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 February 24, 2023
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.
Each week of Black History Month, we will celebrate the unsung heroes of abortion rights, voting rights, affirmative action, reparations, military inclusion and LGBTQ movements.
Here are their stories.
This attorney and feminist was a fierce advocate for abortion rights in the 20th century
Flo Kennedy • 1916–2000
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy’s vibrant personality and signature cowboy hat hardly went unnoticed, but what made her truly memorable was her fervent activism.
As a lawyer and political activist who spent decades drawing attention to injustices of all kinds, her work left a long-lasting mark in the battle for abortion rights.
Born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy credited her father for instilling in her a willingness to speak out against injustice. In her autobiography “Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times,” she recounted how he stood up to members of the Ku Klux Klan who had threatened the family after they bought a home in a predominantly White neighborhood.
Kennedy moved to New York in 1942 after her mother’s death and applied to Columbia Law School, but was initially rejected. She was later admitted after threatening to sue the school when she discovered that her admission had been rejected for being a woman. Kennedy was one of eight women and the only Black student in her class.
In the years since graduating in 1951, Kennedy represented civil rights leaders and became a leading voice in several movements, including the fight for women’s rights.
“She was in Black power, she was in independent Black feminist organizations, she was in media, she was part of the women's liberation movement. She was everywhere,” said Sheri M. Randolph, an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of “Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical.”
Kennedy was one of four lawyers who in 1969 challenged the constitutionality of New York’s ban on abortion in federal court, a case that made women the subject of abortion litigation instead of doctors for the first time. Some experts say the case helped decriminalize abortion in the state the following year.
Thompson said that Kennedy fought for abortion rights on the streets and in the court, an approach that would later be used in the lead-up to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 opinion that legalized abortion nationwide prior to viability, which usually happens between 24 and 28 weeks after conception.
“She saw the decriminalization of abortion fight as a many-headed Hydra that happens not only through the courtroom and class action suits that she was a part of, but in bringing women's voices to protest in marches,” Thompson told CNN.
Kennedy eventually stepped away from the courtroom and turned solely to political activism. She traveled across the country lecturing on women’s rights and civil rights issues at college campuses for about two decades, oftentimes with her friend and fellow activist, Gloria Steinem.
She founded the Feminist Party and was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and the National Black Feminist Organization.
Kennedy died in 2000 at the age of 84.
“If you found a cause for the downtrodden of somebody being abused someplace, by God, Flo Kennedy would be there,” former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins told The New York Times at the time of her passing.
She is known as a founder of the reparations movement
Audley Moore • 1898–1997
Audley Moore, affectionately known as Queen Mother Moore, accomplished a lot in her 98 years.
She was a civil rights leader, a key player in the campaign for reparations for slavery and a fierce advocate for Pan-Africanism, the effort to build solidarity between Indigenous African people around the world.
Moore dedicated her life to improving the lives of Africans and African Americans, and spent decades fighting for Black empowerment.
“I am not a part-time struggler,” she once said. “I'm in the movement for the liberation of African people full-time, seven days a week, 24 hours per day, for life.”
Moore witnessed tragedy and racism at a young age. Born in New Iberia, Louisiana, on July 27, 1898, she was orphaned by the fourth grade after both her parents died, forcing her to drop out of school and become a hairdresser. One of her grandfathers was lynched.
Among her first roles as a civil rights activist was volunteering as a nurse in Alabama, where she helped get support for Black soldiers shunned by the Red Cross during World War I.
A speech by Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey at a 1920 event in New Orleans sparked her interest in Black power. Garvey was the founder of the Harlem-based Universal Negro Improvement Association, and Moore became an active member.
She moved to New York City, where she frequently took to the streets in demonstrations and boycotts to demand equal rights. She later founded the Harriet Tubman Association to improve the conditions of Black women, and used the organization to demand higher wages, lower food prices and better education for Black people.
She once described a scene where police tried to stop Garvey from speaking in New Orleans, prompting his supporters to wave guns in the air and chant, "Speak, Garvey, speak!"
"I had two guns -- one in my bosom and one in my pocketbook,” she said, according to an article by Keisha Blain, professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. “Everybody knew they had to come armed. We wanted that freedom."
Moore documented racial disparities and used her findings to demand economic reparations for descendants of victims of slavery. In 1957, she presented a petition to the United Nations seeking land for Black Americans and billions of dollars in reparations.
She later launched a reparations committee for descendants of slaves, and spent decades lobbying for the cause.
"Ever since 1950, I've been on the trail fighting for reparations," she once said. "They owe us more than they could ever pay. They stole our language; they stole us from our mothers and fathers and took our names from us. They worked us free of charge 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, under the lash for centuries."
In 1962, she met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss economic reparations. Ron Daniels, the convener of the National African American Reparations Commission, described Moore as one of his mentors.
"Queen Mother Audley Moore was the formidable, relentless guiding spirit of the modern cross-generational reparations movement," Daniels told CNN. "Long before the majority of African Americans embraced the idea of reparations or believed reparatory justice as possible, Queen Mother Moore was the master teacher, defining and educating Black people about the nature and necessity of reparations to repair the damage to our people done by the holocaust of enslavement and its legacies."
Moore's list of influential friends included Garvey, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, some of whom shaped her ideas and teachings on civil rights.
Her influence transcended borders. During one of her many travels to Africa, an Ashanti tribe in Ghana bestowed her with the honorary title of "Queen Mother."
Moore's last public appearance was at the Million Man March in Washington in 1995, alongside Jesse Jackson.
"Queen Mother Moore's contributions have had a substantial impact on the lives of Africans and African Americans," Charles Rangel, a former US congressman from New York, said in a tribute to Moore following her death in 1997. "She has served as an inspiration to many and will be greatly missed."
Decades later, Pan-Africanists still use Moore's teachings to advocate for equality for Africans and Black Americans.
"I think she is dancing in the heavens with the ancestors,” Daniels said, “proud of the way in which the reparations movement has mushroomed but exhorting us to finish the task.”
He was the first openly gay Black man elected mayor of a US city
Ron Oden • 1950–Present
Ron Oden just wanted to serve his local community, but his election as mayor of Palm Springs, California, made headlines.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Oden become the first Black person in 1995 to be appointed to the Palm Spring City Council. In 2003, Oden made history again, becoming the first openly gay Black man elected mayor of an American city after running on a campaign slogan, “Time for Change.”
“It meant more to people than ever I would have imagined,” Oden told CNN in a phone interview reflecting on the attention his election received. “The reason that I ran was to serve my community.”
His historic ascent broke a glass ceiling for gay Black Americans and signaled a shift in the politics of the somewhat conservative community experiencing an increasing gay population and tourism.
Oden said that personally, the election “meant that I had an opportunity to serve and to show the community the level of competence and expertise that a person of color, a Black man, can provide for the city.”
He would not have run for office or won without the support of the minority Black population of Palm Springs, he said, and added that during his time in office he faced opposition because of his political views and his race.
“When you have this paint job, there’s always opposition and because so many subtle nuances of racism that are there,” Oden said. “You will be surprised how much your race comes in when people don’t see you as being cooperative or a puppet.”
Oden served years as pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist Church in several cities but left the ministry in 1988. After a divorce, he moved to Palm Springs where he taught sociology at the College of the Desert. He said he was “well prepared” to transition from pastoring to politics, telling CNN that, “There is nothing more political than church.”
Oden’s political ascent paved the way for the election of an all-LGBTQ Palm Springs City Council in 2017.
Since leaving office, he has continued to push for equality and in 2007 was recognized with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. In February 2020, Oden received a community service award from The City of Palm Springs Human Rights Commission.
Now 72 years old, Oden has returned to teaching at the College of the Desert and is spending time with his grandchildren.
He believes LGBTQ rights and other rights are in jeopardy in the US and that there is “a concerted effort to tell people who they can love,” but there has also been a lot of progress, he said.
He said he was fortunate to have the support of his family when he told them he was gay, also encourages younger people, particularly those who are Black, to not be nervous to open up about their sexuality.
“What a great time to be alive because, in my generation, we didn’t have anybody to go to ... there are so many outlets that let them know that one day, you can marry the person that you love,” he said. “The world knows now that they can be who they want to be … you can be you better than anybody else on the planet, so no need in trying to be like somebody else.”
This Black Latino pilot fought against racial segregation in the US military
Esteban Hotesse • 1919–1945
Esteban Hotesse spent years training to fight overseas, but his toughest battle, against discrimination and racism, was in America.
Hotesse enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in 1942 and was a member of the 477th Bombardment Group M, which in 1944 was tasked with training what would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, a combat fighter unit of primarily Black aviators whose heroism during World War II become legendary. In 1945, the Dominican-born officer and his unit were transferred to Freeman Field, a US Army Air Forces base near Seymour, Indiana.
At Freeman Field, Col. Robert Selway, a White officer and the first commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen's 477th Bombardment Group M, segregated officers’ clubs, in violation of Air Force regulations. Selway had designated the officers' club for "instructors" only, who were White, and classified members of the Tuskegee Airmen as “trainees,” thus barring them from the officers' club.
In protest, Hotesse and dozens of other Black officers walked into the White-only officers' club peacefully in violation of base regulations and were arrested but later released.
Their protest, known as the "Freeman Field Mutiny,” paved the way for historic changes in the military. Edward De Jesus, a senior researcher at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute who has studied Hotesse’s life extensively, said the events at the base prompted President Harry Truman to ban segregation in the military with the signing of an executive order, and that protest became a model for the civil rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hotesse was never deployed overseas and died in July 1945 during a training exercise. He was 26 years old.
Iris Rivera, one of Hotesse’s grandchildren, said she feels incredibly proud of him as a relative and a service member. She served in the Army for 22 years before retiring and her brother Angel has served for almost 30 years.
“I was already proud to be a service member but learning about my grandfather makes me even prouder. We are so tied to the military that it must be in our blood,” Rivera said.
This voting rights activist made her mark after she punched an Alabama sheriff in the face
Annie Lee Cooper • 1910–2010
Annie Lee Cooper did the unthinkable — she fought back — an act of resistance that turned her into an icon in the voting rights movement.
On January 25, 1965, Cooper was standing in line to register to vote when, according to historical records, Dallas County, Alabama, Sheriff James Clark ordered her to go home and hit her in the back of the neck with a baton. Cooper, a 224-pound woman, turned around and punched Clark in the face, knocking him to the ground.
At the time, Black Americans were mobilizing across the South for equal voting rights. Voter registration procedures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, limited office hours and long lines in states such as Alabama had made it nearly impossible for Black people to register to vote.
Cooper was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder for punching the sheriff, according to the Selma Times Journal. She was released from jail just after 11 hours for fear that Clark would try to hurt her, newspapers reported.
A photo of deputies restraining Cooper to the ground was published by The New York Times and news of the incident quickly spread through the civil rights community which celebrated her as a hero.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged Cooper during a historic speech while she was jailed.
“This is what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and they haven’t told the press the truth about it,” King said, according to the Selma Times Journal. “Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t have turned around and hit Sheriff Clark just to be hitting. And of course, as you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark. At that moment, he was engaging in some very ugly business-as-usual action. This is what brought about that scene there.”
Cooper died in 2010 at the age of 100, and in 2014, Oprah Winfrey played her in the Oscar-nominated film, Selma.
Her legacy is still alive, Selma leaders say.
Yusuf Salaam, a former Selma councilman and state representative, said he met Cooper in the 1990s when he represented her neighborhood on the city council. The two worked together on a committee to improve the relationship between residents and city leadership. Salaam described Cooper as affable, sharp and intelligent. He recalled visiting her house on many occasions when she would cook collard greens and sweet potato pies.
Salaam told CNN he believes Cooper galvanized the voting rights movement because she stood up against a White sheriff -- something many Black Americans were afraid to do in the Jim Crow South.
“It was risky, it was down-right life-threatening and dangerous,” Salaam said. “But she gave the formula for success. If the people had maintained that fear they would have been paralyzed.”
An earlier headline on this story had the wrong year of birth for Annie Lee Cooper. It was 1910.
This civil rights leader was one of the little-known pioneers of affirmative action
Arthur Fletcher • 1924–2005
Arthur Fletcher built his life’s legacy fighting for equal opportunity for Black Americans.
A star football player, Fletcher led his first civil rights protest while in high school after hearing that Black students’ photographs would be placed in the back of the yearbook.
He later became one of the first Black players for the Baltimore Colts, and in 1954, was named Kansas' deputy highway commissioner where he encouraged Black businesses to compete for government contracts.
In 1969, while serving as assistant secretary of labor under Republican President Richard Nixon, Fletcher developed the first plan for affirmative action, which is perhaps his most notable accomplishment. The proposal, known as the “Revised Philadelphia Plan,” required businesses and labor unions seeking government contracts to enforce equal employment opportunities for minorities.
The plan initially received pushback from White construction workers who demonstrated in cities such as Chicago and Pittsburgh. However, the plan had positive results -- within a year of implementation, the number of Black people employed as skilled workers jumped from 2% to 22.7%, according to historical records.
In the years that followed, he became widely known as the “father of affirmative action.”
Fletcher’s life experiences inspired his fight for affirmative action, said David Hamilton Golland, author of "A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican."
After college, Fletcher, who had studied sociology and political science at Washburn University and played football there, struggled to get a high school football coaching job in Kansas because he was Black, Golland said. He settled for building tires at Goodyear to make ends meet.
Fletcher believed the nation was doing itself a disservice by excluding qualified, talented people from certain jobs and industries because of their race, Golland said.
“For Fletcher, every time you denied someone a job or training opportunity because of the color of his or her skin you were putting the nation at risk because that person might grow up and discover a better way to fight wars,” Golland said.
In 1972, Fletcher was appointed executive director of the United Negro College where he helped coin the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Fletcher chaired the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1990 to 1993. He died of natural causes in 2005 at the age of 80.