Thanksgiving is a day to reflect and show gratitude for how far we’ve come in the search for liberation. The SPLC honors the civil rights leaders and martyrs who fought diligently to advance the rights of all people. While their legacies have shaped our history, we are still fighting for justice on their behalf and for the many who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom.
Below are some of the martyrs who were targeted for death because of their civil rights work; random victims of vigilantes determined to halt the movement; or people who, in the sacrifice of their own lives, brought new awareness to the struggle. Also featured are two prominent civil rights leaders who dedicated their entire lives to the liberation of all people.
September 25, 1961 · Liberty, Mississippi
Herbert Lee, who worked with civil rights leader Bob Moses to help register Black voters, was killed by a state legislator who claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Louis Allen, a Black man who witnessed the murder, was later also killed.
September 15, 1963 · Birmingham, Alabama
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were getting ready for church services when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing all four school-age girls and wounding others. The church had been a center for civil rights meetings and marches.
June 21, 1964 · Philadelphia, Mississippi
James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, young civil rights workers, were arrested by a deputy sheriff and then released into the hands of Klansmen who had plotted their murders. They were shot, and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.
January 10, 1966 · Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, a wealthy businessman, offered to pay poll taxes for those who couldn’t afford the fee required to vote. The night after a radio station broadcast Dahmer’s offer, his home was firebombed. Dahmer died later from severe burns.
Civil rights icon and one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, John Lewis nearly died when law enforcement attacked him and other protestors while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during his long quest to secure freedom and civil rights for Black people. Also known as “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal attacks were photographed and published in newspapers, sending shockwaves throughout the country. Lewis was a man of action who always stood for justice in the face of violence. He served 17 terms in Congress and passed away from cancer at 80 in 2020.
Ella Josephine Baker
Serving in leadership roles for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Baker organized communities across the country. She spent most of the 1940s knocking door to door, encouraging Black people to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Her sharp organizing skills, dedication and strategic thinking led her to implement campaigns with local organizations for causes such as anti-lynching, job training, equal pay for Black teachers and voter registration drives. She died at 92 in 2005.
The legacy of these figures helped shape the fate of the country. These martyrs and civil rights leaders serve as a reminder of the immense sacrifices made in light of the liberation of all people which we are still fighting for today. Today and every day, we honor them with action.