The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Social Activists of all time. This list of famous American Social Activists is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American Social Activists.
With an HPI of 88.13, Malcolm X is the most famous American Social Activist. His biography has been translated into 91 different languages on wikipedia.
Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965) was an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a prominent figure during the civil rights movement. A spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1964, he was a vocal advocate for Black empowerment and the promotion of Islam within the Black community. Malcolm spent his adolescence living in a series of foster homes or with relatives after his father's death and his mother's hospitalization. He engaged in several illicit activities, eventually being sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946 for larceny and breaking and entering. In prison he joined the Nation of Islam (adopting the name Malcolm X to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname) and after his parole in 1952 quickly became one of the organization's most influential leaders. He was the public face of the organization for a dozen years, advocating for Black empowerment and separation of black and white Americans, and criticizing Martin Luther King Jr and the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. Malcolm X also expressed pride in some of the Nation's social welfare achievements, such as its free drug rehabilitation program. Throughout his life, beginning in the 1950s, Malcolm X endured surveillance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the 1960s, Malcolm X began to grow disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, as well as with its leader Elijah Muhammad. He subsequently embraced Sunni Islam and the civil rights movement after completing the Hajj to Mecca, and became known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. After a brief period of travel across Africa, he publicly renounced the Nation of Islam and founded the Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and the Pan-African Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Throughout 1964, his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, and he was repeatedly sent death threats. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated in New York City. Three Nation members were charged with the murder and given indeterminate life sentences; in 2021 two of the convictions were vacated. Speculation about the assassination and whether it was conceived or aided by leading or additional members of the Nation, or with law enforcement agencies, have persisted for decades after the shooting. A controversial figure accused of preaching racism and violence, Malcolm X is also a widely celebrated figure within African-American and Muslim American communities for his pursuit of racial justice. He was posthumously honored with Malcolm X Day, on which he is commemorated in various cities across the United States. Hundreds of streets and schools in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, while the Audubon Ballroom, the site of his assassination, was partly redeveloped in 2005 to accommodate the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
With an HPI of 85.50, Eleanor Roosevelt is the 2nd most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 87 different languages.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (; October 11, 1884 – November 7, 1962) was an American political figure, diplomat, and activist. She served as the first lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in office, making her the longest-serving first lady of the United States. Roosevelt served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S. Truman later called her the "First Lady of the World" in tribute to her human rights achievements.Roosevelt was a member of the prominent American Roosevelt and Livingston families and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She had an unhappy childhood, having suffered the deaths of both parents and one of her brothers at a young age. At 15, she attended Allenswood Boarding Academy in London and was deeply influenced by its headmistress Marie Souvestre. Returning to the U.S., she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. The Roosevelts' marriage was complicated from the beginning by Franklin's controlling mother, Sara, and after Eleanor discovered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, she resolved to seek fulfillment in leading a public life of her own. She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics after he was stricken with a paralytic illness in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs, and began giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin's election as Governor of New York in 1928, and throughout the remainder of Franklin's public career in government, Roosevelt regularly made public appearances on his behalf; and as First Lady, while her husband served as president, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role. Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial first lady at the time for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights for African-Americans. She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. On a few occasions, she publicly disagreed with her husband's policies. She launched an experimental community at Arthurdale, West Virginia, for the families of unemployed miners, later widely regarded as a failure. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Following her husband's death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life. She pressed the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later, she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, Roosevelt was regarded as "one of the most esteemed women in the world"; The New York Times called her "the object of almost universal respect" in her obituary.In 1999, she was ranked ninth in the top ten of Gallup's List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century, and was listed thirteen times as the most admired woman between 1948 and 1961.
With an HPI of 84.34, Martin Luther King Jr. is the 3rd most famous American Social Activist. His biography has been translated into 155 different languages.
Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr.; January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesman and leader in the American civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. King advanced civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the son of early civil rights activist and minister Martin Luther King Sr. King participated in and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the SCLC, he led the unsuccessful Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize some of the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. King helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The SCLC put into practice the tactics of nonviolent protest with some success by strategically choosing the methods and places in which protests were carried out. There were several dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities, who sometimes turned violent. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover considered King a radical and made him an object of the FBI's COINTELPRO from 1963, forward. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital affairs and reported on them to government officials, and, in 1964, mailed King a threatening anonymous letter, which he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide.On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize two of the three Selma to Montgomery marches. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People's Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Allegations that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, had been framed or acted in concert with government agents persisted for decades after the shooting. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971; the holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and the most populous county in Washington State was rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
With an HPI of 82.77, Helen Keller is the 4th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 102 different languages.
Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer. Born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, she lost her sight and hearing after a bout of illness at the age of nineteen months. She then communicated primarily using home signs until the age of seven when she met her first teacher and life-long companion Anne Sullivan, who taught her language, including reading and writing; Sullivan's first lessons involved spelling words on Keller's hand to show her the names of objects around her. She also learned how to speak and to understand other people's speech using the Tadoma method. After an education at both specialist and mainstream schools, she attended Radcliffe College of Harvard University and became the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She worked for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) from 1924 until 1968, during which time she toured the United States and traveled to 35 countries around the globe advocating for those with vision loss. Keller was a prolific author, writing 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays on topics ranging from animals to Mahatma Gandhi. Keller campaigned for those with disabilities, for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and world peace. She joined the Socialist Party of America in 1909. She was a supporter of the NAACP and an original member of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1933, when her book How I Became a Socialist was burned by Nazi youth, she wrote an open letter to the Student Body of Germany condemning censorship and prejudice. The story of Keller and Sullivan was made famous by Keller's 1903 autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptations for film and stage, The Miracle Worker. Her birthplace is now a museum and sponsors an annual "Helen Keller Day". Her June 27 birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in Pennsylvania and, in the centenary year of her birth, was recognized by a presidential proclamation from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015.
With an HPI of 81.77, Rosa Parks is the 5th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 97 different languages.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an African-American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The United States Congress has honored her as "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement".On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake's order to vacate a row of four seats in the "colored" section in favor of a white passenger, once the "white" section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation, and organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr.. At the time, Parks was employed as a seamstress at a local department store and was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers' rights and racial equality. Although widely honored in later years, she also suffered for her act; she was fired from her job, and received death threats for years afterwards. Shortly after the boycott, she moved to Detroit, where she briefly found similar work. From 1965 to 1988, she served as secretary and receptionist to John Conyers, an African-American US Representative. She was also active in the Black Power movement and the support of political prisoners in the US. After retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography and continued to insist that there was more work to be done in the struggle for justice. Parks received national recognition, including the NAACP's 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall. Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. California and Missouri commemorate Rosa Parks Day on her birthday, February 4, while Ohio, Oregon, and Texas commemorate the anniversary of her arrest, December 1.
With an HPI of 75.79, Jimmy Hoffa is the 6th most famous American Social Activist. His biography has been translated into 32 different languages.
James Riddle Hoffa (born February 14, 1913 – disappeared July 30, 1975, declared dead July 30, 1982) was an American labor union leader who served as the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) from 1957 until 1971. From an early age, Hoffa was a union activist, and he became an important regional figure with the IBT by his mid-twenties. By 1952, he was the national vice-president of the IBT and between 1957 and 1971 he was its general president. He secured the first national agreement for teamsters' rates in 1964 with the National Master Freight Agreement. He played a major role in the growth and the development of the union, which eventually became the largest by membership in the United States, with over 2.3 million members at its peak, during his terms as its leader. Hoffa became involved with organized crime from the early years of his Teamsters work, a connection that continued until his disappearance in 1975. He was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, conspiracy, and mail and wire fraud in 1964 in two separate trials. He was imprisoned in 1967 and sentenced to 13 years. In mid-1971, he resigned as president of the union as part of a commutation agreement with US President Richard Nixon and was released later that year, but Hoffa was barred from union activities until 1980. Hoping to regain support and to return to IBT leadership, he unsuccessfully tried to overturn the order. Hoffa disappeared on July 30, 1975. He is believed to have been murdered by the Mafia and was declared legally dead in 1982. Hoffa's legacy continues to stir debate.
With an HPI of 74.11, Emily Greene Balch is the 7th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 67 different languages.
Emily Greene Balch (January 8, 1867 – January 9, 1961) was an American economist, sociologist and pacifist. Balch combined an academic career at Wellesley College with a long-standing interest in social issues such as poverty, child labor, and immigration, as well as settlement work to uplift poor immigrants and reduce juvenile delinquency. She moved into the peace movement at the start of World War I in 1914, and began collaborating with Jane Addams of Chicago. She became a central leader of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) based in Switzerland, for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.
With an HPI of 71.68, Jane Addams is the 8th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 73 different languages.
Laura Jane Addams (September 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935) was an American settlement activist, reformer, social worker, sociologist, public administrator and author. She was an important leader in the history of social work and women's suffrage in the United States and advocated for world peace. She co-founded Chicago's Hull House, one of America's most famous settlement houses. In 1910, Addams was awarded an honorary master of arts degree from Yale University, becoming the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the school. In 1920, she was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).In 1931, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States. She was a radical pragmatist and the first woman "public philosopher" in the United States. When Addams died in 1935, she was the best-known female public figure in the United States.In the Progressive Era, when presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson identified themselves as reformers and social activists, Addams was one of the most prominent reformers. She helped America address and focus on issues that were of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, local public health, and world peace. In her essay "Utilization of Women in City Government", Addams noted the connection between the workings of government and the household, stating that many departments of government, such as sanitation and the schooling of children, could be traced back to traditional women's roles in the private sphere. Thus, these were matters of which women would have more knowledge than men, so women needed the vote to best voice their opinions. She said that if women were to be responsible for cleaning up their communities and making them better places to live, they needed to be able to vote to do so effectively. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities.
With an HPI of 71.60, Susan B. Anthony is the 9th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 53 different languages.
Susan B. Anthony (born Susan Anthony; February 15, 1820 – March 13, 1906) was an American social reformer and women's rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women's suffrage movement. Born into a Quaker family committed to social equality, she collected anti-slavery petitions at the age of 17. In 1856, she became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1851, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became her lifelong friend and co-worker in social reform activities, primarily in the field of women's rights. In 1852, they founded the New York Women's State Temperance Society after Anthony was prevented from speaking at a temperance conference because she was female. In 1863, they founded the Women's Loyal National League, which conducted the largest petition drive in United States history up to that time, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery. In 1866, they initiated the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans. In 1868, they began publishing a women's rights newspaper called The Revolution. In 1869, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association as part of a split in the women's movement. In 1890, the split was formally healed when their organization merged with the rival American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Anthony as its key force. In 1876, Anthony and Stanton began working with Matilda Joslyn Gage on what eventually grew into the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage. The interests of Anthony and Stanton diverged somewhat in later years, but the two remained close friends. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicized trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, the authorities declined to take further action. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Introduced by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA), it later became known colloquially as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. It was eventually ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Anthony traveled extensively in support of women's suffrage, giving as many as 75 to 100 speeches per year and working on many state campaigns. She worked internationally for women's rights, playing a key role in creating the International Council of Women, which is still active. She also helped to bring about the World's Congress of Representative Women at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. When she first began campaigning for women's rights, Anthony was harshly ridiculed and accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. Public perception of her changed radically during her lifetime, however. Her 80th birthday was celebrated in the White House at the invitation of President William McKinley. She became the first female citizen to be depicted on U.S. coinage when her portrait appeared on the 1979 dollar coin.
With an HPI of 71.43, Angela Davis is the 10th most famous American Social Activist. Her biography has been translated into 49 different languages.
Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944) is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, and author. She is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A Marxist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and is a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). She is the author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system. Born to an African-American family in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany. Studying under the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure in the Frankfurt School, Davis became increasingly engaged in far-left politics. Returning to the United States, she studied at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to East Germany, where she completed a doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After returning to the United States, she joined the Communist Party and became involved in numerous causes, including the second-wave feminist movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War. In 1969, she was hired as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). UCLA's governing Board of Regents soon fired her due to her Communist Party membership; after a court ruled this illegal, the university fired her again, this time for her use of inflammatory language. In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California, in which four people were killed. Prosecuted for three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder, she was held in jail for over a year before being acquitted of all charges in 1972. She visited Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970s and, during the 1980s, was twice the Communist Party's candidate for vice president; at the time, she also held the position of professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. Much of her work focused on the abolition of prisons and in 1997, she co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison–industrial complex. In 1991, amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she was part of a faction in the Communist Party that broke away to establish the CPUSA. Also in 1991, she joined the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she became department director before retiring in 2008. Since then she has continued to write and remained active in movements such as Occupy and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Davis has received various awards, including the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. Accused of supporting political violence, she has sustained criticism from the highest levels of the US government. She has also been criticized for supporting the Soviet Union and its satellites. Davis has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2020, she was listed as the 1971 "Woman of the Year" in Time magazine's "100 Women of the Year" edition, which covered the 100 years that began with women's suffrage in 1920. Davis is included in Time's 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Pantheon has 96 people classified as social activists born between 1793 and 1999. Of these 96, 24 (25.00%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living social activists include Angela Davis, Edward Snowden, and Jody Williams. The most famous deceased social activists include Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr.. As of October 2020, 19 new social activists have been added to Pantheon including John Wesley Hardin, Ruby Bridges, and James Meredith.
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Which Social Activists were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Social Activists since 1700.