- Civil rights leader John Lewis is survived by a generation of changemakers, ready to take up the baton.
- Twenty-one are listed here, representing intersections of civil rights causes including policing, LGBTQ rights and social media.
- The list includes Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light.”
He was the last surviving speaker from the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
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In recent years, new leaders have emerged across the United States to champion rights - not just for African Americans, but also in the fields of migration and gender. They are using politics, social media campaigns and publishing in new ways to amplify and spread their messages.
Here are 21 current and emerging civil rights leaders who will shape struggles in the United States and the wider world for years to come.
1. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Black rights
Los-Angeles-based Khan-Cullors describes herself as an “artist, organizer and freedom fighter”. She is best-known for Black Lives Matter (BLM), the African American rights protest movement she co-founded following the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. This year, BLM has surged following the death of George Floyd. In fact it “may be the largest movement in US history,” writes the New York Times. Khan-Cullors is also an influential LGBTQ activist and a leading voice for prison reform – and abolition.
2. Alicia Garza, journalism and campaigns
One of the three BLM co-founders, Alicia Garza is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2020. She is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represents millions of people across the US. She is also prolific in print – her journalism subjects range from health inequalities to violence against gender non-conforming people of colour.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?
The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.
The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.
The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.
3. Thandiwe Abdullah, youth campaigner
Across America, students have made up many of the BLM demonstrators. Thandiwe Abdullah has played a significant role in making that happen as the co-founder of LA-based Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard, together with other young campaigners throughout the country.
4. Angela Davis, political activist and academic
Angela Davis is a trailblazing campaigner for the rights of Black people – and Black women in particular. One of Time Magazine’s Women of the Year in 1971, and now in her seventies, she’s still influential. Davis has played a leading role in civil rights campaigns over decades, from the Black Panthers to the Women’s March on Washington. John Lennon and the Rolling Stones were so inspired by her battle with the legal system in the 1970s that they wrote songs about her.
5. Rachel Cargle, academic and author
Cargle has become influential on Instagram through her uplifting and often uncomfortable explorations of everyday racism. An academic and author, she uses social media as a platform to dissect language, in an attempt to expand white people’s understanding of what constitutes racism.
6. Van Jones, green jobs
The economy is central to Van Jones’ vision of a better future for African Americans. A former White House green jobs adviser, Jones links social justice to environmental justice, emphasising how carefully focused green policies can help bridge the black-white wealth divide, creating jobs for people of colour. In addition to political commentary for CNN, he has helped found numerous campaigning organizations, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Color of Change.
7. Michelle Alexander, prison reform
In her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that strict drugs laws have disproportionately affected Black communities. It is a theme she has become an expert on as a law professor at Ohio State University. Her thesis, that prisons are the new system of racial oppression, has been highly influential among US civil rights campaigners and beyond.
8. Jose Antonio Vargas, immigration and citizenship
When he was 12, Vargas’ mother put him on a plane from Manila to California. Since then, he has been an undocumented migrant. He travels around in case he is arrested. But he hasn’t let it hold him back. Part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Washington Post, in 2011 he boldly penned ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant’. Since then, he has become an influential voice on the rights of immigrants, and is considered to have helped shift policy during the Obama era. More recently, he has launched the migration rights activism site, Define American.
9. Erika Andiola, migrant and refugee rights
Arizona-based Andiola is also an undocumented migrant – as her Twitter handle declares. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine with other US immigrants living without papers. She co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and is the Chief Advocacy Officer for RAICES, which provides education and legal services for immigrants and refugees.
10. Tarana Burke, sexual rights
Together with Black Lives Matter, few modern movements have been as influential as #MeToo. Tarana Burke founded it. Based in New York, Burke’s movement has encouraged women around the world to open up about sexual abuse, sharing their story online using the famous hashtag. Her background is in championing the rights of young people of marginalized communities.
11. Laverne Cox, LGBTQ rights
Cox, an actor, is well known as a leading figure in the transgender movement, bringing issues such as the murders of trans people and the use of gender pronouns to wider attention. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine – as well as many fashion publications – gaining a wider audience through the hit Netflix prison series, Orange is the New Black.
12. Chad Griffin, gay rights
Griffin rose to prominence after leading the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in California. Since 2015, the Supreme Court has guaranteed this right nationwide. He is the founder of American Foundation for Equal Rights and is a former president of the Human Rights Campaign.
13. Nihad Awad, Muslim rights
Washington DC-based Awad leads the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim-rights advocacy organization. Awad was one of America’s leading Muslim voices condemning the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that followed, and has remained a prominent face of the community in the US. He has received numerous awards for his work.
14. Maya Wiley, structural racism
Currently a professor, Wiley has used her knowledge of criminal justice, race and equality to create political change. She served as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief legal adviser and chairs the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has oversight of the police department. According to reports she is exploring a run for the mayoral role herself.
15. Cheryl Dorsey, police reform
The retired Los Angeles police sergeant is the author of Blue and Black, a frank memoir of her life in the force, where she tackled gang violence. She says she grew up watching “white flight” transform her once middle-class LA district “into a Black neighbourhood, littered with gang activity” and has been working to improve things ever since. A prominent civil rights activist, Dorsey regularly appears in the US media to discuss abuses in policing.
16. Esmeralda Simmons, legal reform
Simmons runs the Center for Law and Social Justice in Brooklyn, which helps people facing problems including police brutality and discrimination. A longstanding campaigner for equal rights, civil rights lawyer Simmons has worked in senior roles in government, from the department of education and New York State to serving as a federal judge.
17. Rev Dr William Barber, moral leadership
Barber is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, which describes itself as “a national call for moral revival”. Its mission is to ground governmental policy making in morality. The campaign is named after the last movement of the civil rights era, one which ended when Martin Luther King died. Now leading the campaign’s resurgence, the North Carolina pastor’s powerful oratory and liberation theology means he is often compared to Dr King himself.
18. Bryan Stevenson, prison reform
Like a number of our 21 leaders, Stevenson has a legal background. A civil rights lawyer, he founded and is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which challenges discrimination in the US criminal justice system. His book, Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption, about death row, has become a New York Times bestseller – and a film.
19. Melanie Campbell, youth and women’s rights
In the 2012 election, black voters had higher rates of participation than white voters for the first time. Campbell contributed to this as a creator of the political leadership development programme, Black Youth Vote!. As the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, she helps African Americans to become leaders in their communities.
20. Lateefah Simon, structural inequalities
From an early age, Lateefah Simon has campaigned for poor and marginalized people.
She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003 for her work helping teenagers and young women living in poverty. As the president of the Akonadi Foundation, she is one of the leading voices calling for attention to be paid to ‘structural racism’ – the way in which services like education and health often discriminate due to their design.
21. James Rucker, campaign creator
Rucker is co-founder, now chairman, of Color of Change, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest African American online political organization”. The website creates campaigns and petitions on issues such as police reform and how social media deals with civil rights, using the internet to spread its message further.