Martin Luther King. The name alone inspires a sense of awe. How could a man have accomplished so much, fought against so much oppression and hatred? How could a man who had been sent to jail 29 times simply for standing for his convictions be the same man who gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech? Listening to the audio, how could he have spoken with such confidence and vision?
In short? He had help. Thousands of people volunteered to march with him, to stare down oppression at the lunch counter, or on the bus. Martin Luther King Jr. and his beautiful speeches did not happen in a vacuum. They were inspired by and delivered to the people who shared his dream and worked with him to bring us closer to achieving it.
Dorothy Height had the distinction of being the only woman standing behind King on the day he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But she is perhaps best remembered as a pioneer of intersectional black and women’s rights. In fact, the day after MLK’s speech, she organized a meeting on racism and sexism. She continues her work with the YWCA and four decades leading the National Council of Negro Women.
Asa Philip Randolph
Randolph created the first prominent Africa-American labor union and used the threat of non-violent protest to force the desegregation of the Armed Forces, well before Dr. King came onto the scene. It’s small wonder that MLK referred to him as the “Dean of Negro Leaders.”
Septima Poinsette Clark
When MLK referred to her as the “Mother of the Movement,” he was not exaggerating. To him, her contribution to the civil rights movement were so great that he insisted she travel with him when he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. She is best remembered for founding hundreds of citizenship schools, which taught adult literacy with the aim of increasing black votership.
A close confident of MLK, Bayard Rustin’s most visible contribution to the civil rights movement was organizing the Washington March where MLK gave his most famous speech. He is also notable as one of the few gay men within the leadership of the civil rights movement, although he only became an advocate for gay rights later in life.
Ella Baker was an instrumental part of the civil rights movement, even working as an executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference between 1957 and 1960. She is known for her work with young activists, instilling in them the idea of “group-centric leadership”. She is likely best known for her contentious relationship with MLK and others in the male-dominated civil rights movement. She once said, speaking of MLK, that he was a product of the civil rights movement, not the other way around.
The Civil Rights Movement was the product of thousands of volunteers and activists, and while it is important to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution, it must also be acknowledged that no one succeeds in a vacuum.