Honoring the legacy of African American civil rights leaders should be a year-round endeavor not just relegated to February for Black History Month. Activists who spoke out and championed the rights of African Americans created a revolution that began after reconstruction and took shape in the 1940s. By the 1960s, the movement achieved its most impactful legislative gains, securing more rights for all Americans. The fight continues. We must value the passion and dedication of activists every single day.
There are many legendary leaders of the movement with powerful, inspiring names. A good deal of the names we’ve found will be instantly recognizable. However, we included a number of unsung heroes we feel inspire hope. Here are 20 baby names for boys inspired by activists of the civil rights movement. A name is a lasting tribute and we encourage you to celebrate these 20 leaders in name and deed.
Let’s kick the list off with one of the most impactful leaders in American history, Martin Luther King Jr. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial helped change the hearts and minds of so many people and continues to inspire equality today.
Before his assassination, King helped organize an effort for economic justice called the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. William Barber continues the campaign today.
The name Martin means “warrior.”
Asa Philip Randolph organized and headed the first predominately African American led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. His leadership pressured two American presidents to issue executive orders. Roosevelt banned discrimination in the defense industries. Truman banned segregation in the armed forces.
Randolph helped organize the March on Washington. His organizing tactics were used by many others in the movement including E.D. Nixon who staged the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama.
The name Philip means “lover of horses.”
John Lewis is currently serving his 17th term in the US House of Representatives. He was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders who traveled by interstate bus to the segregates south to challenge the non-enforcement of a Supreme Court decision that ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. John is a fantastic, strong name for a baby.
The name John means “God is gracious.”
Albert Lassiter was one of eight students from Tougaloo College who staged a sit-in (or read-in) at the Jackson Municipal Library, the first sit-in of a public institution in Mississippi. The group became name as the Tougaloo Nine.
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The name Albert means “noble and bright.”
Bayard Rustin was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights movement who often worked behind the scenes due to criticism of his sexuality. He helped organize the Freedom Rides. He later would go on to advise Martin Luther King Jr. and the two would go on to help create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin would later testify on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill in the 1980s.
In 2013, President Barak Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The name Bayard means “red-headed.”
Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil are better known collectively as the Greensboro Four. The four students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960. The policy at the time was to refuse service to anyone who wasn’t white. The four were asked to leave, but they refused to give up their seats. They inspired many others to follow their lead and the sit-in movement spread across the country. In 1968, Blair changes his name to Jibreel Khazan.
Today, the former Woolworth’s in Greensboro now houses the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
The name Jibreel means “God is my strength.”
Rev. Claude Black was a highly influential leader in the South and his presence loomed especially large in Texas. He organized many marches and challenged local politicians in San Antonio for their unfair treatment of minorities. He would become an ally to President Lyndon B Johnson who invited him to be a part of the White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966.
The name Claude means “enclosure.”
Luvaghn Brown was arrested in 1960 for attempting to integrate a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), registering Blacks to vote in Mississippi. He continues to speak out about the “foot soldiers” of the movement who often get overlooked.
The name Luvaghn means “little.”
The late, Joseph E. Lowery helped found the Southern Christian Leadership conference and would go on to serve as its president from 1977-1997. He was an inspiring figure who helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott and would later participate in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.
He was a fierce opponent of Apartheid in South Africa which he was arrested for outside the South African Embassy in Washington DC. The NAACP awarded Lowery with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and called him “the dean of the civil rights movement.”
The name Joseph means “God will increase.”
Wyatt Tee Walker was a pastor and chief of staff for Martin Luther King Jr. He was an executive director of the SCLC in the 1960s before going on to become the senior pastor at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. He co-founded a religious action network called Africa Action to oppose Apartheid in South Africa.
The name Wyatt means “brave.”
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz better known as Malcolm X was a human rights activist and American Muslim minister who became, for a time, one of the most vocal spokespeople for the Nation of Islam. An unapologetic advocate for black racial justice, Malcolm X continues to inspire change today.
The name Malcolm means “disciple of Columba.”
Politician, minister, and activist Jesse Jackson founded what would become Rainbow/Push a nonprofit that pursues social and civil justice and political activism. In Michelle Obama‘s memoir Becoming, she writes fondly of being a high school student and attending events at the HQ in Chicago. Jackson was active with the sit-in movement of 1960 and was arrested for “disorderly conduct” in Greenville, South Carolina for participating.
Jackson’s activism only continued to grow and it even saw him turn to politics, eventually spurring two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The name Jackson means “son of Jack.”
James Meredith became the first African American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi. He was twice denied admittance even after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown V. Board of Education that segregation based on race was unconstitutional. With the help of the NAACP Legel Defense and Education Fund, Meredith filed suit. After a lengthy court battle and resistance from the entire governing body of the state of Mississippi, Meredith was admitted to the University.
In short, Meredith’s actions pressured the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.
The name James means “supplanter.”
Horace Julian Bond helped form the SNCC in the 1960s. A decade later he would go on to help form a legal advocacy group that would become the Southern Poverty Law Center. He served in both the Georgia State House and State Senate for a total of 20 years. After leaving office, Bond would become the chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010. Bond has been the recipient of countless awards and honors including 25 honorary degrees.
The name Julian means “youthful.”
Roy Ottoway Wilkins was instrumental in the civil rights movement from the 1930s-1970s. In 1955, he was chosen to be the executive secretary of the NAACP, and in 1964 he became its executive director. He had developed an excellent reputation as a powerful spokesperson for the civil rights movement.
Wilkins believed that change would only come through legislative reform and he worked with a number of established politicians to craft policy that would advance racial justice. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter all conferred with Wilkins. In Washington and more broadly, he became known as “Mr. Civil Rights.”
The name Roy means “king.”
Golden Asro Frinks reported that he’d been arrested 87 times for civil rights demonstrations throughout his lifetime. He chaired the local chapter of the NAACP in the late 1950s in Edenton, North Carolina. He took issue with some members of the NAACP who did not actively engage in civil rights activity.
By 1960, he left his position and started the Edenton Movement. The movement gained national attention for organizing sit-ins and other peaceful activities to desegregate courthouses, libraries, and schools. He became known as “The Great Agitator.”
The name Golden means “little golden one.”
At 19, Fred Hampton was recruited by an activist (now congressman), Bobby Rush to join the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. His incredible leadership saw him quickly climb the ranks of the organization. In his time with the BPP, he helped facilitate the creation of a number of free initiatives, including a children’s breakfast program, wellness clinics, political education, transportation to jails, and daycare centers.
In a politically motivated raid, a sleeping Fred Hampton was murdered. Hampton was just 21 years of age. The raid, carried out by the FBI, also ended the life of fellow Panther, Mark Clark. Although his life was tragically cut short, Hampton’s legacy of service, power, and revolution remains.
The name Fred means “peaceful ruler.”
Born in 1839, Octavius Catto would join Fredrick Douglass to recruit black men to join the Union and fight for emancipation. Although he predates the modern civil rights movement by 90 years, Catto successfully used civil disobedience tactics to desegregate Philadelphia trolley cars. Catto and others got Pennsylvania’s 15th Amendment, suffrage for black (male) Pennsylvanians ratified.
A statue of Catto now sits on the Southwest corner of Philadelphia City Hall.
The name Octavius means “eighth.”
Dion Tyrone Diamond was a student at Howard University when he started his activism and advocacy. There he formed the Nonviolent Action Group. Dion was an early counter-protestor who famously faced off with members of the American Nazi Party. He explained that his goal was to “crash segregated society.” He achieved this by confronting anti-integration picketers at various events.
The name Dion means “revelry.”
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Langston Hughes was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance writing poetry, plays, novels, and columns to promote social activism. While he was not an activist in the traditional sense, Hughes’s poems centered themselves on the lived experiences of African Americans in a radical fashion. The poetry from most of his early career is overtly political and decried the rampant inequality in the US. Communicating these truths through art was a profound contribution.
Hughes remains one of the most cherished American writers to ever live. In 1960, the NAACP awarded Hughes the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements.
The name Langston means “from the tall man’s town.”
As we watch and participate in the ongoing fight for civil rights, it’s important to look to leaders and activists from the past to help inform our understanding of how we got here. The names on this list represent some of the most prolific leaders in American history. We should honor them every single day. A great way to do that would be to donate to one of these organizations. If you’re looking for a baby name, consider one of these 20 or look to other leaders who have made a real impact.
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