"There is Always Light: Faces of Hope and Struggle" by Jeff Benesi


Painting the portraits of people of color is an avenue for me to become more familiar with the circumstances and history of social and racial injustice in the United States. Behind each face is a story that, even as a septuagenarian, helps me grow as a person and reminds me, in the words of Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “there is always light.”

As a privileged white man, I constantly ask myself with these paintings, “am I being appropriate, am I being presumptuous?” Along with reading books that focus on these issues, I find that the act of painting these portraits draws me closer to the truth of our history - good and bad - and creates a personal alliance with those fighting for change. The paintings are my way of honoring those who marched and protested and legislated and were not afraid “to get into good trouble.” (John Lewis).

It is emotional for me to paint the faces of these honorable people. I think about my past and wonder why I did not get into good trouble; the opportunities were certainly there. I can’t undo the past, but I can share these portraits, my beliefs, and my voice.  I hope they contribute to the conversation.

- Jeff Benesi


We had the opportunity to meet with Jeff and learn more about his art series. To view the recording, click here.

Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Born Cassius Clay Jr., the boxer, poet, actor, activist, and philanthropist changed his name in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam. An Olympic gold medalist and the first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times, Ali’s outspokenness on issues of race, religion, and politics made him a controversial figure during his career. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused military induction and was stripped of his heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for three years during the prime of his career. Parkinson’s syndrome severely impaired Ali’s motor skills and speech, but he remained active as a humanitarian and goodwill ambassador. He met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990 to negotiate the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, the same year the Muhammad Ali Center, a nonprofit museum and cultural center focusing on peace and social responsibility, opened in Louisville.

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

 “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”

An American poet, memoirist, professor, and civil rights activist, Angelou published seven works of autobiographical fiction, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and her play, movie, and television credits as an actress, writer, director, and producer span over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.

She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

She was respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Her works have been considered a defense of Black culture and are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, although attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery (May 8, 1994– February 23, 2020)

"Not only did they lynch my son in broad daylight, they killed him doing what he loved more than anything: running. That's when he felt most alive, most free, and they took all that from him." – Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father

Born and raised in Brunswick, Georgia, 25-year-old Arbery, known to his friends as Maud or Quez, was a former high school athlete working as a landscaper and truck washer saving up to go back to college. An avid runner, his final jog was through a white neighborhood in his hometown. Three armed white residents in a pickup truck, pursued, stopped, and fatally shot Arbery. No arrests were made until a video of Arbery’s murder went viral, over 10 weeks later, sparking national outcry and debate. In the aftermath of the murder, Georgia enacted hate crimes legislation in June 2020, then repealed and replaced its citizen's arrest law in May 2021. The three men have subsequently been convicted on multiple charges, including felony murder and sentenced to life in prison. Jury selection for the federal hate crime trial begins this month.

James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society during the mid twentieth-century. 

Baldwin's novels, short stories, and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures. Themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class intertwine to create intricate narratives that run parallel with some of the major political movements toward social change in mid-twentieth-century America, such as the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. Baldwin's protagonists are often but not exclusively African American, and gay and bisexual men. These characters often face internal and external obstacles in their search for social- and self-acceptance.

Horace Julian Bond (January 14, 1940 – August 15, 2015)

“The civil rights movement didn’t begin in Montgomery and it didn’t end in the 1960s. It continues on to this very minute.”

Julian Bond was an American social activist, leader of the civil rights movement, politician, professor, and writer. While he was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, during the early 1960s, he helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1971, he helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and served as its first president for nearly a decade.

Bond was elected to serve four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and later he was elected to serve six terms in the Georgia State Senate, serving a total of twenty years in both legislative chambers. From 1998 to 2010, he was chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Shirley Anita Chisholm (November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005)

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.”

Shirley Chisholm was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm represented New York's 12th congressional district, a district centered on Bedford–Stuyvesant, for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major-party nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's nomination.

Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm studied and worked in early childhood education, becoming involved in local Democratic party politics in the 1950s. In 1964, overcoming some resistance because she was a woman, she was elected to the New York State Assembly. Four years later she was elected to Congress, where she led expansion of food and nutrition programs for the poor and rose to party leadership. She retired from Congress in 1983 and taught at Mount Holyoke College, while continuing her political organizing. Although nominated for an ambassadorship in 1993, health issues caused her to withdraw. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac (born June 20, 1983)

“Later, when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport?” 

Patrice Cullors is an American activist, artist, writer and co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Cullors created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in 2013 and has written and spoken widely about the movement. Other topics on which Cullors advocates include prison abolition and LGBTQ rights. Cullors integrates ideas from critical theory, as well as social movements around the world, in her activism.

Cullors co-founded the prison activist organization Dignity and Power Now, which succeeded in advocating for a civilian oversight board.

She is also a board member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, having led a think tank on state and vigilante violence for the 2014 Without Borders Conference. In October 2020, she launched a production company with a deal with Warner Bros. Television.

Frederick Douglass (February 1817 – February 20, 1895)

 “A smile or a tear has no nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.”

 Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. Having escaped from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York.

Douglass wrote three bestselling and influential autobiographies promoting the cause of abolition.  He actively supported women's suffrage, and held several public offices. Without his permission, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States.

Douglass believed in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, as well as in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. When radical abolitionists criticized Douglass's willingness to engage in dialogue with slaveholders, he replied: "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."

Albert Ely Edwards (March 19, 1937 – April 29, 2020)

Al Edwards, a native Houstonian, was an American politician and ordained minister who served 13 terms in the Texas Legislature, where he authored and sponsored the bill making Juneteenth a state paid holiday. He served as Chairman of both the Texas Legislative and DNC Black Caucuses.

He was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, where he participated in peaceful marches and demonstrations throughout the United States of America with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Jesse Jackson, Mr. Carl Stocks, Reverend William (Bill) Lawson, and others.

In 1986, he founded "Operation Justus," a community faith-based organization that serves as a referral service for persons with social problems and concerns. In 1987, he was arrested in Houston and went to jail for peacefully demonstrating against apartheid in South Africa.

Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963)

“As long as God gives me strength to work and try to make things real for my children, I'm going to work for it - even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice.”

After graduating from college, Evers became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Following the 1954 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Evers challenged the segregation of the state-supported public University of Mississippi, applying to law school there. He also worked for voting rights, economic opportunity, access to public facilities, and other changes in the segregated society. Evers was awarded the 1963 NAACP Spingarn Medal.

Evers was assassinated in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi by a member of the White Citizens' Council, a group formed in 1954 to resist the integration of schools and civil rights activism. As a WWII Army veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests; his life and these events inspired numerous works of art, music, and film. His murderer was only convicted in 1994 after all-white juries failed to reach verdicts in the first two trials.

George Perry Floyd Jr. (October 14, 1973 – May 25, 2020)

“I can’t breathe”

Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Floyd grew up in Houston, Texas, playing football and basketball throughout high school and college. He served four years in prison for various crimes. After his parole, he became a mentor in his religious community. In 2014, he moved to the Minneapolis area. In 2020, he lost his job as a truck driver, and then his security job during the COVID-19 pandemic. After a store clerk suspected Floyd may have paid with a counterfeit $20 bill, four police officers arrived on the scene. One of the officers knelt on Floyd’s neck and back until he died.

After Floyd’s death, protests against police brutality, especially towards black people, quickly spread across the United States and globally. His dying words became a rallying cry. The City of Minneapolis settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Floyd's family for $27 million. The officer was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

Alicia Garza (born January 4, 1981)

“It's important to understand that declaring that Black lives matter does not negate the significance of the lives of non-Black people, particularly non-Black people of color. But Black lives are uniquely and systematically attacked in our society. Black Lives Matter addresses its own necessity in the phrase itself: Black lives do not have value or merit in our society.” 

Garza is an American civil rights activist and writer known for co-founding the international Black Lives Matter movement. She has organized around the issues of health, student services and rights, rights for domestic workers, ending police brutality, anti-racism, and violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. Her editorial writing has been published by The Guardian, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and Truthout. She currently directs Special Projects at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and is the Principal at the Black Futures Lab.

Garza sees the Black Lives Matter Movement as a continuation of the resistance led by Black people in America. The movement and Garza are credited for popularizing the use of social media for mass mobilization in the United States; a practice called "mediated mobilization". This practice has been used by other movements, such as the #MeToo movement.

Amanda S. C. Gorman (born March 7, 1998) 

 “Hear me as a woman
Have me as your sister
On purpled battlefield breaking day,
So I might say our victory is just beginning,
See me as change,
Say I am movement,
That I am the year
And I am the era
Of the women.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Gorman graduated from Harvard University in 2020.

In 2017, Gorman was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. She previously served as the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles, and she is the founder and executive director of One Pen One Page, an organization providing free creative writing programs for underserved youth.

Gorman was selected by President Biden to read her original poem “The Hill We Climb” for his Inauguration on January 20, 2021, making her the youngest poet to have served in this role. She also is the first poet commissioned to write a poem to be read at the Super Bowl. Her poem honored three individuals for their essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard Claxton Gregory (October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017)

“Down South they don’t care how close I am as long as I don’t get too big, and up North they don’t care how big I am as long as I don’t get too close.”

Dick Gregory was a pioneering comedian and civil rights activist who took on race with layered, nuanced humor. Getting his start in stand-up when he was drafted into the army in 1954, he toured with the entertainment division. Gregory became popular among African-American communities in the southern United States with his "no-holds-barred" sets, poking fun at the bigotry and racism in the United States. In 1961 he became a staple in the comedy clubs, appeared on television, and released comedy record albums.

Gregory was at the forefront of political activism in the 1960s, when he protested the Vietnam War and racial injustice. He was arrested multiple times and went on many hunger strikes. He later became a speaker and bestselling author, primarily promoting health, fitness, and vegetarianism.

Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977)

"I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Ain't no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God's face."

Hamer was an American voting and women's rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. Co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer also organized Mississippi's Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She also co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races wishing to seek election to government office.

Hamer began civil rights activism in 1962, continuing until her health declined nine years later. She was known for her use of spiritual hymnals and quotes and her resilience in leading the civil rights movement for black women in Mississippi. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists, including members of the police, while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters and helped hundreds of disenfranchised people in her area through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative.

James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901– May 22, 1967)

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.

Growing up in a series of Midwestern towns, Hughes became a prolific writer at an early age. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he made his career. When his first book was published, he had already been a truck farmer, cook, waiter, college graduate, sailor, and doorman at a nightclub in Paris, and had visited Mexico, West Africa, the Azores, the Canary Islands, Holland, France, and Italy. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, and short stories. He also published several nonfiction works. From 1942 to 1962, as the civil rights movement was gaining traction, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

Jesse Louis Jackson (born October 8, 1941)

“Never look down on anybody unless you're helping him up.”

Jesse Jackson is an American political activistBaptist minister, and politician. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.

He is the founder of the organizations that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH. On July 16, 1960, while home from college, Jackson joined seven other African Americans in a sit-in at the Greenville Public Library in Greenville, South Carolina, which only allowed white people.

Jackson commanded public attention since he first started working for Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965 he participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches organized by James Bevel, King and other civil rights leaders in Alabama. He went on to head the Chicago branch of the SCLC's economic arm, Operation Breadbasket, and to become national director in 1967. After King’s assassination, he became known for seeking coalition with whites by reframing what were considered racial issues as economic and class problems.

Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

MLK Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesman and leader in the American civil rights movement. King advanced civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the activism model of Mahatma Gandhi.

King participated in and led marches for Blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty, capitalism, and the Vietnam War.

In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People's Campaign, when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed, and our own county rededicated, in his honor.

Jacob Armstead Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000)

"If at times my productions do not express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man's continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being."

Known for his modernist portrayals of African-American historical subjects and contemporary life, Lawrence referred to his painting style as "dynamic cubism", although by his own account the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem. He also taught and spent 16 years as a professor at the University of Washington.

At the age of 23 he gained national recognition with his 60-panel The Migration Series, which depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.

John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020)

 "Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America."

American statesman and civil rights activist John Lewis served 17 terms in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was one of the "Big Six" leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. He lead the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers and police attacked the marchers, in an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday.

While in the House, Lewis was one of the leaders of the Democratic Party and dean of the Georgia congressional delegation, serving from 1991 as a Chief Deputy Whip and from 2003 as a Senior Chief Deputy Whip. John Lewis received many honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012)

Trayvon a 17-year-old African-American high school student from Miami Gardens, Florida, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. He had gone with his father on a visit to his father's fiancée at her townhouse. On the evening of February 26, he was walking back to the fiancée's house from a nearby convenience store. Zimmerman, a member of the community watch, saw Martin and reported him to the police as suspicious. Several minutes later, there was an altercation and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.

Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense and was not charged at the time. The authorities said there was no evidence to refute his claim of self-defense, and Florida's stand your ground law prohibited them from arresting or charging him. After national media focused on the incident, Zimmerman was eventually charged and tried, but a jury acquitted him. 

Following Martin's death, rallies, marches, and protests were held across the nation. In March 2012, hundreds of students at his high school held a walkout in support of him. An online petition calling for a full investigation and prosecution of Zimmerman garnered 2.2 million signatures. Following his death, a national debate about racial profiling and 'stand your ground' laws ensued. The governor of Florida appointed a task force to examine the state's self-defense laws. A memorial was dedicated to Trayvon at the Goldsboro Westside Historical Museum, a black history museum in Sanford in July 2013.

Huey P. Newton (February 17, 1942- August 22, 1989)

“Thus it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions.”

Newton was born in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, the county with the fifth most lynchings in the American South. As a response to the violence, the Newton family migrated to Oakland, California, participating in the second wave of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. Newton attended Merritt College, where he met Bobby Seale, with whom he later started the Black Panther Party, believing the Black working class needed to take control of the institutions that most affected their community and organize their own self-defense by monitoring police activity. Under Newton's leadership, the Black Panther Party founded over 60 community support programs (renamed survival programs in 1971) including food banks, medical clinics, a newspaper service, sickle cell anemia tests, prison busing for families of inmates, legal advice seminars, clothing banks, housing cooperatives, their own ambulance service, and the Free Breakfast for Children, which fed thousands of impoverished children daily during the early 1970s.

Huey Newton was murdered in Oakland at the age of 47.

Barack Hussein Obama II (born August 4, 1961)

If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription, who has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer - even if it's not my grandparent… It is that fundamental belief - I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper - that makes this country work.”

Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. 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 president of 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 in the Illinois Senate from 1997 until 2004, 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 elected the first African American president of the United States.

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005)

“I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Rosa Parks was best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The United States Congress has honored her as "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement".[1]

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected a bus driver's order to vacate a row of four seats in the "colored" section in favor of a white passenger, once the "white" section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the NAACP considered her the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws. She helped inspire the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year.

Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation, and organized and collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Breonna Taylor (June 5, 1993 - March 13, 2020)

“Say Her Name.”

Taylor was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where she graduated from high school, attended the University of Kentucky, then became an EMT, emergency room technician and practicing nurse. On the night of her death, she and her boyfriend were awakened by a banging at the front door. When no one responded to Taylor asking who was there, her boyfriend, thinking it was home invasion, fired a shot at a plainclothes police sergeant who burst in. The other officers shot blindly into the apartment. Taylor was hit multiple times and pronounced dead on the scene. An initial police report stated Taylor was uninjured and that there was no forced entry. Her boyfriend was arrested for attempted homicide, but then released and charges permanently dropped. In the months to follow, in response to public demonstrations, the mayor indefinitely suspended the use of no-knock warrants, and the local police department terminated the detective who shot Taylor and announced officers would wear body cameras. When a grand jury did not indict the officers for her death, further civil unrest ensued. The trial of Taylor’s shooter, indicted only for wanton endangerment, has been rescheduled to begin this month.

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981)

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

There being no high schools admitting black students in his native Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman left home to pursue his studies at the age of 14. During his tenure as Professor of Christian Theology at Howard University, he led a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” to Southeast Asia and met with Mohandas Gandhi. After helping to establish the first racially integrated, intercultural, and interfaith U.S. church in San Francisco, he moved to Boston University, where he became the first African American dean at a predominantly white institution. From there he taught and served as spiritual advisor for several prominent civil rights activists, including one of his doctoral students, Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the 20 books of theology, philosophy, and religion that he wrote, Jesus and the Disinherited, was particularly influential on Movement leaders and supporters, both black and white. In it he argued that “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.”

Ay Tometi (born August 15, 1984)

“Civility is the recognition that all people have dignity that's inherent to their person, no matter their religion, race, gender, sexuality, or ability.”

Tometi is an American human rights activist, writer, strategist, and community organizer. Co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM), she is the former Executive Director of the United States' first national immigrant rights organization for people of African descent, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), working there in various roles for over nine years.

After her parents won their deportation case, Tometi began demonstrating with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She worked as a legal observer at the US-Mexico border.A year after establishing the website and social media pages for #Blacklivesmatter in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnessing the unrest unfolding in the city via social media, Tometi led a mobilization of 500 community activists to demonstrate in the city. After Eric Garner was shot, Tometi organized with a campaign called Safety Beyond Policing in New York.

Harriet Tubman (c. March 1822 – March 10, 1913)

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Tubman was an abolitionist and political activist. Born Amarinta Ross, she changed her name when she escaped slavery and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue enslaved people as a “conductor” in the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Called the “Moses of her people,” Tubman was never caught and never lost a “passenger.”

During the American Civil War, she served as a scoutspy, guerrilla operative, and nurse for the Union Army. She is considered to be the first African American woman to serve in the military.

In her later years, Tubman raised funds for freedmen and became a prominent advocate for women's suffrage and established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on land near her home in Auburn, New York.

She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931)

"Virtue knows no color line ..."

Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, educator, early civil rights leader, and one of the founders of the NAACP. Born into slavery in Mississippi and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, Wells co-owned and wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. Her reporting covered incidents of racial segregation and inequality.

In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States as a barbaric practice of whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who created economic and political competition—and a subsequent threat of loss of power—for whites.

Wells established several notable women's organizations in her pursuit of women’s rights. A skilled and persuasive speaker, Wells traveled nationally and internationally on lecture tours, becoming one of the most famous Black women in America at the time. In 2020, Wells was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her courageous reporting.