The "Big Six:" Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement

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Who are the "Big Six"?

The "Big Six" Civil Rights Leaders (l to r) John Lewis, Whitney Young Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer Jr., and Roy Wilkins. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The "Big Six" is a term used to describe the six most prominent African-American leaders during the Civil Rights Movement.

The "Big Six" includes labor organizer Asa Philip Randolph; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC);  James Farmer Jr., of Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE);  John Lewis of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the National Urban League's Whitney Young, Jr.; and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

These men would be responsible for organizing the March on Washington, which took place in 1963, 

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A. Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979)

Asa Philip Randolph
Public Domain

A. Philip Randolph's  work as a civil rights and social activist spanned more than 50 years--through the Harlem Renaissance and through the modern Civil Rights Movement. 

Randolph began his career as an activist in 1917 when he became  president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America. This union organized African-American shipyard and dockworkers throughout the Virginia Tidewater area.

Yet, Randolph’s chief success as a labor organizer was with the  Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The organization named Randolph as its president in 1925 and by 1937 African-American workers were receiving better pay, benefits and working conditions. 

However, Randolph's biggest success was helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963. 

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

Martin Luther King, Jr., at a 1964 press conference. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 In 1955, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was summoned to lead a series of meetings concerning the arrest of Rosa Parks. This pastor's name was Martin Luther King, Jr. and he would be pushed into the national spotlight as he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted a little more than a year. 

Following the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King along with several other pastors would establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize protests throughout the South. 

For fourteen years, King would work as a minister and activist, fighting against racial injustices not only in the South, but the North as well. Before his death in 1968, King was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the Presidential Medal of Honor 

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James Farmer Jr.(1920 - 1999)

James Farmer Jr. Public Domain

 James Farmer Jr. established the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. The organization was established to fight for equality and racial harmony through nonviolent practices. 

In 1961, while working for the NAACP, Farmer organized Freedom Rides throughout southern states. The Freedom Rides were considered successful for exposing the violence African-Americans endured in segregation to the public through the media.  

Following his resignation from CORE in 1966, Farmer taught at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before accepting a position with Richard Nixon as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. 

In 1975, Farmer established the Fund for an Open Society, an organization that aimed to develop integrated communities with shared political and civic power. 

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John Lewis

John Lewis, 1964
John Lewis, 1964. Stock Montage/Getty Images

 John Lewis is currently a United States Representative for the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia. He has held this position since thirty years.

But before Lewis began his career in politics, he was a social activist. During the 1960s, Lewis became involved in civil rights activism while attending college. By the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was appointed chairman of SNCC. Lewis worked with other activists to establish Freedom Schools and the Freedom Summer.

By 1963, Lewis was considered one the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement because he helped plan the March on Washington. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the event.

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Whitney Young, Jr.

Whitney M. Young with Kenneth Whitlock and Reverend James Forbes. Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images

 Whitney Moore Young Jr. was a social worker by trade who rose to power in the Civil Rights Movement as a result of his commitment to ending employment discrimination.

The National Urban League was established in 1910 to assist African-Americans find employment, housing, and other resources once they’d reached urban environments as part of the Great Migration. The mission of the organization was “to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” By the 1950s, the organization was still in existence but was considered a passive civil rights organization.

But when Young became the organization’s executive director in 1961, his goal was to expand the NUL’s reach. Within four years, the NUL went from 38 to 1600 employees and its annual budget rose from $325,000 to $6.1 million.

Young worked with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to organize the March on Washington in 1963. In the years ahead, Young would continue to expand the mission of the NUL while also serving as a civil rights advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

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Roy Wilkins

Roy Wilkins, 1976
Roy Wilkins, 1976. Robert Sengastacke Abbot/Getty Images

Roy Wilkins may have begun his career as a journalist at African-American newspapers such as The Appeal and The Call, but his tenure as a civil rights activist has made Wilkins a part of history.

Wilkins began a long career with the NAACP in 1931 when he was appointed as assistant secretary to Walter Francis White.

Three years later, when W.E.B. Du Bois left the NAACP, Wilkins became editor of The Crisis.

By 1950, Wilkins was working with A. Philip Randolph and Arnold Johnson to establish the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR).

In 1964, Wilkins was appointed as executive director of the NAACP. Wilkins believed that civil rights could be achieved by changing laws and often used his stature to testify during Congressional hearings. 

Wilkins resigned from his position as executive director of the NAACP in 1977 and died of a heart failure in 1981. 

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Lewis, Femi. "The "Big Six:" Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2017, Lewis, Femi. (2017, February 4). The "Big Six:" Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "The "Big Six:" Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 19, 2018).