African American Icons Who Shook Up The World

These African Americans were the dreamers and the fighters that changed the landscape of our culture. Their tenacity and vision should inspire us all to create a brighter future.

1 Robert Abbott Gave A Voice To The Voiceless

Robert Abbott
Brilliant Star Magazine

Robert Abbott was the pioneer of the black press and paved the way for black publications. He founded The Chicago Defender in 1905, which was one of the most important black newspapers in history. The paper was started with only twenty-five cents capital and was a four-page pamphlet. 

The Chicago Defender became a national newspaper in 1921, with a plant worth almost a half-million dollars, and 70 employees. Abbot gave a voice to the voiceless and was one of the first black millionaires in Chicago. He set the stage for prominent African American publishers. 

2 Sojourner Truth Helped A Generation Recognize Their Worth

Sojourner Truth
National Women’s History

Sojourner Truth was a human rights crusader that fought for the rights of African Americans and women. She was an evangelist, women’s rights activist, and abolitionist who was born into slavery in New York. She escaped to freedom in 1826 and became a Christian, embarking on a life of preaching.

It was her stirring “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, which was delivered during a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851, that gained her notoriety. She helped recruit black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War and spoke with President Abraham Lincoln

3 Harriet Tubman Was The Conductor Of The Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom with the Underground Railroad. She was born into slavery and escaped in 1849, using the Underground Railroad to travel the 90-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia. Once she learned that her family members would be sold, she traveled back to the South to lead them to freedom.

Tubman later became a nurse and spy for the Union during The Civil War. She will be the first African-American woman to appear on U.S. currency when she will be the face of the $20 bill, which will be unveiled in 2028. 

4 Ella Baker Was The Backbone Of The Civil Rights Movement

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who worked mostly behind-the-scenes for decades. Her grandmother had been a slave, which motivated Baker to fight for social justice. She became a community organizer and a field secretary for the NAACP before moving to Atlanta, Georgia to help Martin Luther King Jr. form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Baker facilitated protests and organized a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship. She laid the framework for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which focused on voting rights for African Americans. She was a dedicated change agent and the backbone of the civil rights movement. 

5 Rosa Parks Was The Mother Of The Freedom Movement

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks led the charge for civil rights when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was pivotal in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to a national change in stopping racial segregation in public facilities. 

According to, Parks was given many awards in her lifetime, including the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest award, and the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Award. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. The following year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

6 Martin Luther King Jr. Was The Warrior Of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr.’s message applies to this day. He was the most important voice in the civil rights movement. A Baptist preacher and social rights activist, his “I have a dream” speech continues to inspire generations of Americans to this day. He was a man of impressive achievement and integral in changing lives for people of color.

He was the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, played a key role in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Selma to Montgomery March. Heartbreakingly, King was assassinated in 1968, but his legacy lives on. 

7 Malcolm X Fought By Any Means Necessary

Malcolm X
The Sumpter Item

Malcolm X was a prominent black nationalist leader who was the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. He was a human rights activist that became the champion of black pride and founded the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks. His philosophies were the blueprint for the black power movement. 

He left the Nation of Islam in 1964 before being assassinated in 1965. Shortly after his death, the story of his life, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published. His words continue to inspire African American youth in modern-day America.  

8 Shirley Chisholm Broke Political Barriers

Xhirleu Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was a pioneer for both civil rights and the feminist movement. She became the first elected African American woman to the U.S. Congress in 1968, serving seven terms for New York’s 12th District. She became an agent of change for the disenfranchised, championing programs for health and social services, like the food stamp program.

Chisholm was the first black candidate and the first female to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972. She was a trailblazer for women and coined the quote “Unbought and Unbossed.” Women wouldn’t be as successful in politics if it wasn’t for her taking the lead. 

9 Thurgood Marshall Played A Vital Part In Ending Segregation

Thurgood Marshall
Voice of America

Thurgood Marshall broke barriers by becoming the Supreme Court’s first African American Justice. He served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1967 until 1991. It’s been said that Marshall was the most feared black man in the south as he was one of the most pivotal figures in the destruction of Jim Crow laws.

His most prominent victory was Brown v. Board of Education, which was the 1954 landmark decision that ended segregation in schools. He served as the lead attorney for the NAACP and was the first director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

10 Mary McLeod Bethune Was The First Lady Of Struggle

VMary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was an organizer, political activist, and educator that founded one of the first schools for African American girls. She was a civil rights leader that advised five American presidents and devoted her life to fighting for the rights and education of black Americans. 

Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls and was president of the National Association of Colored Women. She also founded the National Council of Negro Women. Her love and passion for her community opened doors for people of color and inspired many to promote change for African Americans.

11 Dr. Charles Drew Was A Blood Pioneer

Dr Drew

When it comes to medical advances that changed the world, Dr. Charles Drew put African Americans on the map. He was a black surgeon who discovered methods of storing blood plasma in banks and founded the first blood bank in the United States. 

Drew became the chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital and became the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery. According to, he was honored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with its 1943 Spingarn Medal. His legacy and work with The Red Cross continue to save lives to this day. 

12 Maya Angelou Rose To Greatness Despite Trauma

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an African American poet whose voice changed the world. Her mother’s boyfriend raped her at the age of 8. He was sentenced to death and Angelou stopped speaking because she thought her voice killed him when she identified him. During her time of silence, she memorized poetry. 

A teacher used literature to help Angelou overcome the trauma. Later, she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and published her famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. Angelou was a civil rights activist and served as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

13 Muhammed Ali Was “The Greatest”

Muhammid Ali
ABC News

Muhammed Ali was the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion, a civil rights activist, and a philanthropist. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and the world heavyweight champion three times. In 1967, he took a brave stand against the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted.  

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984 and became a devoted philanthropist. He was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. His professional record was 56-5, and Ali will forever be remembered as one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th Century, living up to his nickname, “The Greatest”. 

14 Toni Morrison Was A Visionary Force

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is one of the most beloved writers who told the story of the struggles of African American women. Her words inspired countless writers in her footsteps, and she won many prestigious awards for her novels. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and a Pulitzer Prize. 

Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her prose opened the world’s eyes to the terrors of slavery. Her 1987 novel Beloved was a Bestseller for 25 weeks. She was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000. 

15 Katherine Johnson Used Numbers To Find Her Voice

Katherine Johnson
The New York Times

Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician and an unsung hero in NASA’s early space program. In 1962, her work helped put a man into orbit and she later calculated the flight path for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. Hollywood took notice of her genius in the 2016 film Hidden Figures

She worked for NASA for 30 years and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her pioneering work that led the way for black women to work in science and other fields. Johnson earned herself the reputation of being the “human computer”. 

16 Sidney Poitier Opened Doors For Black Artists

Sidney Poitier
Arizona Daily Star

Sidney Poitier is an acting legend whose performance in the film Lilies of the Field earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964. He was the first African American man to win an Oscar, which paved a trail for the leading black man. The actor consciously starred in films that defied racial stereotyping.

He’s earned many awards in his lifetime; President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Poitier has been a trailblazer for modern-day African American actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. 

17 Zora Neale Hurston Was A Leader In The Harlem Renaissance

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was an African American author who laid down the intellectual groundwork for black Southern artistry. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God portrayed racial struggles in the 1900s in the south. She wrote the way that black people spoke in the south, which earned her the reputation of being an “outrageous woman”. 

It was her work that opened doors for contemporary African American female authors. She was the undeniable force that prepared the world for the best-selling Southern writer Alice Walker. Her work in anthropology examined black folklore and continues to inspire African American artists.

18 Jean-Michel Basquiat Shook Up The Elite Art World

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Zest for art

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti artist in Soho and Manhattan, New York’s Lower East Side. He turned the art world on its head with his exploration of the urban plight of African Americans and the counterculture punk movement. He shot to fame in the early 1980s, but his life was cut short by a heroin overdose in 1998.

Basquiat’s career was brief, but he made an enormous mark in the art world and will be forever credited for bringing the African American experience into the spotlight. His works are mostly privately owned, but he paved the way for graffiti artists like Bansky. 

19 Oprah Winfrey Is A Powerhouse

Oprah Winfrey
The Boston Globe

Oprah Winfrey wears many hats. She’s been a talk show host, Oscar-winning actress, philanthropist, producer, and business mogul. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for an impressive 25 seasons and broke into almost every television in America. Her worldwide appeal shattered cultural boundaries and earned her the crown of the self-help queen.

She was the first African-American female billionaire and is known for her educational endeavors. Winfrey founded a female-only private school in South Africa and paid the tuition for over 415 Morehouse College students. They don’t call her “Mama Oprah” for nothing!