After John Lewis: 21 civil rights leaders who are shaping America

black lives

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Harry Kretchmer, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Civil rights leader John Lewis is survived by a generation of changemakers, ready to take up the baton.
  • Twenty-one are listed here, representing intersections of civil rights causes including policing, LGBTQ rights and social media.
  • The list includes Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light.”

So said John Lewis, the American civil-rights giant and United States congressman who has died, aged 80.

He was the last surviving speaker from the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

 

In recent years, new leaders have emerged across the United States to champion rights – not just for African Americans, but also in the fields of migration and gender. They are using politics, social media campaigns and publishing in new ways to amplify and spread their messages.

Here are 21 current and emerging civil rights leaders who will shape struggles in the United States and the wider world for years to come.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors helps lead the most prominent African American rights movement.
Image: Patrisse Khan-Cullors

1. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Black rights

Los-Angeles-based Khan-Cullors describes herself as an “artist, organizer and freedom fighter”. She is best-known for Black Lives Matter (BLM), the African American rights protest movement she co-founded following the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. This year, BLM has surged following the death of George Floyd. In fact it “may be the largest movement in US history,” writes the New York Times. Khan-Cullors is also an influential LGBTQ activist and a leading voice for prison reform – and abolition.

2. Alicia Garza, journalism and campaigns

One of the three BLM co-founders, Alicia Garza is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2020. She is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represents millions of people across the US. She is also prolific in print – her journalism subjects range from health inequalities to violence against gender non-conforming people of colour.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the “new normal” and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

3. Thandiwe Abdullah, youth campaigner

Across America, students have made up many of the BLM demonstrators. Thandiwe Abdullah has played a significant role in making that happen as the co-founder of LA-based Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard, together with other young campaigners throughout the country.

View this post on Instagram

THATS MORE LIKE IT !!! Lmao Time better come correct 😭

A post shared by Thandhi (@thandiweabdullah) on

4. Angela Davis, political activist and academic

Angela Davis is a trailblazing campaigner for the rights of Black people – and Black women in particular. One of Time Magazine’s Women of the Year in 1971, and now in her seventies, she’s still influential. Davis has played a leading role in civil rights campaigns over decades, from the Black Panthers to the Women’s March on Washington. John Lennon and the Rolling Stones were so inspired by her battle with the legal system in the 1970s that they wrote songs about her.

5. Rachel Cargle, academic and author

Cargle has become influential on Instagram through her uplifting and often uncomfortable explorations of everyday racism. An academic and author, she uses social media as a platform to dissect language, in an attempt to expand white people’s understanding of what constitutes racism.

View this post on Instagram

I think one of the biggest enlightenments we can have as young humans is the very truth that happiness, success, and fulfillment aren’t destinations. That there won’t be an ‘arrival’ nor a sudden and dramatic shift that signifies our place as having ‘made it’. We are ever changing. Daily, like the best of our grandmothers recipes, we are simmering in our being. Getting better — moment by moment. Ingredients of ourselves constantly being stirred in, sifted out. New interests, bolder creativity, perhaps a shift in value or a change of heart. How unfair to make the future version of yourself contingent only on today’s set of understandings and aspirations. How rude to define her happiness by only what brings you joy today. Our goals and accomplishments, our visions and milestones are the beautiful bright spots in the constellation we will have formed by time it’s all done. We will lie there with starry eyes, grandchildren gently on our chests begging for the story of our ‘success’ and we would never ever dare to point only to an ‘arrival’. We will tell our story. We will relish in the process. We will remember the joys that happened within our struggle and the unwelcome heartaches that appeared in what we thought — at the time — was success. I hope in that very moment you are proud and you are full and you consider yourself whole. • 📷: @shedoeshim

A post shared by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (@rachel.cargle) on

6. Van Jones, green jobs

The economy is central to Van Jones’ vision of a better future for African Americans. A former White House green jobs adviser, Jones links social justice to environmental justice, emphasising how carefully focused green policies can help bridge the black-white wealth divide, creating jobs for people of colour. In addition to political commentary for CNN, he has helped found numerous campaigning organizations, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Color of Change.

Civil rights activists often highlight the continuing economic inequalities that affect African Americans and people of colour.
Image: McKinsey

7. Michelle Alexander, prison reform

In her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that strict drugs laws have disproportionately affected Black communities. It is a theme she has become an expert on as a law professor at Ohio State University. Her thesis, that prisons are the new system of racial oppression, has been highly influential among US civil rights campaigners and beyond.

8. Jose Antonio Vargas, immigration and citizenship

When he was 12, Vargas’ mother put him on a plane from Manila to California. Since then, he has been an undocumented migrant. He travels around in case he is arrested. But he hasn’t let it hold him back. Part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Washington Post, in 2011 he boldly penned ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant’. Since then, he has become an influential voice on the rights of immigrants, and is considered to have helped shift policy during the Obama era. More recently, he has launched the migration rights activism site, Define American.

Jose Antonio Vargas has branched out from journalism to become a leading voice on the rights of immigrants.
Image: Jose Antonio Vargas

9. Erika Andiola, migrant and refugee rights

Arizona-based Andiola is also an undocumented migrant – as her Twitter handle declares. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine with other US immigrants living without papers. She co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and is the Chief Advocacy Officer for RAICES, which provides education and legal services for immigrants and refugees.

10. Tarana Burke, sexual rights

Together with Black Lives Matter, few modern movements have been as influential as #MeToo. Tarana Burke founded it. Based in New York, Burke’s movement has encouraged women around the world to open up about sexual abuse, sharing their story online using the famous hashtag. Her background is in championing the rights of young people of marginalized communities.

11. Laverne Cox, LGBTQ rights

Cox, an actor, is well known as a leading figure in the transgender movement, bringing issues such as the murders of trans people and the use of gender pronouns to wider attention. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine – as well as many fashion publications – gaining a wider audience through the hit Netflix prison series, Orange is the New Black.

12. Chad Griffin, gay rights

Griffin rose to prominence after leading the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in California. Since 2015, the Supreme Court has guaranteed this right nationwide. He is the founder of American Foundation for Equal Rights and is a former president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Nihad Awad is a familiar face in the US media on Muslim rights issues.
Image: Nihad Awad/Facebook

13. Nihad Awad, Muslim rights

Washington DC-based Awad leads the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim-rights advocacy organization. Awad was one of America’s leading Muslim voices condemning the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that followed, and has remained a prominent face of the community in the US. He has received numerous awards for his work.

14. Maya Wiley, structural racism

Currently a professor, Wiley has used her knowledge of criminal justice, race and equality to create political change. She served as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief legal adviser and chairs the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has oversight of the police department. According to reports she is exploring a run for the mayoral role herself.

15. Cheryl Dorsey, police reform

The retired Los Angeles police sergeant is the author of Blue and Black, a frank memoir of her life in the force, where she tackled gang violence. She says she grew up watching “white flight” transform her once middle-class LA district “into a Black neighbourhood, littered with gang activity” and has been working to improve things ever since. A prominent civil rights activist, Dorsey regularly appears in the US media to discuss abuses in policing.

Cheryl Dorsey has used her first-hand experience of law enforcement to inform her campaigns.
Image: Cheryl Dorsey/The Wave

16. Esmeralda Simmons, legal reform

Simmons runs the Center for Law and Social Justice in Brooklyn, which helps people facing problems including police brutality and discrimination. A longstanding campaigner for equal rights, civil rights lawyer Simmons has worked in senior roles in government, from the department of education and New York State to serving as a federal judge.

17. Rev Dr William Barber, moral leadership

Barber is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, which describes itself as “a national call for moral revival”. Its mission is to ground governmental policy making in morality. The campaign is named after the last movement of the civil rights era, one which ended when Martin Luther King died. Now leading the campaign’s resurgence, the North Carolina pastor’s powerful oratory and liberation theology means he is often compared to Dr King himself.

18. Bryan Stevenson, prison reform

Like a number of our 21 leaders, Stevenson has a legal background. A civil rights lawyer, he founded and is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which challenges discrimination in the US criminal justice system. His book, Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption, about death row, has become a New York Times bestseller – and a film.

19. Melanie Campbell, youth and women’s rights

In the 2012 election, black voters had higher rates of participation than white voters for the first time. Campbell contributed to this as a creator of the political leadership development programme, Black Youth Vote!. As the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, she helps African Americans to become leaders in their communities.

Lateefah Simon has won plaudits for her work helping women living in poverty.
Image: Akonadi Foundation

20. Lateefah Simon, structural inequalities

From an early age, Lateefah Simon has campaigned for poor and marginalized people.

She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003 for her work helping teenagers and young women living in poverty. As the president of the Akonadi Foundation, she is one of the leading voices calling for attention to be paid to ‘structural racism’ – the way in which services like education and health often discriminate due to their design.

Electoral reform is one of the areas where James Rucker’s campaigning organization is active.
Image: Color of Change

21. James Rucker, campaign creator

Rucker is co-founder, now chairman, of Color of Change, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest African American online political organization”. The website creates campaigns and petitions on issues such as police reform and how social media deals with civil rights, using the internet to spread its message further.

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