Special Report

The Most Important Civil Rights Leaders of the 20th Century

Detailed Findings & Methodology

The struggle for civil rights was the dominant narrative of the 20th century, and it is far from over. Even though The Civil War had settled the issue of slavery in the United States, African Americans continued to live as marginalized citizens in their own country. In the South, onerous Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and other forms of discrimination prevented African Americans from owning property, attending schools, getting jobs, and denied them the right to vote well into the 20th century.

Faced with institutional racism and violent reprisals from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the struggle for civil rights required courage and commitment from African Americans and others who believed in the cause. Two such heroes were pioneering civil rights figures Harry T. Moore and Harriette Moore. They fought for higher pay for African-American teachers in Florida as well as other civil rights issues in the early 1950s. For those causes, they ultimately paid with their lives.

The 1950s would see civil rights milestone events such as legislation throwing out the idea of separate but equal facilities; the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Montgomery bus boycott.

The following decade would witness some of the momentous events of the civil rights movement, like the non-violent Birmingham campaign, the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the march on Selma, and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

Suffrage was not won easily for women in the United Kingdom. Emmeline Pankhurst led the movement for the right to vote for British women that began in the 19th century but was met with a resistant British government. Suffragettes responded with demonstrations, hunger strikes, and even acts of arson that shocked the public. British women would not gain full equal voting rights until 1928, the year Pankhurst died.

The road for equal rights for the gay community was long as well. One of the founders of the modern gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, was fired from his job at the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Kameny took his case to the Supreme Court, saying the federal government’s treatment of him was an “affront to human dignity.” His petition was denied, but a movement was born.

The rights of Hispanic workers in the United States were championed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who led non-violent boycotts, marches, and hunger strikes to further their cause in the 1960s and 1970s.

In places such as India and South Africa, the path to freedom was trod by charismatic leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Both men suffered prison and other indignities in the name of their causes of civil liberties and freedom for their peoples.

All of these civil rights leaders risked their lives and displayed courage in the face of violent resistance. As civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph famously said, “Freedom is never given; it is won.”

24/7 Wall St. reviewed biographies and news stories from resource material, websites of organizations such as the NAACP, Nobelprize.org, the the Nobel Prize website, and media sources for stories pertaining to notable civil rights figures to determine the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century.