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Week of Greatness: 10 African Americans You Should Know

This feature today highlights influential African American who do not only shape America but also shape the world through their selfless service and sacrifice to the human race, society. The first achievements by African Americans in various fields historically marked footholds, often leading to more widespread cultural change. The shorthand phrase is “breaking the color barrier”.

In no particular order, these are a few influential African American who have made history for themselves and also shape the world:

BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA II: First African-American President of the United States. Born on August 4, 1961, Obama is an American politician and attorney who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009-2017 and a member of the Democratic Party. He previously served as a US senator from Illinois from 2005-2008 and an Illinois state senator from 1997-2004. Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, making him the first president not born in North America. After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. In 1988, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he was the first black person to head the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, he became a civil rights attorney and an academic, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004. Turning to elective politics, he represented the 13th district from 1997 until 2004 in the Illinois Senate, when he ran for the U.S. Senate. Obama received national attention in 2004 with his March Senate primary win, his well-received July Democratic National Convention keynote address, and his landslide November election to the Senate. In 2008, he was nominated for president a year after his presidential campaign began, and after close primary campaigns against Hillary Clinton. Obama was elected over Republican John McCain and was inaugurated alongside Joe Biden on January 20, 2009.

Former President Barack Obama photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: First African-American woman Secretary of State 

Born November 14, 1954 is an American political scientist, diplomat, civil servant, and professor who served as the 66th United States Secretary of State from 2005-2009. Rice was the first female African-American Secretary of State, as well as the second African-American Secretary of State (after Colin Powell), and the second female Secretary of State (after Madeleine Albright). Rice was President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor from 2001-2005, making her the first woman to serve in that position. Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up while the South was racially segregated. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver and her master’s degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame. In 1981 she received a PhD from the School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She worked at the State Department under the Carter administration and served on the National Security Council as the Soviet and Eastern Europe Affairs Advisor to President George H. W. Bush during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and German reunification from 1989-1991. Rice later pursued an academic fellowship at Stanford University, where she later served as provost from 1993-1999. On December 17, 2000, she joined the Bush administration as National Security Advisor. In Bush’s second term, she became Secretary of State. 

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talking about her new book, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” during the Newsmakers luncheon at the National Press Club October 15, 2010 in Washington, DC.
MUHAMMAD ALI 

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Muhammad Ali made his name in the sport of boxing, where he was one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Ali’s best years were in the early 1960s, during which time he changed his name from “Cassius Clay”, which he associated with slavery, and adopted a new one, adopted from the islamic tradition that symbolized a new black separatist movement in the United States, the Nation of islam. Ali also gained status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, which moved him further into the realm of leftwing activism and intersected race with the larger counterculture movement in the US. 

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: First African American Supreme Court Justice

On June 13, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated distinguished civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to be the first African American justice to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Marshall had already made his mark in American law, having won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, most notably the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Marshall had also been appointed to the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and U.S. Solicitor General by President Johnson in 1965. As an associate justice on the highest court in America, Marshall continued his lifelong fight against discrimination to protect the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable Americans. He retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 after 24 years on the bench and died on January 24, 1993. 

HIRAM RHODES REVELS: First African American Senator 

Born on September 27, 1827January 16, 1901. He became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress when he was elected to the United States Senate as a Republican to represent Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during the Reconstruction era. He was the first African American to serve, and was elected by the Mississippi State Legislature to succeed Albert G. Brown, who resigned during the Civil War. Some Democratic members of the United States Senate opposed his being seated based on the court case Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) by the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that Revels did not meet the citizenship requirement, but the majority of senators voted to seat him. During the American Civil War, Revels had helped organize two regiments of the United States Colored Troops and served as a chaplain. After serving in the Senate, Revels was appointed as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) and served from 1871 to 1873 and 1876 to 1882. Later in his life, he served again as a minister. 

VENUS WILLIAMS, born June 17, 1980  is an American professional tennis player. A former world #1, Williams is generally regarded as one of the all-time greats of women’s tennis and, along with younger sister Serena Williams, is credited with ushering in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis tour.

Williams has been ranked world No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association on three occasions, for a total of 11 weeks. She first reached the No. 1 ranking on February 25, 2002, the first African American woman to do so in the Open Era, and the second all time since Althea Gibson. Williams’ seven Grand Slam singles titles are tied for 12th on the all-time list, and 8th on the Open Era list, more than any other active female player except her sister. She has reached 16 Grand Slam finals, most recently at Wimbledon in 2017. She has also won 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles, all with Serena Williams; the pair is unbeaten in Grand Slam doubles finals.

PINCKNEY BENTON STEWART PINCHBACK: First African American Governor of a US State

Born on May 10, 1837-December 21, 1921, was an American publisher and politician, a union Army Officer and the First Black Man to become Governor of a State. A Republican, Pinchback served as the 24th Governor of Louisiana from 1872-1873. He was one of the prominent African American officeholders during the Reconstruction Era. Pinchback was born free in Macon, Georgia to Eliza Stewart, a freed mulatto woman and William Pinchback, a white planter. His father raised the younger Pinchback and his siblings as his own children on his large plantation in Mississippi. After the death of his father in 1848, his mother took Pinchback and siblings to the free state of Ohio to ensure their continued freedom. After the start of the American Civil War, Pinchback traveled to Union-occupied New Orleans. There he raised several companies for the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, and became one of the few African Americans commissioned as officers in the Union Army.

SHIRLEY ANITA CHISHOLM: First African American Woman to be Elected to the Congress

 November 30, 1924-January 1, 2005 was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, and she represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In the 1972 United States presidential election, she became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, as well as the first woman to appear in a United States presidential debate. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

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JAMES McCUNE SMITH: First African American to receive a medical degree.

Born in 1813, was a graduate of the New York African Free School. After his graduation, James McCune Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree. Unable to attend college in the United States because he was black, Smith entered Glasgow University in Scotland and earned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. When Smith returned to New York, his intellect and energy made him an instrumental figure in an emerging black community. A prominent abolitionist, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People. He also maintained close ties to classmate Henry Highland Garnet, praising his incendiary speech urging slaves to rebel, even when other members of the abolitionist community objected strongly to Garnet’s sentiments. 

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: No single African American is history is perhaps as famous as Martin Luther King Jr. Born in January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968, was an American Christian Minister and Activist who became the msot visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Right Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. There is a federal holiday on the third Monday each January to celebrate his honour, and a whole section of textbooks are devoted to his civil rights activism. A Baptist Minister in the city of Montgomery by trade and a prominent civil rights activist made his mark by preaching nonviolent means of protesting the segregation of whites and blacks. Martin Luther King’s assassination at the hands of a white man in 1968 sparked riots and mourning across the world. 

Martin Luther King Jr addressing the crowd

We celebrate these African American heroes that have displayed selflessness, we are proud of them. Share your thoughts.

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