The 'Big Six' Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement

The "Big Six" Civil Rights Leaders
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.

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The "Big Six" is a term used to describe the six most prominent Black civil rights leaders during the 1960s.

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

These men were linchpins of power behind the movement and would be responsible for organizing the March on Washington, which took place in the nation's capital in 1963.

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A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979)

Asa Philip Randolph

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The work of A. Philip Randolph as a civil rights and social activist spanned more than 50 years, from 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 Black shipyard and dockworkers throughout the Virginia Tidewater area.

Randolph’s chief success as a labor organizer was with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The organization named Randolph as its president in 1925 and by 1937 Black workers were receiving better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Randolph's biggest success was helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963 when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. thunder "I have a dream."

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

King Speech at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley

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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 Boycot, which lasted a little more than a year.

Following the success of the boycott, King and several other pastors would establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize protests throughout the South.

For 14 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 assassination in 1968, King was the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Posthumously, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004).

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James Farmer Jr. (1920–1999)

James Farmer At CORE Office

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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 Black people 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 President 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 (1940–2020)

Nashville Public Library Awards Civil Right Icon Congressman John Lewis Literary Award

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John Lewis served as a U.S. representative for the 5th Congressional District in Georgia from 1986 until his death in July 2020.

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 the chairman of ​SNCC. Lewis worked with other activists to establish Freedom Schools and the Freedom Summer.

By 1963—at the age of 23—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. (1921–1971)

Whitney M. Young, Jr. Speaking at Press Conference

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Whitney Moore Young Jr. was a social worker by trade who rose to power in the civil rights movement because of his commitment to ending employment discrimination.

The National Urban League was established in 1910 to help Black people 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 1,600 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 adviser to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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Roy Wilkins (1901–1981)

NAACP Director Wilkins

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Roy Wilkins may have begun his career as a journalist at Black newspapers such as The Appeal and The Call, but his tenure as a civil rights activist has made him 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.

In 1964, Wilkins was appointed 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 heart failure in 1981.

View Article Sources
  1. Polk, Jim, and Alicia Stewart. “9 Things about MLK's Speech and the March on Washington.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Jan. 2019.

  2. February 11 – Whitney Moore Young, Jr.” Black History Wall, 13 Feb. 2010.

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Lewis, Femi. "The 'Big Six' Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, July 29). The 'Big Six' Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "The 'Big Six' Organizers of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).