8 Civil Rights Leaders That Made Workplace Equality Possible

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson and hundreds of guests assembled in the White House’s East Room. The President sat down at his desk, in front of microphones, and spoke about how the legislation that had been passed by Congress just hours before was meant “to end divisions.”

As the President picked up  one of the 75 pens ready to sign the act into law, the legislators and civil rights leaders in the room began to clap and stand. Crowding around the President, many received one of the pens used to sign the act as souvenirs. The mood was electric.

This historic event was the signing of the Civil Rights Act, a law banning segregation in public spaces and prohibiting discrimination in the workplace when it is based on sex, race, national origin, color, or religion. This law would pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and even for current Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts.

Activists & Champions of Equality

But the road to that moment in July 1964 was a long one and was only made possible by many people who worked hard for equality. It is impossible to acknowledge everyone who contributed to the Civil Rights Act, but we want to celebrate a few key figures:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Rosa Parks
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Joseph L. Rauh Jr.
  • Clarence Mitchell Jr.
  • Malcolm X
  • Dorothy Height

Martin Luther King Jr. 

Perhaps the best known of the civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. called the Civil Rights Act a “second emancipation.”  He worked to organize the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott & other nonviolent civil rights protests. He delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech — one of the most famous speeches in American history & a major inspiration for the civil rights movement — in 1963, at the March on Washington he organized, wrote, & delivered many moving speeches that encouraged many Americans to see racial equality as an important issue for all. He faced significant opposition for his views & was put in jail about 30 times, mostly for civil disobedience.

Rosa Parks

In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man, as segregation laws at the time demanded of her. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for a year until the U.S. Supreme Court found segregated seating in Montgomery, Alabama to be unconstitutional.  Following the boycott, Rosa Parks was part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) & worked for Congressman John Conyers, Jr. in Michigan. Her act, quietly demanding equality, sparked a national conversation about segregation & became a symbol of the fight for justice.

Harriet Tubman

Long before the Civil Rights Bill was even an idea, Harriet Tubman was born on a plantation in 1820. She was struck in the head & suffered a serious injury at age 12 when she attempted to prevent another enslaved person from being beaten. She eventually became part of the Underground Railway & advocated for women’s right to vote while also working as a nurse & a spy for the Union in the Civil War. Her work inspired abolitionists & women seeking justice & freedom.

Joseph L. Rauh Jr.

Joseph L. Rauh Jr. was a civil liberties lawyer & was part of the NAACP & the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Between 1948 & 1964, he was a delegate to the annual Democratic National Conventions. At those National Conventions, he advocated for the first robust civil rights plank to be included in the Democratic platform & sought to have Black representatives of the Mississippi Freedom party seated as official delegations.

Clarence Mitchell Jr.

Clarence Mitchell Jr. was a lobbyist for the NAACP & an activist. In the 1940s, he worked for the Fair Employment Practices Committee, where he sought to provide fair employment for all American workers. He campaigned for the passage of many civil rights bills, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, & 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act & the Fair Housing Act.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X was an activist who took the opposite view of Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X believed that a person could defend themselves by “any means.” He converted to the Nation of Islam, which did not seek integration into white society. Eventually, Malcolm X converted to the traditional Islam belief & adopted the idea that peace & civil rights for all were possible.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was an activist for women’s & civil rights. She worked to address voter education, literacy, unemployment, & the needs of Black women specifically. Dorothy Height advocated for reforms to the justice systems & fought to end lynching. She was also involved with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) & worked to improve employment conditions for Black women workers, especially in domestic work. She is considered one of the first civil rights activists to address the needs of Black women & she served the National Council of Negro Women as president for four decades.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy became President in 1961, & at first, he was not interested in laws that would end discrimination. During his presidency, however, President Kennedy started to believe that all citizens had to be free for the country to be free. In 1963, he proposed what would become the Civil Rights Act, though he would not live to see it signed into law.

Of course, this is only a short list. We can’t fail to mention W. E. B. Du Bois, Moorfield Storey, Ida B. Wells, and Mary White Ovington, who founded the NAACP in 1909, and the many leaders of that organization who fought tirelessly for equality and justice. We all owe a tremendous debt to the abolitionists who risked their lives to work against slavery. The story of the civil rights laws also includes many ordinary Americans who will likely never be named but who voted, wrote to their elected representatives, marched, took part in sit-ins, donated funds to the cause of equality, and took other actions which allowed the conversation about civil rights to shift.

Making History

Today, we’re still making history when it comes to equality and inclusion, especially in the workplace. With work accounting for at least eight hours of the day for many employees, at least five days a week, equality and diversity in the workplace means equality and diversity in our lives.

One way we can make a difference is with AI and metrics. Diversio, for example, uses data to determine the diversity and inclusion of workplaces so decision-makers have an understanding of where they stand and what they can do to move forward. Book a demo today to see how you can work towards equality and inclusion at your organization.

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