These Black Leaders 'Change the Rules' to 'Be the Power'

For Black History Month, we're lifting up black activists, leaders and agitators who are changing the rules and being the power in our communities. Here are several profiles of leaders who may not be household names, but are worthy of wider attention for their efforts.

Charlene Carruthers
Twenty-nine-year-old Carruthers is the national director of Black Youth Project 100, an activist, member-led organization of black 18-to-35-year-olds dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all black people. She is a black, queer, feminist writer and community organizer from the South Side of Chicago with more than 10 years of experience in racial justice, feminist and youth leadership development work. Recently, Carruthers and BYP 100 released the Agenda to Build Black Futures, a set of economic goals and structural changes that could improve the lives of black people living in America. “We envision a more economically just society that values the lives and well-being of ALL black people, including women, queer and transgender folks, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as well as those who languish in the bottom 1% of the economic hierarchy. The Agenda to Build Black Futures is a call to action for everyone who is committed to black liberation.”

Muhammad Ali

Born Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali experienced firsthand racism and discrimination while growing up in the segregated South. In 1960, Ali won a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team and became known for his quick speed and fancy footwork. He went on to win the light heavyweight gold medal and was championed as an American hero. In 1964, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Muhammad Ali. His unapologetic advocacy against the Vietnam War and heightened religious practice lead Ali to refuse to serve in the military after being drafted. In 1967, The U.S. Department of Justice pushed a legal case against Ali and he was found guilty of violating Selective Service laws. Sentenced to five years in prison, Ali was unable to compete professionally and missed more than three prime years of his athletic career. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction and Ali returned to boxing to compete in several legendary fights. Universally regarded as one of the greatest boxers in history, he has been celebrated not only for his remarkable athletic skills, but for his willingness to speak his mind and his courage to challenge the status quo.

Fred Hampton

As a law student, Hampton became active in the civil rights movement and was appointed leader of the youth council of the NAACP West Suburban Branch. In 1968, he founded the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and established a community service program that included free breakfast for school children and a free medical clinic. Hampton formed the “rainbow coalition,” a non-aggression pact that brought together Chicago’s most powerful gangs.This cohesive movement caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In fact, they deemed the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," which resulted in the Chicago Black Panther Party office being raided by police multiple times. Sadly, one of the raids led the Chicago Police Department to firing multiple rounds of ammunition, killing Hampton and Black Panther Party member Mark Clark. The debate around accountability for these deaths continues, and the work and passion of Hampton lives forever in the fight for racial and economic justice.

Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson is an LGBTQ activist who became well-known in New York city by being herself and fearing no judgment on her comfort as a black trans woman. She lived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a socially liberal area where most LGBTQ people felt acceptance and salvation. In 1968, a riot broke out at the Stonewall Inn, a popular LGBTQ bar, when police officers raided the building. This became known as one of the most important events that sparked the LGBTQ rights movement. Fighting back against discrimination toward transgender people, Johnson, along with Sylvia Rivera, founded STAR—Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries—a trans rights group that organized shelters for homeless transgender teens and drag queens. The actions of Johnson speak to the fluidity of gender and a person’s right to self identify without judgment.

Bree Newsome

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Brittany Ann Byuarium “Bree” Newsome is an American filmmaker and activist. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in filmmaking at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. In 2012, while still in school, she attracted national attention when she released a music video called "Shake it Like an Etch-A-Sketch," a satire of Mitt Romney. Newsome has also released a number of short films, including her film "Wake," which has won numerous awards. In 2013, while protesting North Carolina’s voter identification laws, she was arrested for her involvement in a sit-in at the office of the North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis. Newsome continued her involvement in activism in 2015 when she took down the Confederate battle flag that was displayed on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. As she scaled the 30-foot pole and released the flag, she responded to police officers telling her to come down, "In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today." The direct action captured international headlines and television news. Newsome's work continues today, inspiring many and speaking volumes about the urgency felt by most black organizers/activists.

Umi Selah

Born and raised Phillip Agnew, Selah changed his name after being deeply moved and inspired by a dream that came to him at night. His first taste of community activism was during his collegiate experience at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University after 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a boot camp-style youth detention center in Florida. Selah is the executive director and co-founder of the Dream Defenders, an uprising of communities in struggle, shifting culture through transformational organizing. The group is most notably recognized for leading national attention to the Trayvon Martin case. The black-and-brown-youth-led Dream Defenders now has chapters on nine college campuses in Florida and highlights racial and socialeconomic justice issues like prison privatization, racial profiling and zero tolerance policies in schools. In 2015, Selah helped create and launch Smoke Signal Studio, a recording studio open to the community, in Little Haiti, Miami. "In many ways, this studio is a place for people to be free, to get free. A smoke signal is something that someone sends up when they're stranded, when they have lost all hope and they're looking for somebody to take notice and rescue them.” The work of Umi Selah is one that strengthens the connection between culture, community and racial justice.