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The unsung heroes

Their stories aren’t widely told, but these Black women and men helped shape history.

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, Nicole Chavez, Chandelis Duster and Faith Karimi, CNN
Published February 1, 2023
Updated January 30, 2024

They stood up against racism and inequality – some risking their own lives – to launch the fight for many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today and some we continue to fight for.

They dared to break racial barriers in roles never held by Black Americans.

Yet, these icons have been largely overlooked, their stories untold in many history books, classrooms and documentaries.

While most of these pioneers are long gone, historians and surviving friends and family are working to keep their legacies alive.

This Black History Month, we celebrate the unsung heroes of abortion rights, voting rights, affirmative action, reparations, military inclusion and LGBTQ movements.

Here are their stories.


  • Editors: João Costa and Anna Brand
  • Photo Editor: Clint Alwahab
  • Design: Tal Yellin and Gabrielle Smith
  • Development: Ivory Sherman
  • Header image credits: Magnum Photos/Getty Images/AP/Harvard Radcliffe Institute