The Giants of the Movement We Lost in 2021

Amid all of the devastating loss and pain our nation has experienced since the beginning of the pandemic, the civil rights community has also lost some of its most towering and consequential figures. From the former head of the National Urban League and a leader of the Baton Rouge bus boycott to the first Black woman Supreme Court clerk and a Nashville civil rights sit-in participant, we will never forget the giants we lost in 2021 — and we will never stop working to honor their legacies and carry their work forward.

Vernon Jordan
August 15, 1935 – March 1, 2021

Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the civil rights leader and Washington power broker whose private counsel was sought in the highest echelons of government and the corporate world, died on Monday at his home in Washington. He was 85.

Mr. Jordan began his civil rights career after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1960. He was in his 30s when he was selected to head the National Urban League, an embodiment of the Black establishment, and held that post when he survived an assassination attempt in 1980.

Read more from The New York Times >

*In 2000, we honored Vernon Jordan with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award.

Alvin Sykes
July 21, 1956 – March 19, 2021

Alvin Sykes, who left high school in eighth grade, completed his education by reading legal textbooks at the public library and later used his vast knowledge of the law to pry open long-dormant murder cases from the civil rights era — including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till — died on March 19 at a hospice facility in Shawnee, Kan. He was 64.

The cause was complications from a fall two years ago that had left him partly paralyzed, said Ajamu Webster, a longtime friend.

Though he never took a bar exam, Mr. Sykes was a brilliant legal and legislative operator whose admirers included City Council members, politicians and U.S. attorneys general from both parties.

Read more from The New York Times >

Martha White
April 2, 1922 – June 5, 2021

Martha White, a Black housekeeper in Baton Rouge, La., was bone-weary coming home from work one day in 1953. As she climbed aboard a city bus, she saw only one seat left, in the “whites only” section at the front. She took it.

“I was tired,” she told Southern Digest in 2005. “I looked at the seat, and I sat down.”

That simple act was a startling move in the Jim Crow South. She was thrown off the bus, prompting Black residents of the city, Louisiana’s capital, to mount a bus boycott. And that protest — which was settled by a partial desegregation of the city’s buses — would serve as the template for the bigger and more famous bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., two and a half years later.

Read more from The New York Times >

Bob Moses
January 23, 1935 – July 25, 2021

Although less well-known than some of his fellow organizers, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis, Mr. Moses played a role in many of the turning points in the struggle for civil rights.

He volunteered for and later joined the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where he focused on voter registration drives across Mississippi. He was also a director of the Council of Federated Organizations, another civil rights group in the state.

Mr. Moses also helped to start the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which recruited college students in the North to join Black Mississippians in voter registration campaigns across the state, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Read more from The New York Times >

Karen Hastie Williams
September 30, 1944 – July 7, 2021

After graduating from college and earning a master’s degree, she attended law school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, clerked for a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and, in 1974, became the first Black woman hired as a clerk on the Supreme Court, working for Justice Marshall.

Mrs. Williams died on July 7 at her home in Washington. She was 76. Her son Bo said the cause was complications of frontotemporal dementia.

Mrs. Williams broke other glass ceilings as well: She was the first woman and the first person of color to make partner at Crowell & Moring, a white-shoe law firm in Washington, and she repeated the same achievement on a series of corporate and nonprofit boards.

Read more from The New York Times >

Lucille Times
April 22, 1921 – August 16, 2021

As a child, she had taken part in a boycott of a butcher shop in Detroit, where she was visiting relatives, and she suggested to Mr. Nixon that the city’s Black community could do the same. He agreed, but said the time wasn’t right — they would need money, cars and other supplies to make it happen. He asked her to have patience.

She called the city bus company to complain, but no one responded. She sent letters to The Montgomery Advertiser and The Atlanta Journal, but they refused to print them. She decided not to wait.

Over the next six months, she operated her own boycott, driving to bus stops and offering free rides to Black passengers waiting to board. Charlie, with whom she ran a cafe across from their house, collected money for gas, and they used the cafe as a planning hub — people could call Charlie to arrange a ride, and he would assemble a schedule for his wife.

Despite her signature role in the origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mrs. Times was for decades unrecognized for her contribution. Troy King, a former attorney general of Alabama who became friends with her in the 2010s, speculated that it was because her outspokenness ran against the image of civil rights protesters as quiet and reserved.

Read more from The New York Times >

Ernest “Rip” Patton
1940 – August 24, 2021

Patton participated in the downtown Nashville civil rights sit-ins in 1960, a movement that eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s lunch counters and other public spaces. A year later, he was among the first wave of Freedom Riders to arrive in Jackson, Mississippi, on a Greyhound bus intent on forcing the desegregation of interstate transportation facilities, said Dorothy Walker, director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based museum.

Upon his release from prison, Patton and 13 other students were expelled from Tennessee A&I — now Tennessee State University. The school eventually granted them honorary doctoral degrees 47 years later, in 2008.

Patton attended nonviolence workshops led by civil rights champion the Rev. James Lawson, where he was joined by fellow high-profile leaders such as Diane Nash, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.

He later went on to be a truck driver and jazz musician, while also remaining a vocal advocate and educator in the civil rights movement.

Read more from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution >

Timuel Black
December 7, 1918 – October 13, 2021

Timuel Black, who mobilized the political power of the predominantly Black South Side of Chicago, taught others — including a young Barack Obama — how to do the same, and in his final decades compiled oral histories giving voice to his community’s Black working class, died on Wednesday at his home on the South Side. He was 102.

His wife, Zenobia Johnson-Black, said the cause was prostate cancer.

In 1955, soon after he had begun his career as a high school and college teacher, Professor Black saw the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a sermon on television. He was so moved that he immediately flew to Alabama, his birthplace, to meet Dr. King, who was more than a decade his junior. In the coming years, he helped build support networks for Dr. King while commuting between Chicago and Alabama.

In the South, Professor Black also met the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. After Mr. Randolph established the Negro American Labor Council, an advocacy organization, he enlisted Professor Black in 1960 to run its Chicago division. In 1963, Mr. Randolph and Dr. King put Professor Black in charge of organizing residents of Chicago to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Read more from The New York Times >

In August, we remembered our friend, AFL-CIO president, and recipient of our Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award in 2011 — Richard Trumka. “Unafraid to challenge racism and classism anywhere, Richard Trumka was a civil and human rights champion who leaves behind a legacy matched by few,” said Wade Henderson, our interim president and CEO. “From his participation in the Free South Africa Movement protests to his influential leadership of the AFL-CIO, he unquestionably moved mountains in the fight for a more just and equal society.”

Earlier this month, we remembered Senator Bob Dole, who we honored in 2015 with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award. Senator Dole’s first speech as a senator advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities proved to be a harbinger of a career devoted to ensuring the civil rights of all Americans, from his support for the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to serving as a leading voice for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. His lifetime of public service exemplified the notion that civil and human rights are not a partisan issue.

We remember other former elected officials, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Rep. Alcee Hastings, and Rep. Carrie Meek — the daughter of a sharecropper who went on to become the first Black woman in Florida to be elected to the state senate.

We also remember incredible athletes like Hank Aaron, Lee Evans, and Dianne Durham, in addition to entertainers — including Michael K. Williams, Mary Wilson, and Cicely Tyson, who over the course of her long career portrayed Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, the mother of Rosa Parks, and other influential figures.

And we remember James Hormel, the first openly LGBTQ person to represent the United States as an ambassador, and feminist scholar and activist bell hooks — in addition to LGBTQ activist Carmen Vasquez and Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., the longtime legal counsel of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

We will never, ever forget them and all of the tremendous advocates and activists we lost in 2021. We fight on to honor their lives.