Black history is not a summary of North-Star-slavery-escape stories that end with Black people receiving their freedom after a famous (often shortened) dream speech. Blackness’s journey is a diverse complexity of nuances, innovation, sacrifices, bravery, and creativity that usually has its full credit whitewashed. So, here’s some shine for seven less popular yet impactful Black change agents who shook up a nation and influenced the world.
Alice Allison Dunnigan, The ear inside the door
Alice Allison Dunnigan’s journalism resume could span multiple lifetimes. She was the first Black correspondent to receive White House credentials. She was the first Black female member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. She was the first Black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club. And despite being ignored by President Eisenhower, Dunnigan persistently asked questions on racism for years in the White House and was the lone voice of Black representation.
Marsha P. Johnson, The radiant voice
Despite inaccurate historical whitewashing, Marsha P. Johnson was one of many distinguished figureheads in the Stonewall uprising, a pushback against violent police raids on gay and lesbian bars. Johnson worked with grassroots organization ACT UP to combat the AIDS pandemic and co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), whose mission was and is to provide homes and support to homeless transgender youth in New York City. Marsha’s work influenced the LGBTQ+ movement and pushed it to higher levels.
Claudette Colvin, A silenced spark
Nine months before Rosa Parks, a young Claudette Colvin (age 15) refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council at the same local chapter where an adult Parks, also Colvin’s mentor, was its office secretary. Because a then-teenage Colvin was pregnant, civil rights organization(s) feared white media backlash and instead pushed Parks into the national spotlight for the same act. Nevertheless, Claudette became one of five plaintiffs in the Browder V. Gayle court case that successfully challenged the segregated city bus laws of Montgomery as unconstitutional.
Children’s Crusade 1963, Tomorrow’s children
In Birmingham, Alabama, hundreds of Black students ages 14-17 marched downtown to address the city’s mayor about segregation. The march was strategized by Civil Rights activist Rev. James Bevel, a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During the nonviolent protest, several Black students faced attacks from fire hoses, police dogs, and multiple forms of physical abuse—some were even arrested. Despite the harassment, Black students continued to protest, forcing city leaders to desegregate businesses and release those who had been jailed.
Gordon Parks, A creative’s creative
Gordon Parks produced more than 15 books on arts and crafts while working as a photojournalist for Time Magazine. With one camera click, Parks was able to capture Black beauty in fashion and the hard realities of Black existence under Jim Crow laws. An editorial director (and co-founder) for the first three years of Essence Magazine, he also became the first African American to produce and direct a major motion film with The Learning Tree and later Shaft, which sparked a rise in 1970s Black cinema.
Bayard Rustin, The leader whisperer
Bayard Rustin’s fight for civil rights helped to organize the Freedom Rides with John Lewis, the March on Washington Movement in 1941 to end racial discrimination in employment with A. Philp Randolph, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin mentored King in the teachings of nonviolence that helped strengthen the King’s strategies. Being a gay Black man with communist ties caused many civil rights organizations to distance themselves from Rustin’s contributions, but that did not stop his impact that birthed Black revolutions.
Annie Lee Cooper, The punchout queen
An activist in the Selma Voting Rights Movement, Annie Lee Cooper faced extreme obstacles when registering to vote: long hours, violent harassment by local law enforcement, and even being fired from her nursing job. But Cooper’s persistence to practice her constitutional rights was fierce—so fierce that she went Mike Tyson’s Punchout on a racist police sheriff for assaulting her with a billy club.
Pop culture often favors stories that cater to its time’s social status, ignoring the Black contributors who fought for a change they never lived to see. All Black history should be respected, acknowledged, and recognized for its impact by a marginalized group whose defiance became a benefit for everyone.