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Cultural pioneers: Icons and intellectuals

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(CNN) -- Some African Americans have had a profound impact on American society, changing many people's views on race, history and politics. The following is a sampling of African Americans who have shaped society and the world with their spirit and their ideals.

Muhammad Ali
Cassius Marcellus Clay grew up a devout Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky, learning to fight at age 12 after a police officer suggested he learn to defend himself. Six years later, he was an Olympic boxing champion, going on to win three world heavyweight titles. He became known as much for his swagger outside the ring as his movement in it, converting to Islam in 1965, changing his name to Muhammad Ali and refusing to join the U.S. Army on religious grounds. Ali remained popular after his athletic career ended and he developed Parkinson's disease, even lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and conveying the peaceful virtues of Islam following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Maya Angelou
A prestigious writer, producer and educator, Maya Angelou has established herself as one of the most respected African American voices of her generation. She has penned and starred in several plays, produced TV documentaries, been appointed by U.S. presidents to government committees and written several best-selling titles, including "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "The Heart of a Woman."

W.E.B. Du Bois
Born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in 1868, this Massachusetts native was one of the most prominent, prolific intellectuals of his time. An academic, activist and historian, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited "The Crisis" magazine and wrote 17 books, four journals and many other scholarly articles. In perhaps his most famous work, "The Souls of Black Folk," published in 1903, he predicted "the problem of 20th century [would be] the problem of the color-line."

Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered one of the most powerful and popular leaders of the American civil rights movement. He spearheaded a massive, nonviolent initiative of marches, sit-ins, boycotts and demonstrations that profoundly affected Americans' attitudes toward race relations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Malcolm X
Black leader Malcolm X spoke out about the concepts of race pride and black nationalism in the early 1960s. He denounced the exploitation of black people by whites and developed a large and dedicated following, which continued even after his death in 1965. Interest in the leader surged again after Spike Lee's 1992 movie "Malcolm X" was released.

Jackie Robinson
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black baseball player in the U.S. major leagues. After retirement from baseball in 1957, he remained active in civil rights and youth activities. In 1962, he became the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Others who paved the way: Notable scientists | Arts innovators | Political and business leaders

Boxing champ Muhammad Ali is an icon not only in sports, but the world over because of his work outside the ring.


• Explainer: By the numbers
• I-Report: Black in America
• Timeline: Civil rights struggle


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