The Giants of the Movement We Lost in 2022

Amid 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 civil rights activist and the wife of former Justice Thurgood Marshall, to the woman who integrated the University of Alabama in 1956, and from the former president of our coalition partner AFSCME, to a member of Congress committed to civil rights, we will never forget the giants we lost in 2022 — and we will never stop working to honor their legacies and carry their work forward.

Maxine McNair
July 29, 1928 — January 2, 2022

Maxine McNair, the last living parent of any of the four Black girls killed in a 1963 Alabama church bombing, died Sunday. She was 93.

McNair’s daughter, 11-year-old Denise McNair, was the youngest girl killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, the deadliest single attack of the civil rights movement. Also killed were three 14-year-olds: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Dionne Wesley.

Maxine McNair worked as a teacher for over three decades in Birmingham public schools. Her daughter, Lisa McNair, said she changed many lives through education and left a lasting legacy through the students she touched.

Read more from The Associated Press >

Sidney Poitier
February 20, 1927 — January 6, 2022

Sidney Poitier, whose portrayal of resolute heroes in films like “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” established him as Hollywood’s first Black matinee idol and helped open the door for Black actors in the film industry, died on Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94.

Mr. Poitier, whose Academy Award for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” made him the first Black performer to win in the best-actor category, rose to prominence when the civil rights movement was beginning to make headway in the United States. His roles tended to reflect the peaceful integrationist goals of the struggle.

Read more from The New York Times >

Lani Guinier
April 19, 1950 — January 7, 2022

A leading voice for voting rights long before her nomination to lead the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division made her nationally known, Lani Guinier died Friday.

Ms. Guinier, the Bennett Boskey professor of law emerita at Harvard Law School, where she was the first woman of color granted tenure, was 71 and died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

After serving as a special assistant in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Carter administration, Ms. Guinier worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she headed the voting rights project. In 1988, she joined the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she became a tenured professor.

Read more from The Boston Globe >

Rabbi Israel Dresner
April 22, 1929 — January 13, 2022

Israel S. Dresner, a New Jersey rabbi who ventured into the Deep South in the 1960s to champion civil rights, befriended the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was jailed multiple times for demonstrating against racial segregation, died on Jan. 13 in Wayne, N.J. He was 92.

In 1962, in Albany, Ga., he was booked in what was described as the nation’s largest mass arrest of religious leaders, during a march demanding desegregation. It was there that he first met Dr. King, shaking hands through the bars of the cell in which Dr. King, too, had been jailed with hundreds of other protesters.

Read more from The New York Times >

Autherine Lucy Foster
October 5, 1929 — March 2, 2022 

Autherine Lucy Foster, the University of Alabama’s first Black student, has died.

She was in Tuscaloosa just last week to cut the ribbon on the newly-named College of Education building, where she once sheltered from a racist mob. The building, previously known as Bibb Graves Hall, is now called Autherine Lucy Hall.

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June Shagaloff Alexander
June 14, 1928 — March 29, 2022

June Shagaloff Alexander, whose work for the N.A.A.C.P. and its legal arm in the 1950s and ’60s put her at the forefront of the nationwide fight for school integration and made her a close confidante of civil rights figures like Thurgood Marshall and James Baldwin, died on March 29 at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 93.

She often put herself at physical risk. She traveled to Cairo, Ill., in 1952 to help the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter integrate the city’s school system. The campaign was marked by violence — the Ku Klux Klan beat Black activists and firebombed their homes, and several, including Ms. Alexander, were arrested. Mr. Marshall immediately flew to Cairo to arrange her release.

Ms. Alexander continued her work after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, in its 1954 decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. She worked with white and Black families to prepare them for integration, and with local civil rights groups to test the speed and commitment of school districts to desegregation.

Read more from The New York Times >

Norman Mineta
November 12, 1931 — May 3, 2022

Norman Y. Mineta, who as a boy was interned with his family and thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II, then rose in government to become a 10-term Democratic congressman from California and a cabinet official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, died on Tuesday at his home in Edgewater, Md. He was 90.

Four decades after Mr. Mineta’s childhood-scarring experiences in an American internment camp, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which he co-sponsored, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It authorized $20,000 payments and formal apologies to the survivors and heirs of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who had been incarcerated as potential saboteurs or spies after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Many victims could not be found, but $1.6 billion in reparations were eventually paid to 82,200 people.

Read more from The New York Times >

*In 1996, we honored Norman Mineta with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award.

Urvashi Vaid
October 8, 1958 — May 14, 2022

Urvashi Vaid, a lawyer and activist who was a leading figure in the fight for L.G.B.T.Q. equality for more than four decades, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 63.

From her days as a law student in Boston, Ms. Vaid was at the center of a wide array of progressive issues, centered on but not limited to the L.G.B.T.Q. rights movement. Long before the word “intersectionality” entered common parlance, she was practicing it, insisting that freedom for gay men and lesbians required fighting for gender, racial and economic equality as well.

Read more from The New York Times >

Gerald W. McEntee
January 11, 1935 — July 10, 2022

Jerry McEntee was a visionary leader and one of the most fearless, ferocious advocates working people have ever had. Standing up for people who strengthen their communities through public service was his passion and his life’s work. From the moment he became an AFSCME member 66 years ago, he has never let up in the fight.

As our president for 31 years, he led AFSCME to historic growth, putting in place one of the labor movement’s strongest and most aggressive organizing programs. He made AFSCME a political powerhouse, with his innate understanding that political action was essential to giving working people a voice, from the White House down to every city council across the country.

Read more from AFSCME >

Lois Curtis
July 14, 1967 — November 3, 2022

The Supreme Court ruled in 1999, in a decision delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that Curtis, her co-plaintiff Elaine Wilson and other people with disabilities had a right—under the Americans with Disabilities Act—to live in a “less restrictive setting.”

The landmark civil rights case gave disabled and elderly people a right to seek long-term care services in their own home, instead of in an institution like a nursing home or a psychiatric hospital.

Curtis “created a sea change in what our service systems look like,” says Alison Barkoff, the top federal official for aging and disability policy.

Read more from NPR >

Cecilia “Cissy” Marshall
July 20, 1928 — November 22, 2022

Cecilia Marshall, who as an NAACP stenographer transcribed the legal briefs for the Brown v. Board of Education decision and then married Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who successfully argued that landmark school desegregation case and who later became the first Black justice named to the United States Supreme Court, died on Tuesday at her home in Falls Church, Va. She was 94.

Mrs. Marshall, who was known as Cissy, married Mr. Marshall in 1955, a year after the Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that separate but equal facilities for providing public education were inherently unconstitutional.

Mrs. Marshall, a civil rights stalwart herself, served on the boards of the Supreme Court Historical Society and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund. She tempered her husband’s exasperation over the slow progress of civil rights during his career and guarded his legacy after his death.

Read more from The New York Times >

Congressman Donald McEachin
October 10, 1961 — November 28, 2022 

Representative A. Donald McEachin, Democrat of Virginia, died on Monday after a battle with colorectal cancer, his office said.

Mr. McEachin, the son of a public-school teacher and an Army veteran, was a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Natural Resources, according to his House biography. While in Congress, Mr. McEachin, a former state legislator and lawyer, pushed for legislation to address the effects of climate change and championed other Democratic priorities like addressing gun violence and ensuring access to health care.

Read more from The New York Times >

In addition, we remember local civil rights leaders, including Carolyn Coleman, Gaylon Tootle, Charles Sherrod, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, and Rev. Anthony Spearman. And we remember pioneering athletes like Bill Russell and Marlin Briscoe, actress Nichelle Nichols, presidential advisor and first Black Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, Jr., and decorated Tuskegee Airman Brigadier Gen. Charles McGee.

We will never, ever forget them and all of the incredible civil rights advocates and activists we lost in 2022. We fight on to honor their lives.