The Giants of the Movement We Lost in 2020

Amid all of the devastating loss and pain our nation has experienced this year, the civil rights community also lost some of its most consequential figures. From aides to Dr. King and a NASA mathematician, to Bloody Sunday foot soldiers and a Supreme Court justice, we will never forget the civil rights giants we lost in 2020 — and we will never stop working to honor their legacies and carry their work forward.

Katherine Johnson
August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020

Mrs. Johnson was one of several hundred rigorously educated, supremely capable yet largely unheralded women who, well before the modern feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians.

But it was not only her sex that kept her long marginalized and long unsung: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who began her scientific career in the age of Jim Crow, was also African-American.

In old age, Mrs. Johnson became the most celebrated of the small cadre of black women — perhaps three dozen — who at midcentury served as mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

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Rev. Joseph Lowery 
October 6, 1921 – March 27, 2020

Even before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, Mr. Lowery had successfully campaigned to integrate buses in Mobile, Ala., where he was a young Methodist minister. After Ms. Parks’s action, he huddled with Dr. King and other Alabama ministers to oversee a 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses.

In November 1956, the Supreme Court ended racial segregation on buses in Montgomery and, by extension, everywhere else.

Mr. Lowery was at Dr. King’s side almost until the day of his assassination in April 1968. At Dr. King’s request, he presented the demands of voting-rights marchers from Selma, Ala., to Gov. George C. Wallace in 1965. Mr. Lowery also helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King’s signature organization, and led it for 20 years, from 1977 to 1997.

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Rev. CT Vivian
July 30, 1924 – July 17, 2020

In a nation trying to come to grips with racial inequality in the 1960s, Mr. Vivian was a paladin of nonviolence on the front lines of bloody confrontations. He led passive protesters through shrieking white mobs and, with discipline and endurance, absorbed the blows of segregationists and complicit law enforcement officials across the South.

Mr. Vivian was a Baptist minister and a member of Dr. King’s inner circle of advisers, alongside the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights luminaries. He was the national director of some 85 local affiliate chapters of the S.C.L.C. from 1963 to 1966, directing protest activities and training in nonviolence as well as coordinating voter registration and community development projects.

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Congressman John Lewis
February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against police killings of Black people and, more broadly, against systemic racism in many corners of society. He saw those protests as a continuation of his life’s work, though his illness had left him to watch from the sidelines.

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020

Her late-life rock stardom could not remotely have been predicted in June 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated the soft-spoken, 60-year-old judge, who prized collegiality and whose friendship with conservative colleagues on the federal appeals court where she had served for 13 years left some feminist leaders fretting privately that the president was making a mistake. Mr. Clinton chose her to succeed Justice Byron R. White, an appointee of President John F. Kennedy, who was retiring after 31 years. Her Senate confirmation seven weeks later, by a vote of 96 to 3, ended a drought in Democratic appointments to the Supreme Court that extended back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination of Thurgood Marshall 26 years earlier.

There was something fitting about that sequence, because Ruth Ginsburg was occasionally described as the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement by those who remembered her days as a litigator and director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s.

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Bruce Boynton
June 19, 1937 – November 23, 2020

In 1960, the case, Boynton v. Virginia, reached the United States Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall, who would soon become a Supreme Court justice himself, arguing for Mr. Boynton. The court found in Mr. Boynton’s favor, ruling that as an interstate traveler he was protected from discrimination under the Interstate Commerce Act.

Though the ruling was not a blanket condemnation of discriminatory practices in restaurants, the case was a significant steppingstone in the growing civil rights movement of the early 1960s. And it led directly to the Freedom Riders protests of 1961, in which bus riders, both Black and white, traveled from Washington into the Deep South to test whether the provisions of Boynton v. Virginia and another case, Morgan v. Virginia, were being carried out.

The Freedom Riders — the future congressman John Lewis was one — were attacked, beaten and arrested. One bus was firebombed. Eventually, President John F. Kennedy’s administration intervened. The protests helped build momentum toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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David Dinkins
July 10, 1927 – November 23, 2020

Secure in history as the city’s first (and so far only) Black mayor, Mr. Dinkins became a quiet elder statesman in later years, teaching at Columbia University, hosting a radio talk show on WLIB, attending receptions, dinners and ceremonies, and occasionally being consulted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others occupying or seeking office.

In a 2013 memoir, Mr. Dinkins acknowledged missteps during his term, including a failure to contain the race riots in Crown Heights in 1991, for which he largely blamed his police commissioner, and his refusal to break a prolonged Black boycott of a Korean-owned grocery store in Brooklyn in 1990. But he ascribed the narrowness of his victory in the 1989 mayoral election, and his defeat four years later, not to missteps but to the fact that he was Black.

“I think it was just racism, pure and simple,” he said in “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic,” written with Peter Knobler.

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Rev. James L. Netters Sr.
September 10, 1927 – December 13, 2020

Netters began his decades-long work of advancing civil rights for Black Americans and Black Memphians after he attended the March on Washington in 1963. He was galvanized into action after observing two giants of the civil rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who later became a congressman.

Following Lewis’ death this year from pancreatic cancer, Netters spoke with The Commercial Appeal about the pivotal moment in his life.

“I was so impressed with the march that I came back to Memphis and started to march here in Memphis and also did a bus boycott and I went to jail and successfully integrated the bus system here in Memphis,” Netters said. “It was all because of the inspiration I received during the march that Dr. Lewis helped organize in Washington.”

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