Honoring Our Greats: 9 Civil Rights Activists We’ve Lost


Photo: Getty Images

Last week, we marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Congressman John Lewis who spent his life working to advance voting and civil rights for Black Americans. 

We also lost Gloria Richardson, a largely unsung civil rights activist who passed away at the age of 99. Richardson was known for her relentless activism, and iconic photo pushing away the bayonet of a National Guardsman during a 1963 protest. 

These activists, along with an endless list of so many, helped pave the way for ongoing work being done in Black communities across the nation and world. Though they have left us now, their work and legacy lives on. 

Here are nine of our great civil rights leaders we’ve lost in recent years.

John Lewis (February 21, 1940 - July 17, 2020)

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The late Congressman John Lewis has been a champion of "good trouble" from a young age. The longtime House representative and civil rights icon spent his life protesting injustice and promoting voting rights for Black Americans.

Gloria Richardson (May 6, 1922 - July 15, 2021)

Gloria Richardson was a civil right activist from Baltimore, Maryland. She was famously photographed at a 1963 protest in Cambridge, Maryland, pushing the bayonet of a National Guardsman's weapon away.

Richardson's granddaughter told NPR last week following her passing that her grandmother fought for equality and was not in it for recognition.

"She did it because it needed to be done, and she was a born leader," Tya Young told NPR.

Rev. C.T. Vivian (July 30, 1924 - July 15, 2020)

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. C.T. Vivian promoted nonviolent protesting tactics and helped organize some of the first sit-in demonstrations in Peoria, Illinois during the 1940s. He met Dr. King in Nashville and continued organizing across the South. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and stated this relevant in an interview for the ceremony:

"Do what you can and do it well," he said. "But always ask your question: Is it serving the people?"

Lucille Bridges (August 12, 1934 - November 10, 2020)

Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges credits her mother, Lucille Bridges, with changing the course of American history through her resolve for change.

"Brave, progressive, a champion for change," Ruby Bridges wrote in memory of her mother. "She helped alter the course of so many lives by setting me out on my path as a six year old little girl." Ruby Bridges is the first-grader who desegregated an all-white school in Louisiana.

Elijah Cummings (January 18, 1951 - October 17, 2019)

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Congressman Elijah Cummings was a native of Baltimore, Maryland and son of a sharecropper. The civil rights activist and powerful politician who also led the House Oversight Committee. Prior to joining Congress, Cummings led the NAACP, advocating for low-income residents of the city.

Aileen Hernandez (May 23, 1926 - February 13, 2017)

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Aileen Hernandez was a fierce activist who promoted equality across race, gender, and class. The Howard University graduate is credited as one of the first Black women to legally challenge gender-based discrimination in the workplace. In 1970, she testified in front of Congress about the Equal Rights Amendment to provide legal protections for women in the constitution.

Hernandez served as the president of the National Organization for Women and helped form the National Women's Political Caucus which early members included Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

Rev. Joseph Lowery (October 6, 1921 - March 27, 2020)

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Rev. Joseph Lowery was a civil rights activist, minister, and co-founder of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference along with MLK. Rev. Lowery was considered the "dean" of the civil rights movement and protested the American criminal justice system and mass incarceration.

"It's the latest facet of here of racial oppression," Rev. Lowery once said of the criminal system. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, Rev. Lowery also helped organize marches in Selma and Birmingham.

Sadie Roberts-Joseph (1944 - July 12, 2019)

Sadie Roberts-Joseph was a community organizer and activist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She founded the Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African American History in 2001 and was known for her bike give away events, youth programs, and coordinated the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Roberts-Joseph also founded Community Against Drugs and Violence to promote unity and peace.

"Her motto was roll up your sleeves and get the job done," Rev. Reginald Pitcher said of Roberts-Joseph after her death.

Bruce Carver Boynton (June 19, 1937 - November 23, 2020 )

In 1958, Bruce Carver Boynton entered the whites-only area of a Virginia bus station, which would later inspired the landmark Freedom Rides.

The activist was a law student at Howard University when he defied Jim Crow laws and while he is widely unsung, his actions left a huge impact on the civil rights movement and student activism.

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