cesar Chavez went on to advocate for farm workers of all backgrounds—Hispanic, black, white, Filipino. He drew national attention to the poor working conditions farm workers lived in and the dangerous pesticides and toxic chemicals they were exposed to on the job. Chavez raised awareness about farm workers by embracing the philosophy of nonviolence. He even went on repeated hunger strikes to focus the public on his cause. He died in 1993.

Martin Luther King after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. U.S. Embassy New Delhi/Flickr.com

Martin Luther King’s name and image is so omnipresent that it’s easy for one to think there’s nothing new to learn about the civil rights leader. But King was a complex man who not only used nonviolence to end racial segregation but also fought for the rights of poor people and laborers and against conflicts such as the Vietnam War. While King is remembered now for overcoming Jim Crow laws, he did not become the most recognized civil rights leader in history without a few struggles. Learn more about the complicated life King led with this list of little-known facts about the activist and minister. More »

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Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Dolores Huerta. Freedom to Marry/Flickr.com

All too often the contributions that women made to the civil rights movement are entirely overlooked. In reality, women played a key role in the fight against racial segregation, in the fight to allow farm workers to unionize and other movements. Dolores Huerta, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer are just a few in a long line of women who fought for civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. Without the help of women civil rights leaders, the Montgomery Bus Boycott may have never succeeded and grassroots efforts to register African Americans to vote may have floundered. 

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Celebrating Fred Korematsu

Fred Koremastu in the midst of a press conference. Keith Kamisugi/Flickr.com

Fred Koremastu stood up for his rights as an American when the federal government mandated that anyone of Japanese descent be rounded up into internment camps. Government officials reasoned that Japanese Americans could not be trusted after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, but historians have come to believe that racism played a large role in the issuance of Executive Order 9066. Korematsu sensed this as well, refusing to obey and fighting for his rights until the Supreme Court heard his case. He lost but was vindicated four decades later. In 2011, the state of California named a state holiday in his honor.

Malcolm X Wax Figure. Cliff 1066/Flickr.com

Malcolm X is arguably one of the most misunderstood activists in American history. Because he rejected the idea of nonviolence and did not hide his disdain for whites racists, the U.S. public largely viewed him as a menacing figure.  But Malcolm X grew throughout his life. A trip to Mecca, where he saw men from all backgrounds worshipping together, changed his views on race. He also broke ties with the Nation of Islam, embracing traditional Islam instead. Learn more about Malcolm X’s views and evolution with this short biography of his life.   More »

Wrapping Up

Thousands of people contributed to the civil rights and social justice movements that took place in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and continue to go on today. While some of them have become internationally recognized, others remain nameless and faceless. Still, their work is just as valuable as the work of activists who became famous for their efforts to fight for equality.