The anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom gives us an opportunity to honor those who, through the decades, have fought for racial justice. More than 70 AWTT portrait subjects have focused on this dream as their life’s work. Foremost in our memories today are Martin Luther King, Jr., the central figure of the march, as well as Bayard Rustin, its key organizer. Despite his exceptional talents and dedication, Rustin was kept behind the scenes, at least in part, due to his sexual orientation – a trait not widely accepted in that era. (NYU Press will release an essay collection Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics next month, to be followed by the Netflix biopic Rustin in November.)
Also sidelined were the strong women leaders of the day, notably Ella Baker of the NAACP, SCLC and SNCC; Rosa Parks, a key figure in the Montgomery bus boycott; Dr. Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women and march organizer; and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a member of the organizing committee. Pauli Murray was instrumental in calling out the secondary role of women in the movement and led efforts to organize against racism and sexism in local communities going forward from the march.
Sixty years later AWTT also honors those who are carrying the torch into the next century. Dr. Rev. William Barber II – born two days after the 1963 March – has reinvigorated The Poor People’s Campaign, calling for a big tent approach to community organizing, recognizing the strength in numbers and expanding upon King’s early vision of intersectionality. Rev. Lennox Yearwood brings a fresh approach with his Hip Hop Caucus, finding the intersection of the climate crisis and racial justice. And young female leaders have moved to the forefront. Artist Robert Shetterly was inspired to paint their portraits because of their ground-breaking work: Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, pod-caster and political organizer on numerous fronts; Leah Penniman, bringing Black Americans back to farming; and, most recently, Debbie Njai, founder of Black People Who Hike.
“Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change,” King wrote in 1967. May these truth tellers inspire us all to find our role in the collective pursuit of truth, justice, and survival.
To learn more about both well-known and lesser-known civil rights leaders, go to our portrait gallery and filter for “civil rights.” Also, we feature fifty portraits and biographical sketches, along with introductory essays, in Portraits of Racial Justice.