Civil Rights Superstars

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IN HONOR OF BLACK HISTORY month, I am counting down 28 — because there are 28 days in February — young African Americans (or groups of African Americans) who played significant roles in breaking racial barriers and/or fighting injustice before and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Tomorrow, it begins with entries 28 through 25.

Today, a look at some of the individuals who could have, and maybe should have, made the list:


GEORGE DIXON, 19, became the first black boxing champion in 1890. “Little Chocolate,” just 5-3 and 114 pounds, knocked out Britain’s Nunc Wallace in 18 rounds to win the bantamweight crown in London. If that weren’t enough, he’s been credited with originating shadow boxing and the suspended punching bag. Dixon would have made the list only he wasn’t American; he was a black Canadian from Nova Scotia. Right or wrong, the list of 28 is about African Americans.

EXIF_JPEG_T422OLA MAE QUARTERMAN, 18, told a bus driver in Albany, Georgia, “I paid my damn 10 cents and I’ll sit where I want” when he tried to make her move to the back one day in 1962. Her challenge of the Georgia bus statute got her a 30-day sentence for disorderly conduct and for cursing, and she was expelled from Albany State College. “People got results” from her defiance, she said in 1997. “But it didn’t do me any good.”


CRISPUS ATTUCKS HIGH of Indianapolis, Indiana, became the first all-African American basketball team to win a U.S. state championship in 1955. Future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson scored 30 points in the Tigers’ 97-74 title-game victory over Roosevelt, an integrated school. Crispus Attucks went 31-0 and repeated as champs the following season. The team’s triumph over opponents and racism was told in the 2002 documentary, Something to Cheer About.

b48a0a0a1b63f58d26d7bc7a4cdcbf34TRACY SIMS, 18, led a successful strike for minority hiring in San Francisco hotels in 1964. At one point, the police dragged Sims and 166 others to jail for disturbing the peace. Later, the city’s mayor, John Shelly, pulled Sims plus a lawyer for the Hotel Owners Association, and others into his office to settle the dispute. Sims, Roy Ballard, and the hotels’ lawyer wound up signing a nondiscrimination policy by 33 hotels that established a goal of 15 to 20 percent minority employees at the hotels, inspections to determine compliance, and amnesty for the demonstrators — a huge victory for the protesters.

tumblr_lp0eeuscKo1qjv1g0o1_500SAUNDRA WILLIAMS, 19, became the first winner of the Miss Black America contest in 1968. Sponsors created the pageant in protest of what they called “the white stereotype” of the Miss American pageant. “This is better than being Miss America,” Williams told The New York Times. “With my title I can show black women that they too are beautiful.”

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