The heroes of the civil rights movement, the men and women who worked to break down the legal and cultural barriers that excluded African Americans from equal treatment, were as varied as the oppressed on whose behalf they worked. Here are some of their stories and pictures of where they lived and did their work.
Daisy Bates was the driving force behind an early victory of the civil rights era: the desegregation of the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although the Supreme Court had struck down segregation laws in 1954, Arkansas’ governor resisted the order, deploying the National Guard to prevent the entry of the nine enrolled African-American students. Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, worked to enforce the federal law against local resistance. On September 24, 1957, the nine students and their parents gathered at Bates’ home to be escorted to school by a convoy of federal troops.
Bates later became the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
Frederick Douglass escaped the slavery into which he’d been born to become a leading social reformer and a powerful orator for the cause of abolition. In 1845, his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, became a best-seller. Douglass said of the work of abolition, “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
By the time he moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington in 1877, Douglass was an internationally known figure. His Victorian mansion is now a National Historic Site.
In the 1920s, during what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes’ poetry traced both the frustrations and joys of African-American life, putting its language to the cadences of jazz to make literature. Before he published his first book, Hughes had traveled to many countries and worked as a sailor and a cook and doorman at a Paris nightclub, among other jobs.
Hughes voiced the experience of millions of black Americans in poems such as “Democracy,” in which he wrote:
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Sometimes called the Poet Laureate of Harlem, Hughes lived in this house on East 127th Street in that neighborhood for the last 20 years of his life.
“The future of the Negro in this country,” James Baldwin said, “is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country.” Baldwin, an essayist and novelist, was an outspoken critic of America’s treatment of African Americans. Through best-selling books and as a public figure, Baldwin described America’s shortcomings in the starkest terms.
Although he always remained engaged in the culture of the U.S., Baldwin eventually settled in Saint-Paul de Vence in the south of France. There he received visitors such as Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald while continuing his writing. “Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean,” Baldwin told the New York Times, “I could see where I came from very clearly.”
Long after the deaths of these civil rights heroes, people still travel to see these homes. While not grand or extravagant, they offer a reminder of the Americans whose work pushed their country toward just treatment of all men and women.