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Ralph Abernathy Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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Apess, William (31 January 1798–Apr. or May 1839), writer, Methodist minister, and Native-American activist, was born in Colrain, Franklin County, Massachusetts, the son of William Apes, a shoemaker and laborer, and Candace (surname unknown), probably a slave or indentured servant in the house of Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester, Connecticut. According to Apess’s autobiographical accounts, his father was part Anglo-American and part Pequot and his mother “a female of the [same] tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man’s blood never flowed,” although some evidence indicates that she may have been part African American. Only in myth do such beginnings spawn great achievements. At age three, abandoned by his parents, he was nearly beaten to death by his maternal grandmother while she was in a drunken rage, a rage that Apess later understood as an effect of the theft by whites of Native American lands, culture, and pride. Bound out at four, he spent his youth as an indentured servant in three different white households in Connecticut and as an infantryman in a New York State militia company during the War of 1812. He received his only formal education, six winter terms of school, between the ages of six and eleven....

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr. (01 June 1924–12 April 2006), minister and civil rights and peace activist, was born in New York City, the second child of William Sloane Coffin, Sr., a businessman and philanthropist, and Catherine Butterfield. When his father died suddenly in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression, most of the family fortune evaporated, and the Coffin family’s life at the pinnacle of metropolitan society changed irrevocably. Catherine Coffin took her children to Carmel, California, and young William, who was called Bill, left his duplex penthouse on East Sixty-Eighth Street and the Buckley School for a modest bungalow and public schools. Four years later his uncle, the eminent Presbyterian minister ...

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Comstock, Elizabeth Leslie Rous Wright (30 October 1815–03 August 1891), Quaker minister and reformer, was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, the daughter of William Rous, a shopkeeper, and Mary Kekwick. Her parents were Quakers with family ties to the Society of Friends going back to the seventeenth century. They reared her in a strict Quaker atmosphere, an upbringing reinforced by education in Quaker schools at Islington and Croyden. In 1839 Elizabeth Rous returned to Croyden as a teacher; in 1842 she joined the staff of the Friends school at Ackworth. She remained there until her marriage in 1848 to Leslie Wright, a Quaker market gardener of Walthamstow in Essex. They had one child. After her husband’s death in 1851, Elizabeth Wright kept a shop for a time at Bakewell in Devonshire. In 1854 she immigrated with her daughter and an unmarried sister to Belleville, Ontario. Four years later she married John T. Comstock, a prosperous Quaker farmer of Rollin, Michigan, where Elizabeth Comstock and her daughter moved....

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De Baptiste, Richard (11 November 1831–21 April 1901), Baptist leader and race advocate, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to free parents, Eliza (maiden name unknown) and William De Baptiste. Born in a slave state when individuals were fined and incarcerated for teaching blacks, enslaved or free, De Baptiste was fortunate to have parents who earnestly sought to educate their children and some relatives in their home, despite the law and heavy surveillance. In 1846 the De Baptistes moved to Detroit, Michigan. De Baptiste then received additional education and for some time attended classes at the University of Chicago. Having been the leading building and manufacturing contractor in Fredericksburg, the elder De Baptiste, after an unsuccessful partnership in a grocery enterprise, returned to his earlier work. Richard De Baptiste became a partner in the business before his twenty-first birthday and served for some years as its manager. From 1858 to about 1861 he also taught black youth in the public schools of Mount Pleasant, Hamilton County, Ohio....

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Grimké, Francis James (04 November 1850–11 October 1937), Presbyterian minister and civil rights activist, was born near Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Henry Grimké, a planter, and Nancy Weston, a mulatto slave. As the second son of an illegitimate dalliance that was familiar to plantations such as “Caneacres,” young Grimké inherited his mother’s status as servant. During the Civil War his white half brother sold him to a Confederate officer whom Grimké accompanied until the end of that conflict. The end of the war brought his manumission, and a benefactor from the Freedmen’s Aid Society sent him to study at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania....

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Groppi, James Edward (16 November 1930–04 November 1985), Catholic priest and civil rights activist, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Giocondo Groppi, a grocer, and Giorgina (maiden name unknown). James Groppi was the eleventh of twelve children. His father was a first-generation Italian immigrant who spoke broken English, a fact that Groppi said earned him “humorous contempt.” This early introduction to prejudice had a lasting influence on Groppi, particularly since his father insisted that the Groppi children refrain from retaliating in kind when they were subject to ethnic slurs. A second influence on his attitudes about prejudice came indirectly from the church; the Irish Catholic parish the Groppis were expected to attend was less than friendly to Italian parishioners, many of whom responded by having their children baptised in a parish church in Milwaukee’s Italian third ward....

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Hill, Charles Andrew (28 April 1893–08 February 1970), pastor and African American civil rights activist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Edward Hill and Mary Lance. He attended local public schools before graduating from Cleary Business College in Yipsilanti (1914) and Lincoln University near Philadelphia (1919). He also attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and in 1918 entered the ministry. Hill assisted at the Second Baptist Church and within two years he became pastor of Hartford Avenue Baptist Church, expanding it from thirty-five to several hundred congregants nearly fifty years later. In 1919 he wed Georgia Roberta Underwood and began a family of eight children....

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Johns, Vernon Napoleon (22 April 1892–10 June 1965), Baptist pastor and civil rights pioneer, was born in Darlington Heights, near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, the son of Willie Johns, a Baptist preacher and farmer, and Sallie Branch Price. At age three, according to family tradition, young Vernon began preaching “on the doorstep or on a stump.” Two years later he went with his older sister Jessie to a one-room school four miles from the Johnses’ home. At seven, Vernon was kicked in the face by a mule. The injury scarred his left cheek, damaged his eyesight, and caused his left eyelid to twitch throughout his life. Johns later compensated for his weak eyesight by committing long passages of poetry and scripture to memory....

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-116776).

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Martin Luther King Shaking hands with Jimmy Carter, 1976. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113655).

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King, Martin Luther (19 December 1897–11 November 1984), Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, was born Michael King in Stockbridge, Georgia, the son of James Albert King, an impoverished sharecropper, and Delia Linsey, a cleaning woman and laundress. As a boy King attended school from three to five months a year in an old frame building, where Mrs. Lowe, the wife of the pastor of Floyd’s Chapel Baptist Church, taught 234 children in all grades. At Floyd’s Chapel, King gained confidence as a singer and had a growing sense of a call to preach. At fifteen, when he delivered a trial sermon at Floyd’s Chapel and was licensed to preach, King had learned to read but could not yet write. As a young country preacher he occasionally visited Atlanta. At twenty he left Stockbridge and settled there. He lived in a rooming house and worked at various jobs, including making tires in a rubber plant, loading bales of cotton, and driving a barber-supply truck....

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (15 January 1929–04 April 1968), Baptist minister and civil rights leader, was born Michael King, Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of the Reverend Michael King ( Martin Luther King) and Alberta Williams. Born to a family with deep roots in the African-American Baptist church and in the Atlanta black community, the younger King spent his first twelve years in the home on Auburn Avenue that his parents shared with his maternal grandparents. A block away, also on Auburn, was Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his grandfather, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, had served as pastor since 1894. Under Williams’s leadership, Ebenezer had grown from a small congregation without a building to become one of Atlanta’s prominent African-American churches. After Williams’s death in 1931, his son-in-law became Ebenezer’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. In 1934 the elder King, following the request of his own dying father, changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King....

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LaFarge, John (13 February 1880–24 November 1963), clergyman, journalist, and civil rights advocate, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the youngest child of John La Farge, a painter and art critic, and Margaret Mason Perry, a granddaughter of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Growing up in this distinguished Catholic family, LaFarge was exposed to such famous people as ...

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Malcolm X Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115058).

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Malcolm X (19 May 1925–21 February 1965), African-American religious and political leader, also known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Earl Little and Louise (also Louisa) Norton, both activists in the Universal Negro Improvement Association established by ...

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Pauli Murray Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109644).

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Murray, Pauli (20 November 1910–01 July 1985), lawyer, writer, and minister, was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of William Henry Murray, a public school teacher, and Agnes Fitzgerald, a nurse. Triracial, she had African, European, and Native American ancestry. Her parents both died when she was a child (her mother had a cerebral hemorrhage in March 1914; her father was murdered in a state hospital in June 1923), and she grew up from age three in North Carolina with her maternal grandparents and her mother’s oldest sister, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, a public school teacher who adopted her....

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Pettiford, William Reuben (20 January 1847–21 September 1914), pastor, banker, and race leader, was born in Granville County, North Carolina, the son of William Pettiford and Matilda (maiden name unknown), farmers. Pettiford, a free black, spent his early years laboring on the family farm. He received a rudimentary education at home and then attended Marion Normal School and was employed from 1877 to 1880 as a teacher and financial agent at Selma Institute (now Selma University). In 1869 he married Mary Jane Farley, who died that same year. In 1873 he married Jennie Powell, who died in September 1874. In 1880 he married Della Boyd, with whom he had three children. She outlived him....