Nine 20th Century Black Activists you Didn't Hear About in School

It's Black History Month, and although we can't overstate the importance of figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, we want to draw attention to a few figures who you may not know about yet...


1. bell hooks

“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else's whim or to someone else's ignorance.” 

bell hooks (25 September 1952 - present) is an American author, feminist and social activist. She focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender and capitalism. She was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and educated in racially segregated public schools.

She went on to study English at Stanford University, where she began work on arguably her most famous major work Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism

Aint' I a Woman? touches on several themes that she continues to visit in her work to this date; the devaluation of black womanhood, the historical impact of racism and sexism towards black women, and their portrayal in the media, the education system and even their marginalisation within the feminist community.

2. Benedita da Silva

“Racial democracy only exists in school books and official speeches; the elite in Brazil have promoted the myth of racial harmony to make people accept certain forms of discrimination and to deny the need for affirmative action.”

Benedita de Silva (26th April 1943 - present) is a Brazilian politician born in Rio de Janeiro's favela slums. Forced by her desperate circumstances, she became a victim to child labor, as well as rape, several miscarriages and childbirth at a very young age. At the age of 16 she was working at a community school. She went on to establish a women's support group in the favela where she lived, and had begun studying Social Studies aside working as a nurse. At the age of forty she received her high school diploma and began university at the same time as her 20 year old daughter. In the meantime her activism propelled her into political prominence. 

Today, after several prominent posts in Brazilian government, she remains an advocate of women's rights throughout Brazil and Latin America.

3. Thomas Sankara

"We must learn to live the African way. It's the only way to live in freedom and with dignity"

Thomas Sankara (21 December 1949 - 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, socialist revolutionary, pan-African theorist and President of Burkina Faso from 1983-87. Sankara was extremely popular across Burkina Faso when he seized power in 1983 with the aim of ending corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched the largest and most ambitious campaign ever attempted for social and economic change across the African continent. It was he who named then Upper Volta to Burkina Faso: Land of the Upright men.

His foreign policies centred around anti-imperialism and nationalised all land and mineral wealth, diminishing the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agricultural self-sufficiency, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. He planted over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to "tie the nation together".

His commitment to women's rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.

A week before his assassination by the opposition, he declared: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

4. Miriam Makeba

"Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that."

Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 - 9 November 2008) was a South African singer and civil rights activist. In the 1960s she was the first singer to popularise African music around the world, best known for her song Pata Pata. Throughout her fame, she refused to wear makeup or style her hair in a western fashion for shows, establishing a style that would become known as the Afro look.

She actively campaigned against apartheid from her public platform, and as a consequence, in 1960 she had her South African passport revoked, making her unable to travel home for her mother's funeral. In 1963 Makeba testified against the apartheid regime before the United Nations and her South African citizenship was then revoked. Left without nationality, the world came to her aid, with Ghana, Belgium and Guinea immediately offering her honorary citizenship. Her music of the time, including her grammy winning album with Harry Belafonte, telling the story of South African apartheid.

Her marriage to Trinidad-born civil rights activist and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were cancelled. As a result, she moved to Guinea and was soon appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. Makeba continued to perform primarily in Africa, Europe and Asia, but not in the United States, where a de facto boycott was in effect.

Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute, which Makeba performed at, increased pressure on the government of South Africa to release Mandela, and in 1990, it was announced that Nelson Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Mandela, who was effectively released on 11 February 1990, persuaded Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa. She returned home on 10 June 1990, on her French passport.





5. Pauli Murray


"Black women, historically, have been doubly victimised by the twin immoralities of Jim Crow and Jane Crow. ... Black women, faced with these dual barriers, have often found that sex bias is more formidable than racial bias."  

Pauli Murray (November 20, 1910 – July 1, 1985) was an American civil rights activist, women's rights activist, lawyer, and author. She was raised in North Carolina, and at 16 went to Hunter College. In 1939 She applied to attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina and was rejected because they did not accept African-Americans. A few years later Murray became a key leader in a campaign to save Odell Waller, a sharecropper convicted of murdering his landowner, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. After he was executed, Murray went to Howard Law School with the single-minded intention of bringing down Jim Crow.

She went on to became the first African American to attend Yale Law School where  “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex discrimination and Title VII,” was published, and laid the groundwork for emergent feminist jurisprudence.

Murray struggled with her sexual and gender identity through much of her life. Her marriage as a teenager ended almost immediately with the realisation that "when men try to make love to me, something in me fights". Murray pursued hormone treatments in the 1940s to correct what she saw as a personal imbalance, and even requested abdominal surgery to test if she had "submerged" male sex organs.

Drawn to the ministry, in 1977 Murray became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and among the first women to become priests in this church.

6. Ousmane Sembène

“Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty” 

Sembène (1 January 1923 - 9 June 2007) was a Senegalese film director, producer and writer. He was concidered one of the greatest African authors of all time and is often referred to as the "father of African film". 

In 1947, he stowed away to France where he worked on the docks in Marseille. It was here he became active in the French trade union movement, joining the French Communist party, and discovered many socialist and Marxist writers such as Claude McKay and Jaques Roumain. 

Inspired by his experiences, Sembène began to write, his most successful novel was titled Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood) in 1960; fictionalising the real-life story of a railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line. Sembène was now getting praise from intellectuals, but being as concerned with social change as he was, he wanted to reach a wider audience (including the audience that mattered most to him: at home in Africa where many remained illiterate, and even those that were literate spoke so such a range of languages and dialects that it would be impossible to reach everyone). It was then Sembène chose to start working in a universal language: Film. His first feature film Barom Sarret (The Wagoner) was also the first ever made by an African filmaker, in Africa, for an African audience.

Recurrent themes of Sembène's films are the history of colonialism, the failings of religion, the critique of the new African bourgeoisie, and the strength of African women. His final film, the 2004 feature Moolaadé, won awards at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and the FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The film, set in a small African village in Burkina Faso, explored the controversial subject of female genital mutilation.

He is the subject of the 2015 documentary film, Sembene!.


7. Claudia Jones

"the science of Marxism-Leninism — that philosophy not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.”

Claudia Cumberbatch (21 February 1915 - 24 December 1964) was a Trinidad-born journalist and activist. As a child she lived in the US, where she became a political activist and black nationalist through Communism, using the false name Jones as "self-protective disinformation". As a result of her political activities, she was deported in 1955 and lived in the United Kingdom.

Landing in England at a time when many landlords, shops and even some government establishments displayed signs saying "No Irish, No Coloured, No Dogs", Jones found a community that needed active organisation. She began to get involved in the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK to organise both access to basic facilities, as well as the early movement for equal rights. Jones went on to found Britain's first major black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette, in 1958. She was dismayed, upon her arrival, to find the Communist community in the UK were hostile to a black woman. 

Four months after The West Indian Gazette was first launched, racial riots broke out in Notting Hill, and Robin Hood Chase, Nottingham. Existing British daily newspapers gave a racially biased view of these events, so Jones was contacted by activists to give a black perspective.

 Jones identified the need to "wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths". It was suggested that the British black community should have a carnival, and thus, Notting Hill carnival was born, along with many others popping up across the UK to celebrate Black-britishness. 

8. Steve Biko

"The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity."

Steve Biko (18 December 1946 - 12 September 1977) was a South African anti-apartheid activist in the 1960s and '70s. Politically active from childhood, he was kicked out of school for his activism. Biko began attending the University of Natal Medical School, where he became a member of the National Union of South African Students.

Biko soon came to the conclusion that non-white students needed an organisation of their own, and he helped found the South African Students' Organisation, whose mission was the unification of university students in a "black consciousness." In 1968 Biko was elected its first president, and the group evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement. In 1972, Biko was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities. He was banned by the apartheid government in February 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, and could not write publicly or speak with the media. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

In spite of his repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement played a significant role in organising the protests that culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976.

On September 11 1977 Biko was murdered in police custody. Biko's philosophy of black consciousness remains relevant to social movements all over the world today.

9. Angela Davis

"We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.” 

Angela Davis (26 January 1944 - present) is an American political activist, academic and author. She emerged in the 1960s as the leader of the Communist Party USA, and was closely affiliated with the Black Panther Party due to her involvement in the civil rights movement. She works extensively to this day combatting social injustice in the USA and around the world.

her political activism began as a child in Birmingham, Alabama, where she arranged interracial study groups that were broken up by the police. However it was in 1969 that she received wider attention, getting fired from her position as philosophy teacher at UCLA for being a member of the US Communist Party. 

In 1970 she was placed on the FBI's 10 most wanted list as a suspect conspirator in the escape attempt of George Lester Jackson of the Soledad Brothers which resulted in the death of several people in the courtroom. The two arguments against her being the fact that the weapons were registered in her name, and that she was allegedly in love, or at least in support of Jackson. The intense police search for Davis drove her underground. Once Davis was found and arrested in 1970, and had publicly pledged her innocence, a huge international "Free Angela" campaign spanned her 18 month incarceration and thousands of people worked to gain her release, which came on 4 June 1972, when an all white jury found her not guilty. 

In 1991 Davis left the communist party in due to their support of the Soviet coup attempt. She went on to help found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. The main focusses of her subsequent activism are correcting the state of US prisons, supporting political prisoners around the world and research into feminism and social consciousness. 

Aicha DaffeComment