Even with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments -- which freed slaves, granted citizenship to African-American men and guaranteed their right to vote, respectively -- African-Americans have had to consistently fight for equal treatment within many social and professional arenas. Throughout the past several centuries, they have been led by many charismatic political and religious leaders.
U.S. Civil War Era
In 1881, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) became the head of Tuskegee Normal Industrial Institute, an African-American institution of higher education in Alabama. At the time of his death, the school had blossomed to include dozens of trades and over 100 buildings. Washington, however, was heavily criticized by other African-American leaders, as he believed, at least for the time being, that African-Americans should strive to improve their industrial skills rather than fight for full civil rights.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was a charismatic orator and a leader of the abolition movement. After purchasing his freedom, he started an anti-slavery newspaper, the "North Star," in 1847. He consulted with President Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War, and in 1889, was named the U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti by President Benjamin Harrison.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an important educator and activist. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and from 1940 to 1955, served as the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1936, she was appointed to serve as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Bethune opened her own school in 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman College.
W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), who helped create the NAACP and was the editor of their publication, "The Crisis," was a brilliant scholar, sociologist and a key African-American political leader. DuBois' book "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) became a classic and worked in opposition to Booker T. Washington's ideas related to improved lives for African-Americans. In contrast to Washington, DuBois advocated protest and agitation to deal with the evil of racism. Towards the end of his life, DuBois became a member of the Communist Party (1961). He gave up his U.S. citizenship and died in Ghana.
Civil Rights Era
In 1955, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who served as the NAACP Montgomery, Alabama, chapter's secretary for 13 years, helped ignite the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus. After a city-wide boycott of the bus company by civil rights supporters, a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the segregation of seats unconstitutional.
The minister Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) advocated nonviolence as a form of protest. As a prominent leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he led peaceful marches, one of the most famous being the historic March on Washington, D.C. In 1964, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Tragically, in 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a devout Muslim and also an important leader during the civil rights movement. He supported black nationalism during the 1960s and argued against King's support of nonviolence, as he supported the use of any means possible, including violence, to end the unequal treatment of African-Americans. In 1965, he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was the first African-American woman to be elected into the U.S. Congress (New York, 1969 to 1983). She was educated at Brooklyn College and received her master's degree in elementary education from Columbia University. As a liberal congresswoman, she opposed the war in Vietnam and founded the National Women's Political Caucus.
During the 21st century, Barack Obama (b. 1961) became the the first African-American President and the country's 44th president. A former U.S. Senator from Illinois, he was elected for his first presidential term in 2008, then a second term in 2012. Prior to his historic presidency, he studied political science at Columbia University and law at Harvard University.
Reverend Jesse Jackson (b.1941) is another important religious leader of the 21st century. Jackson founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the National Rainbow Coalition, which merged to become the Rainbow/PUSH coalition in 1966. He has worked on a number of political and social campaigns and helped Harold Washington become Chicago's first African-American mayor. He has also, albeit unsuccessfully, sought the Democratic presidential nomination.