But in fact the movement had many leaders.
Malcolm X went from being a street-wise Boston hoodlum to one of Americas most influential black nationalist leaders, advocating black pride, economic self-reliance, and identity politics. He was assassinated in New York City in 1965.
Stokely Carmichael saw nonviolence as a tactic as opposed to a principle, and was critical of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, who called for integration of African Americans into the existing institutions of white middle class culture.
John Lewis, now a member of the U.S. Congress from Georgia, led the first march across the now-famous bridge in Selma, Alabama, to confront police armed with riot gear, water cannons and dogs. A few days later, he was joined by Rev. King and their actions led to the passage of historic civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.
There were many others who played key roles in the civil rights struggle. One of them was Rosa Parks, and despite the recent spate of well-publicized events surrounding her death last month at age 92, non-Americans are unlikely to place her in this pantheon of civil rights leaders. Indeed, millions of Americans are among those to whom Mrs. Parks was unknown.
But the reality is that Mrs. Parks was an activist long before her arrest on the bus. She had refused to give up her bus seat several times before her well-photographed arrest, and had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when this simple act alone was potentially life-threatening in the racist atmosphere of Americas deep south in the 1950s.
Parks joined the NAACP at a time when membership could result in murder. She married Ray Parks, a longtime NAACP activist who carried a gun to challenge racial injustice in Alabama.
But December 1, 1955 was not the first time a black person had refused to obey the segregation laws of public transportation. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Mrs. Parks was jailed. She also was fined $14.
According to Prof. William Jelani Cobb of the traditionally black Spelman College, During one twelve-month period in the 1940s, the city of Birmingham witnessed some 88 cases of blacks who refused to obey the segregation laws on public transportation. Five months prior to Parks, fifteen year-old Claudette Colvin had refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. She had been ejected and arrested and the local NAACP considered bringing a suit that would challenge segregation on the city's buses, but Colvin was pregnant and unmarried activists thought she would not be a sympathetic example. Another young black woman, Mary Louise Smith, was arrested shortly after Colvin; but (NAACP leaders) thought her dilapidated home and alcoholic father would be a public relations liability
Prof. Cobb writes in America Onlines Black Voices, A combination of factors made (Mrs. Parkss) refusal a powder-keg moment in civil rights history. Just a year earlier, the Supreme Court had handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the segregationist politicians had responded with the "Southern Manifesto," in which they declared their intent to resist integration at all costs. And contrary to the popular retellings, her actions that day were not staged -- though they did come at the time when a coalition of activists and local lawyers were planning an assault on the structures of segregation in Montgomery. In the early hours, the local civil rights community found itself scrambling to respond to her arrest and imprisonment.
Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a then little-known Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King, who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. The boycott eventually led to a landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in all taxpayer-funded public services.
Mrs. Parkss death last month at age 92 triggered an outpouring of admiration, love and ceremony. She became the first woman to lie in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where her casket was viewed by thousands. Speeches by civil rights leaders, senators and congresspersons hailed her as the mother of the civil rights movement. Her memorial services in Washington, D.C. and in her adopted home state, Michigan, attracted tens of thousands of mourners, the singing of Aretha Franklin, and eulogies by former President Bill Clinton, both Michigan senators, the governor of the state, NAACP president Julian Bond, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and many others.