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 girls 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.
Clara Shepard Luper was a pioneering leader in the civil rights movement who helped organize the Oklahoma City sit-in movement of 1958. She and her two children along with others involved with the NAACP Youth Council successfully protested segregated drugstore lunch counters in downtown Oklahoma City. The protests resulted in the overturning of policies of segregation.
In 2000, the state of Oklahoma honored Luper with a parade and other festivities as the state renamed a large portion of State Highway 107 as “Clara Luper Corridor.”
The name Clara means “clear.”
Frankie Muse Freeman was a leading civil rights attorney and the very first woman to be appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights where she served from 1964-1979. Before the appointment, Freeman was the lead attorney on a landmark NAACP case which ended segregation of public housing in St. Louis. Freeman practiced law for over 60 years. In 1990, she was inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame.
The name Frankie means “truthful.”
Marvel Cooke was first to do a great many things. To start, she was the first Black child to be born in Mankato, Minnesota in 1903. She then attended the University of Minnesota where she established the school’s first Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter. After working with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP magazine, The Crisis Cooke was hired at the New York Amsterdam News. She was the first female reporter in the publication’s 40-year history.
In the 1930s, Cooke fought for organized labor efforts for a variety of newspapers and publications, eventually, she helped found a chapter of the Newspaper Guild. In 1950, when she was hired at The Daily Compass, she became the first African American woman to report for a major, white-owned newspaper. She was the paper’s only woman and only Black journalist. In 1969, she volunteered as a national legal defense secretary for the Angela Davis Defense Fund and organized many demonstrations.
The name Marvel means “to admire.”
In 1960, Ruby Bridges at only six years of age became the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the south. Federal marshals escorted Bridges and her mother to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans for the entire first year of her education there. Bridges received threats and hate-filled rhetoric from other students and their parents. Only one teacher at the school would agree to teach Bridges, she never missed a single day.
The name Ruby means “red.”
Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in 1879. In 1896, she applied to be a schoolteacher in Washington DC and was denied the position because her skin was “too dark.” The experience motivated Burroughs to establish the National Training School for Women and Girls, a trade school for Black high school and college-aged women. After her death in 1961, the school was renamed in her honor and it now enjoys National Historic Landmark designation.
She famously gave a speech at the National Baptist Convention entitled, “How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping” which brought her acclaim. She used the notoriety to start her school and organize around issues involving Black working women and children’s education.
The name Helen means “light.”
Prolific organizer and activist, Diane Nash is a major proponent of nonviolent resistance. She organized the first campaign to integrate lunch counters in Nashville and later became a frontline member of the Freedom Riders. She co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the student-led channel of the civil rights movement. She was instrumental in organizing for the Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement spurred after four girls were murdered in the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963.
The name Diane means “divine.”
Anna Arnold Hedgeman became the first African American woman appointed to the mayor of New York City’s cabinet. An excellent political strategist, Hedgeman was instrumental as the executive director of Harry Truman’s 1949 presidential campaign.
She was one of the organizers of the March on Washington and spent over 60 years advocating civil rights.
The name Anna means “grace.”
Pauli Murray (Anna Pauline Murray) is one of the most incredible women in American history. Her activism began in 1940 when she and a friend sat in a whites-only portion of a segregated bus in Virginia. She was arrested for violating state segregation laws. The arrest helped motivate Murray to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. She enrolled in law school at Howard University and famously called the sexism she experienced “Jane Crow.”
Her law studies continued, culminating with a Doctor of Juridical Science. She became the first African American to receive the doctorate from Yale Law School. After completing her formal studies, she argued for civil rights and women’s rights. Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color the “bible” of the civil rights movement.
In 1966, Murray co-founded the National Organization of Women. In 1977, she became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
The name Pauli means “humble.”
Amelia Boynton Robinson was a central figure of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. Robinson worked with Martin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash, James Bevel, and others of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to plan demonstrations for civil and voting rights in Selma where only 300 of the town’s African American residents were able to register to vote. The peaceful protestors were attacked by State Police in an incident that became known as Bloody Sunday. A picture of Robinson beaten, wounded, and unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge circulated around the world.
The name Amelia means “work.”
Nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin was arrested at the age of 15 for not giving up her seat to a white woman on a segregated Montgomery bus. Colvin served as one of five plaintiffs for Browder v. Gayle the landmark case that made bus segregation laws unconstitutional.
“Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Colvin once remarked.
The name Claudette means “enclosure.”
Ella Josephine Baker was a founding member of the SNCC and mentored emerging activists Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses. Although she was active in a number of civil rights organizations like the NAACP and SCLC, she criticized the effectiveness of charismatic leadership. Baker firmly believed that radical or participatory democracy and gaining movement at the grassroots was the only way for the oppressed to truly advocate for themselves. In 1994, Baker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The name Ella means “beautiful.”
Dorothy Irene Height was one of the first leaders in the civil rights movement to view inequality for women and African Americans as concurrent issues. Before her advocacy, the two concerns were viewed as separate issues. At the age of 25, she began her decades-long career as a civil rights advocate by joining the National Council of Negro Women. An organization she would later run for over forty years. She helped create the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in 1971. Her dedication to political mobilization helped give voice to many women who felt excluded from the process.
In 1994, Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The name Dorothy means “God’s gift.”
Fannie Lou Hamer first learned about her constitutional right to vote after being visited by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962. She attempted to register to vote many times but was thwarted by tests and poll taxes designed to keep African Americans from voting. After learning of her attempt to vote, she was fired from her job. She was also attacked by white supremacists who shot at Hamer 16 times in a drive-by shooting. Undeterred and under constant threat from the Ku Klux Klan, three years later, she passed a literacy test and paid two poll taxes to be able to vote.
The experience ignited a passion for activism and co-founded and then vice-chaired the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was integral in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, a huge drive to register people to vote. Like Height, Hamer also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In 1993, Hamer was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The name Lou means “famed warrior.”
Nikki Giovanni is a famed poet and one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement, an art movement that was born of the civil rights movement and celebrated Black Power and Black Pride. Her work explores race, gender, sexuality, and the African American family. Giovanni is easily one of the world’s most cherished living poets and educators. Giovanni has won numerous awards and honors for her writing and advocacy including seven NAACP Image Awards and keys to more than two dozen American cities.
The name Nikki means “victory of the people.”
Daisy Bates and her husband, L.C. Bates bought a printing press in 1941 in Little Rock, Arkansas. They published Arkansas State Press, a weekly statewide newspaper specializing in advocacy journalism and modeled after the NAACP’s The Crisis. After the supreme court ruled all segregated schools to be illegal, the state of Arkansas refused to allow Black students to enroll in public schools. Daisy used her publication to amplify the efforts of the NAACP to desegregate schools in the state.
She would go on to join the National Board of the NAACP and mentor the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students who enrolled at Little Rock Central High School. After their enrollment, the school refused to allow the students to enter in what’s now known as the Little Rock Integration Crisis. Her tireless work for equal education and desegregation is honored by many awards including an elementary school in Little Rock named for her. The Bates’ house was named National Historic Landmark.
The name Daisy means “day’s eye” or “flower.”
Shirley Chisholm changed the US House of Representatives forever. Before becoming the first Black woman elected to the US Congress, Shirley was a prized educator and an authority on education and early childhood education in Brooklyn. After being elected to Congress, Chisholm co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus the same year she also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her preferred committee was the Education and Labor Committee that helped inform her many bills to better fund childcare services and public education. Chisholm is credited with the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
In 1972, Chisholm became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for the President of the United States. She was the first woman to ever appear in a US Presidential debate. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The name Shirley means “bright meadow.”
Nellie Stone Johnson started her career in activism as a union organizer and was a major figure in Minnesota’s labor movement. Her ability to organize put her on the board of many unions including the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. In 1945, she became the first Black person to be elected to a citywide office in Minneapolis when she was elected to the Library Board. Johnson was the driving force behind the Fair Employment Practices departments, which later became the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission and the state Human Rights Department.
Johnson authored the 1950 initiative from the Minneapolis NAACP that led to the desegregation of the US armed forces. And, by the 1960s, she was raising money for MLK’s Freedom Marches. While she might not be well-known around the US, she shaped Minnesota politics for the better part of 70 years.
The name Nellie means “shining one” and is often a shortened form of Helen or Eleanor.
Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was one of the founders of the NAACP. Early in her career, she documented the barbaric practice of lynching and its prevalence across the south as a tactic to intimidate and oppress African Americans. Her seminal indictment, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases” and subsequent reporting were widely published in Black-owned newspapers led to an angry mob of whites destroyed her newspaper office and printing presses.
She dedicated her life to fighting prejudice and improving the quality of life for African Americans and especially women and children. Wells was also a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and viewed the right for African American women to vote as a way for them to become more politically active in their communities. This put her at odds with largely white-led suffragist organizations. Despite racism within the suffrage movement, Wells persisted and organized the most important Black suffrage organizations in the country, the Alpha Suffrage Club based in Chicago.
The name Ida means “work.”
Angela Davis is an activist, author, and writer who was born in 1994 in Birmingham, Alabama. Throughout her childhood, she experienced violent discrimination as members of the Klu Klux Klan bombed homes in her predominately African American neighborhood. She went on to study philosophy eventually earning a Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Germany. She became an active member of the Communist Party, the Black Panther Party, and considered herself a radical feminist.
Davis has written extensively about race, class, and gender as evident in her most famous work’s title: Women, Race & Class. Her philosophy has helped shape a generation of activists and leaders. She has dedicated her life to prison reform and co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that seeks to end prisons.
The name Angela means “messenger of God.”
Coretta Scott King was a gifted musician who met Martin Luther King Jr. after she began her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. The couple married two years after meeting and then, moved to Montgomery, Alabama where MLK had taken a position as a pastor of a baptist church. Coretta was a dedicated activist who often incorporated music into her advocacy. After her husband’s death, King convinced Ronald Regan to establish November 2nd, MLK’s birthday, a federal holiday. The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated in 1983.
King founded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center) in Atlanta in 1968. The center provides educational, archival, and inspirational resources to visitors.
Her activism and good works earned her a place in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the title: “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The name Coretta means “little heart.”
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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