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Portraits of leadership: great African Americans in the struggle for freedom.

The history of African Americans is a history of struggle and achievement against the odds in virtually all spheres of human endeavor. We offer the following biographical sketches as poignant testimony to the lessons learned from the past and as scintillating inspiration for the work we must do in the future. Some of the personalities highlighted herein are more well known than others, yet they all undoubtedly qualify for the title of "leader."

Mary McLeod Bethune

When a white playmate snatched a book away and told her that because Blacks could not read, the book was not for her, Mary McLeod Bethune was filled with her life's central mission: education.

She founded what is now Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women, served as an advisor on minority affairs to five Presidents, and was one of the most influential women in America in the last 10 years of her life.

The 15th child of former slaves, she left the cotton field of her childhood to attend college from 1888 to 1897, then taught at four Southern schools for African-American children. In 1904--starting with $1.50 in cash, five pupils, and a rented cottage--she founded the normal and industrial school for young African-American women in Daytona Beach, Florida, which became Bethune-Cookman College in 1928.

Bethune became the first African-American woman to head a federal office, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1936, as director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.

Only her death in 1955, just prior to her 80th birthday, halted Mary McLeod Bethune's intense, unrelenting struggle for progress and opportunity.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar was so talented and versatile that he succeeded in two worlds. He was so adept at writing verse in Black dialect that he became known as the "poet of his people," while also cultivating a white audience that appreciated the brilliance of his work.

Majors and Minors (1895), Dunbar's second collection of verse, contained some of his best poems in both Black dialect and standard English. When the literary critic, William Dean Howells reviewed Majors and Minors favorably, Dunbar became famous.

Even though he reached a point when publications competed for anything (poems, short stories, novels, prose, sketches, plays and musical lyrics) that sprang from his fertile mind, Dunbar wrote for a living and had to please popular reading tastes. But he did publish a few pieces that spoke out gently against the typical treatment of his people, including "We Wear the Mask" and "The Haunted Oak," an antilynching poem.

Despite worsening health from the tuberculosis he succumbed to at age 34 in 1906, Dunbar produced four collections of short stories and a quartet of novels in a creative outpouring between 1898 and 1904. His novels included The Fanatics, a tale of political conflict involving two Civil War families, and The Sport of the Gods, about injustice suffered by an innocent African-American family.

James Weldon Johnson

As a precursor, participant, and historian of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson was the epitome of the Renaissance man himself--poet, composer, author, government official, teacher, and influential civil rights activist.

Johnson, as lyricist, and his brother, Rosamond, as composer, wrote and staged musical comedies and light operas from 1901 to 1906, producing such songs as "Since You Went Away" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," now widely adopted as the African-American national anthem.

He crowned his contributions to society by becoming field secretary for the fledgling NAACP in 1916.

After becoming the first African-American man to admitted to the bar (in 1897) to practice law in Jacksonville, Florida, he moved to New York to pursue a theatrical career. Campaigning for Teddy Roosevelt's successful presidential bid in 1904 earned Johnson an appointment as U.S. Consul to Venezuela (1906-8) and Nicaragua (1909-12).

Johnson was a literature instructor at Fisk University in Tennessee when he died in an automobile crash in 1938.

Jesse Owens

World record-holder Jesse Owens had one qualifying jump left at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He had fouled on four of his first five tries.

Suddenly, his chief rival, German long jumper Luz Long, said to Owens, "...remeasure your steps... take off six inches behind the foul board." Thus was an unlikely friendship born between an African American and a German. And thus was Jesse Owens inspired to capture an unprecedented four Olympic gold medals with record performances in the long jump, the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and the 400-meter relay.

Owens parlayed his international track-star reputation into jobs helping his people--such as national director of physical education for African Americans with the Office of Civilian Defense (1940-42), which he called "the most gratifying work I've ever done."

Owens was largely a self-made man. A frail child, he developed into a strong runner, winning national high school titles in three events. Colleges pursued Owens, but he chose Ohio State, where he worked his way through school. In 1935 Owens set three world records and equalled another in one day, running a 20.3-second 220-yard dash, 22.6 in the 220-yard low hurdles, a record-tying 9.4-second 100 yard dash, and long-jumping 26'-8-1/4... a mark that was not surpassed for 25 years.

Amid all this adulation, Jesse Owens maintained his perspective. "Life," he said, "is the real Olympics."

A. Philip Randolph

Raised in abolitionist traditions by his minister father, A. Philip Randolph mirrored those beliefs for more than 60 years as a champion of equal rights. He came to national prominence by organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and achieved the first union contract signed by a white employer and an African-American labor leader (in 1937).

In 1941 he conceived a march on Washington, DC, to protest exclusion of African-American workers from defense jobs. Faced with the public relations threat of 100,000 marchers, President Franklin Roosevelt established the wartime Fair Employment Practice Committee. Randolph founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, which in 1948 pressured President Harry Truman into ending segregation in the armed forces.

Although in later years he became less militant, Randolph was a dedicated socialist from his college days in New York. His lifelong belief in unionism and integration flowed from that philosophy, and he went into action in 1917 by cofounding The Messenger, a weekly magazine of African-American protest, and lecturing across the country.

For his outspoken leadership, Randolph's opponents characterized him as "the most dangerous Negro in America" because of his proven power to create change.

He was still the acknowledged patriarch into the early 1970s and into his 80s, after his key role in organizing the historic, 250,000-strong March on Washington in 1963.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells has been equaled by few Americans in her fiery denunciation of discrimination, exploitation, and brutality.

At a time when to do so was life-threatening, this committed journalist attacked social wrongs on all fronts, conducted antilynching campaigns, investigated race riots, and exposed the oppressive living conditions of African Americans. Orphaned at age 14, Wells first became a teacher. She lost her job and found her calling in Memphis when she became involved in a lawsuit after refusing to give up her seat in a railroad car designed for "whites only"--more than 60 years before Rosa Parks ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement with a similar gesture.

After purchasing an interest in Free Speech, a Memphis weekly, Wells had her press and office demolished by a mob of angry whites, when she published the details of the lynching of three African-American grocers by their white competitors. Fleeing to New York, she began antilynching lecture tours and published Southern Horrors and The Red Record, the first statistical study of lynching, which won her an international reputation.

In Chicago in 1895, she contributed to newspapers and periodicals; founded a settlement house to assist migrant African Americans in finding jobs and homes; helped organize the NAACP, and devoted much of her later years to promoting voting rights for women.

Carter G. Woodson

First he educated himself. Then Carter G. Woodson educated America by refuting racist views about the contributions of African Americans. As the "Father of Negro history," Woodson became a central figure in the study, writing, and teaching of African-American history.

As principal founder (in 1915) and director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, he was editor of the Journal of Negro History for 34 years. Woodson launched and promoted such ventures as Negro History Week (now expanded to Black History Month, a national observance.)

Because his ex-slave parents pressed him into working at an early age, Woodson taught himself to read and write--he was unable to attend school until he was 20. Graduating from high school in less than two years, he never lost his love of learning. He studied at five institutions at home and abroad, interspersed with 21 years as head of high schools and colleges in his native West Virginia, the Philippines, and Washington, DC, while earning his doctorate from Harvard. Woodson published many volumes of history, the most important including The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1922), which became the standard text on African-American history for many years.

Whitney Moore Young

A civil rights leader who urged African Americans to work within the system, Whitney Moore Young, as executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971, played a leading role in persuading America's corporate elite to provide better opportunities for African Americans.

Young worked with President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights and antipoverty programs, during the 1960s, while calling for a "domestic Marshall Plan" (similar to U.S. aid to revive Europe after World War II).

He was one of the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington and in 1964 he organized the Community Action Assembly to fight poverty in African-American communities.

He was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1969. Two years later at the age of 49, Young drowned in Lagos, Nigeria, while participating in an annual African-American dialogue on relations between the two continents.
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Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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