Black History Month: Influencers & Icons

Observed annually in the US (February) and the UK (October), Black History Month remembers the pivotal events and pioneering individuals of the world’s African diaspora. This year, we’re looking at individuals who fought for what was right – often when the odds were against them. Bridgeman’s historical footage archive documents African-American civil rights campaigners, as well as communities and artists from throughout the 20th century.

History is full of inspiring people who have fought for equality. Although there is still much work to be done, many of them have become heroes, champions and warriors that changed the world.

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1864 (b/w photo), American Photographer, (19th century) / New York Public Library, USA / Bridgeman Images

Sojourner Truth 

Activist (1797 – 26th November, 1883)

A former slave, Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797. She was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth sued a slave-owner for illegally selling her 5-year-old son, Peter, after the New York Anti-Slavery Law had passed. She became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. Truth is renowned for her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, given at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. For her efforts to recruit black Civil War soldiers, she received an invitation to the White House in 1864 to meet Abraham Lincoln. She sought political equality for women during a time in which the abolitionist agenda was only concerned with men’s universal suffrage.

Mrs. Fanny Eaton (coloured chalks on paper)
Mrs. Fanny Eaton (coloured chalks on paper) / Stocks, Walter Fryer (c.1842-fl.1903) / English / Bridgeman Images

Fanny Eaton
Pre-Raphaelite model and muse (1835 – unknown)

Eaton was a Pre-Raphaelite model and muse. Her mother was freed from slavery after abolition in 1834, and her father was white. She moved from Jamaica to London and worked as a life model for artists in the Royal Academy. Artists including John Millais, Joanna Boyce, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederick Sandys took her portrait. Fanny also worked as a cleaner and had ten children, living until she was 88 years old. Eaton changed the standards of beauty at a time when racial prejudice and narrow, Euro-centric beauty standards were the norm. Her image as been immortalised in Art History and is still studied today. Her visibility created a place for black women and black beauty in Western art. Her image hangs in the Tate Britain.

Louis Armstrong portrait with / Lebrecht Music Arts / Bridgeman Images

Louis Armstrong

Jazz trumpeter and musician (4th August, 1901 – 6th July, 1971)

Louis Daniel Armstrong, a jazz trumpeter, is one of the most acclaimed Jazz musicians of all time, who profoundly changed African-American music. His early life was marred by poverty, but in 1913 he discovered music during his time at a school for troubled youths. The common opinion of enthusiasts and historians is that “Satchmo” (his nickname) had inventiveness, rhythmic and melodic prowess, combined with an impressive voice and an unmistakable timbre. His charismatic presence and the universal appeal of his music helped destroy racial barriers, becoming one of the first stars of colour in music.

Rosa Parks On Bus (b/w photo) / Underwood Archives/UIG / Bridgeman Images

Rosa Parks

Activist (4th February, 1913 – 24th October, 2005)

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was a seamstress in Montgomery, USA. She is perhaps one of the most famous figures of the civil rights movement today. For refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white gentleman, she was arrested on 1st December, 1955. Today it seems like a simple gesture, but in Montgomery this sparked a revolution. Her actions began the non-violent battle for the civil rights of African Americans. That night, 20 leaders of the African American community, guided by Martin Luther King, started a non-violent protest, boycotting Montgomery’s public transport to abrogate the segregation laws. King declared: “She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.”

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela addressing the UN General Assembly in 1990 / Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images

Nelson Mandela

Politician, Activist and President of South Africa (18th July, 1918 – 5th December, 2013)

Mandela was the first non-white South African president to hold office. A civil rights activist and lawyer, he served 27 years in prison for his work in fighting segregation. He was a revolutionary and later the leader of a government of reconciliation and peace. At the time of his arrest, which led to a 27-year prison term, he was a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party. Together with President de Klerk, he was a protagonist in the negotiations that led to the abolition of apartheid in the early 1990s and was elected president in 1994.

Rev. Martin Luther King, United States, 1964 (b/w photo) / Underwood Archives/UIG / Bridgeman Images

Martin Luther King

Activist (15th January, 1929 – 4th April, 1968)

Who doesn’t know Martin Luther King’s famous speech ‘I Have A Dream’? As one of the most iconic activists of all time, he was spurred into action in the war against racism when Rosa Parks was arrested. With ideas similar to Gandhi’s principles, Martin organised a boycott of public transport, lasting 382 days. The news spread to all over the world, increasing his popularity. One of the most important moments of his career was in 1963, when he gave his famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In 1964 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as ‘Man of the Year’. Later that same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 Ray Charles / Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images

Ray Charles

Singer (23rd September 23, 1930 – 10th June, 2004)

Charles is known for producing groundbreaking music by combining different sounds; from rhythm and blues to country, from vocal jazz to blues piano and soul-blues. After contracting glaucoma as a child, Charles lost his sight at the age of six but began studying music shortly after. He produced hits such as ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and ‘I’ve Got a Woman’. He has been nicknamed ‘The Genius’ for his extraordinary talents. Frank Sinatra called him “the only true business genius”. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine named him 10th among the 100 greatest artists of all time and 2nd in the 2008 ranking of the 100 greatest singers ever.

La chanteuse de soul et gospel ARETHA FRANKLIN sur scene en 1968. / United Archives GmbH / Bridgeman Images

Aretha Franklin 

Singer (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018)

Franklin was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist, also known as “Queen of Soul”. She recorded her first album at only 14 years old. In 1960 she signed a contract with Columbia Records, earning international fame with the song ‘Respect’, becoming a women’s civil rights icon. Franklin often used her talents to assist the civil rights movement, touring with Martin Luther King and holding free concerts as fundraisers. She famously offered to pay Angela Davis’ bail. Undoubtedly, Franklin used her talents to bring the civil rights cause to the masses. In 2010 she was ranked 1st by Rolling Stones Magazine’s ‘100 Greatest Singers’.

Boxer Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay) Training on July 25, 1966 (b/w photo) / Bridgeman Images

Mohammed Ali

Boxer (17th January, 1942 – 3rd June, 2016)

Ali is considered the greatest boxer of all time. Ali started his career when he was just 12 years old, triumphing in the amateur ranks. He was Olympic champion in 1960, but at home he continued to suffer under racial segregation laws. He refused to leave for Vietnam during the war stating, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home […] to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” He was sentenced by a jury composed of only whites to five years’ imprisonment. The great athlete was later diagnosed with with Parkinson’s. He was not defeated by the disease and continued to fight for peace and civil rights. He remains a global symbol of the civil rights movement and black pride.

Jimi Hendrix / Spaarnestad Photo / Bridgeman Images

Jimmy Hendrix

Guitarist ( 27th November, 1942 – 18th September, 1970)

Hendrix is known as one of the greatest innovators in rock music and electric guitar. He was an pioneer in the evolution of rock through an unusual fusion of blues, rhythm and blues/soul, hard rock and psychedelia. According to Rolling Stones magazine in 2011 he was the greatest guitarist of all time, ahead of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. His sets at Monterey Festival in 1967 and Woodstock Festival in 1969 are iconic for his irreverent artistic vision when reinterpreting the U.S. national anthem. This also made him one of the greatest critics of the Vietnam War. Hendrix was a true individual at a time when rock music was dominated by white musicians. Hendrix was introduced to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

Angela Davis at Paris, 15 May 1975 / Photo © Sophie Bassouls / Photo © Sophie Bassouls / Bridgeman Images

Angela Davis

Activist (b. 26th January, 1944)

Angela Yvonne Davis is one of the leading figures of the American civil rights movement today. As a scholar of philosophy, she has been at the forefront of the African-American fight against racism and repression since the 1960s. As a member of the Communist Party and associated with the Black Panthers, she led a long campaign in support of prisoners in California. In 1970 she was accused of complicity in the murder of a judge by militants of the movements and became one of the FBI’s most wanted people. She was arrested in 1970, with her detention causing worldwide uproar, resulting in a massive mobilisation. Acquitted in 1972, Davis used her experience and popularity to continue the fight for the emancipation of people of colour and women, and still today advocates for prison reform.

Bob Marley on stage at Roxy Los Angeles May 26, 1976,/ Bridgeman Images

Bob Marley

Singer (6th February 1945 – 11th May 1981)

Marley was a pioneer of reggae music and his contributions popularised the genre globally, bringing Jamaican culture to the world. In recognition of his merits, he was posthumously awarded Jamaica’s prestigious Order of Merit. His music is dedicated to the fight against political and racial oppression, calling for the unification of black peoples as the only way to achieve freedom and equality. Thus Marley became a political, spiritual, and religious leader. In 1978 he was awarded, on behalf of 500 million Africans, the peace medal by the United Nations. He died in 1981 of melanoma.

Stevie Wonder, Portrait, 1985 / J. T. Vintage / Bridgeman Images

Stevie Wonder

Singer (May 13, 1950)

Stevie Wonder is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and record producer. He is considered one of the most innovative and influential musicians of all time. Equipped with rare and precocious talent, he renewed the language of black music. He used synths to create contrapuntal and melodic interweaving, and layered his own voice to create multiple solo voices. These are just some of the stylistic innovations attributable to Stevie Wonder which have become an object of worship and study. Wonder is a prodigious vocalist, an excellent pianist and excels as the absolute virtuoso of mouth-to-mouth harmonica.

Whoopi Goldberg at the 45th Cannes Film Festival on May 8, 1992 / Picture Alliance / Bridgeman Images

Whoopi Goldberg

Actress (13th November, 1955)

Whoopi Goldberg, aka Caryn Elaine Johnson, is an American actress, voice actor, writer, television producer, television host, and activist. She’s one of only 15 people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. Goldberg was the second African-American woman to win an Oscar after Hattie McDaniel. In 2002 she won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Goldberg was appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador on 17 September 2003. She is an advocate for children, human rights, education, substance abuse, and in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Barack Obama Speaking At Graduation Ceremony At Moscow’s New Economic School / Tass/UIG / Bridgeman Images

Barack Obama

Politic and 44th President of the United States of America (4th August, 1961)

Obama is an American politician and was the 44th President of the United States of America, the first person of African-American origin to hold this position. Obama graduated in political science from Columbia University (1983) and from Harvard Law School in 1991, where he was the first black person to direct the Harvard Law Review. Before completing his law studies, he served as a community organiser in Chicago. Later he worked as a lawyer in the field of civil rights defence, also teaching constitutional law at the Law School of the University of Chicago from 1992 to 2004. In 2009 the Nobel Committee in Norway awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. On On his last day of office on 19th January, 2017, Obama announced 330 commutations for nonviolent drug offenders and a total of 1,715 clemencies.

Michael Jordan, retired American professional basketball player (NBA ‘s Chicago Bulls). / Bridgeman Images

Michael Jordan

Former U.S. basketball player (17th February, 1963)

Michael Jeffrey Jordan, also known by his initials, MJ, is a former U.S. basketball player, as well as principal shareholder and president of the Charlotte Hornets basketball team. He was nicknamed Air Jordan and His Airness for his athletic and technical qualities. In 1999 he was called “the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century” by ESPN. His reputation has made him an icon of the sport, to the point of prompting Nike create a line of basketball shoes called Air Jordan in 1984. He holds the NBA record for the highest average points in regular-season history (30.12 points per game) and playoffs history (33.45 points per game).

Michelle Obama / Picture Alliance / Bridgeman Images

Michelle Obama

Former First Lady and Activist (January 17, 1964)

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is an American lawyer and the first African-American woman to hold the position of First Lady. She is one of the most influential women in the world, not only because of her former position as First Lady but also due to her concrete commitment to social issues and the defence of women’s rights. Over the years she has promoted important causes such as women’s rights at work and erasing childhood obesity. In 2015, Mrs. Obama and President Obama launched ‘Let Girls Learn’, a campaign to encourage and empower girls’ education around the world. In her address at the Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2014 she stated, ‘no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.’

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