Celebrating the lives and legacies of the icons of Black History has been a U.S. tradition every February since 1970. And each year brings with it the opportunity to find new ways to point to the legacies of black pioneers.
This year, LyricFind, the music industry leader in licensed lyric solutions and data, used their data to determine who were the Black history icons mentioned most in song lyrics.
As can be expected, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, top this data chart with over 600 mentions in lyrics between the two.
While other U.S. centered icons, like Rosa Parks, Fred Hampton, and Jacke Robinson, have been mentioned widely as well, the chart also features international leaders like Nelson Mandela and Marcus Garvey, who point to the vivid legacy of Pan-African movements.
A Few Celebrated Icons & their legacies
Malcolm X was an African American leader in the civil rights movement, minister and supporter of Black nationalism. He urged his fellow Black Americans to protect themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary,” a stance that often put him at odds with the nonviolent teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.
His charisma and oratory skills helped him achieve national prominence in the Nation of Islam, a belief system that merged Islam with Black nationalism. After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, his bestselling book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, popularized his ideas and inspired the Black Power movement.
Malcolm X was assassinated by a Black Muslim at an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965.
Malcolm X had predicted that he would be more important in death than in life, and had even foreshadowed his early demise in his book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
— Malcolm X
Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, which sought to unify and connect people of African descent worldwide. In the United States, he was a noted civil rights activist who founded the Negro World newspaper, a shipping company called Black Star Line and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, a fraternal organization of black nationalists.
As a group, they advocated for “separate but equal” status for persons of African ancestry, and as such they sought to establish independent Black states around the world, notably in Liberia on the west coast of Africa.
Although his legacy as a leader and activist lives on, Garvey’s separatist and Black Nationalist views were not embraced by many of his peers. In fact, W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP famously said, “Marcus Garvey is the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world.”
“We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history … I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.” – Marcus Garvey
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest.
He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where King had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a U.S. federal holiday since 1986.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.
Her actions inspired the leaders of the local Black community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year during which Parks not coincidentally lost her job and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.
In the years following her retirement, she traveled to lend her support to civil-rights events and causes and wrote an autobiography, “Rosa Parks: My Story.”
In 1999, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the United States bestows on a civilian. When she died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks
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