By Toni Walker
This past Tuesday, we celebrated the life and activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of what would’ve been his 89th birthday. From his charisma to his passion to his timeless intellect, there are many aspects of Dr. King which serve as daily inspiration for me as a young woman of color. However, one aspect that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years is his strategy of surrounding himself and engaging with a network of activists who also played key roles in advancing the civil rights movement and enabled Dr. King to be such an influential figure. As we continue to recognize and be inspired by Dr. King’s commitment to love, justice, and Black liberation, I want to take the opportunity to uplift him by remembering activists who both inspired and helped Dr. King to accomplish the work which we actively benefit from today. While the three individuals mentioned below doesn’t even begin to cover the numerous people who influenced and actively supported Dr. King’s work, I hope that it introduces you all to some activists who at times aren’t included in the conversation of the civil rights movement despite their immense contributions.
Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader and the mastermind strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With a radical spirit complimented by a peaceful soul, Rustin was a firm supporter of nonviolence. It was through Rustin that Dr. King was introduced to the strategy of nonviolent resistance. Furthermore, Rustin helped Dr. King to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in order to extend and advance their efforts. However, Rustin’s contributions were often underappreciated as his identity as a Black openly gay man didn’t fit neatly into the heteronormative structure of the conversation shaping the civil rights movement. His exclusion from the forefront of the movement didn’t stop Rustin from pursuing justice and liberation in a way that centered the most marginalized. Until the end of his life, Rustin was committed to peace, gay rights, racial equality, and economic justice.
On March 2nd, 1955, a 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. It was Colvin’s act of resistance that got the attention of both Dr. King who fought her arrest with the help of Attorney Fred Gray and Rosa Parks who would go on to perform this same act of resistance nine months after Colvin’s arrest. Colvin was immersed in the civil rights movement as a member of the NAACP Youth council and was more than ready to fight the Montgomery bus segregation in court. However, it was decided by civil rights leaders that Colvin didn’t fit the image for what they deemed appropriate for the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was viewed as too dark, poor, and young to “properly” represent their efforts. Parks, on the other hand, fit neatly into the respectability politics which dictated the movement and thus her arrest was used as a public catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Colvin did get her fight in court as she was one of four plaintiffs in the case of Browner v. Gayle in which the United States Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in December of 1957. It was the resistance of Colvin that pioneered the Montgomery Bus Boycott which came to be a staple accomplishment of Rosa Parks and Dr. King’s activism.
Dr. Prathia Hall was a Philadelphia native, civil rights leader, and womanist theologian. Her involvement in the civil rights movement started from an early age through her work with the Philadelphia Fellowship House where she learned about the strategy of nonviolent resistance. She put the strategy to practice as she went on to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Throughout her journey as a civil rights activist, Dr. Hall endured frightening encounters of violence as she was shot at in Dawson, Georgia while attempting to register voters. In addition to her commitment to activism, Dr. Hall was also renowned for her oratory capabilities from a young age. In Terrell County, GA, Dr. King witnessed a moving prayer from Dr. Hall in which she repeatedly used the phrase “I Have a Dream.” It was Dr. Hall’s use of the phrase that inspired Dr. King’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech which continues to ring in the ears of people today.
There is much more to know about these activists than what is covered in this article. I encourage everyone to dig deeper into the backgrounds of each of these individuals as well as the many others who were instrumental in the work of Dr. King. The work that Dr. King and his fellow activists accomplished and supported serves as a constant reminder that the fight for social justice is not one that can be done alone. It requires the collaboration of diverse individuals who are passionate and refuse to be silenced no matter what barriers stand in the way.