February is Black History Month, and as such, it is a time to celebrate and learn about the impact of Black people on America’s history and on our communities. There are many civil rights and social justice leaders and activists throughout history who are well-known, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and John Lewis. The importance of these historical figures cannot be overstated, however it is important to recognize that they are not solely responsible for social change.
We tend to think of changes in social attitudes and policies as happening in great leaps and bounds, with each occurring in order on a linear timeline. While it is certainly true that the struggle for social equality and civil rights protections in America and around the world has been marked by major events, it’s likewise important to remember that change is largely affected by grassroots organizing, with seemingly average, though undoubtedly courageous people taking action to change society for the better. Unfortunately many of the people whose actions have helped shape our society into a more just one do not receive the recognition they deserve, and others still are lost to time entirely. In the spirit of spreading positivity and doing our part to make the world a better place, Sahoja is spotlighting several Black activists throughout history up to the present day who you may not have heard of.
Aaron Lloyd Dixon
Even at a young age, Aaron Lloyd Dixon has always sought to make a positive impact. As a student in the 1960s, he helped to form Black student and community advocate groups in the city of Seattle. Upon graduating, Dixon became involved in the Black Panther Party, helping to spread the group out of the state of California. As a founding member and captain of the Seattle chapter, Dixon was instrumental in organizing the BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children Program. The Free Breakfast for Children Program was started by the Black Panthers in 1969 in Oakland, as before that time there was no federal breakfast programs for children in the U.S. Obviously, without breakfast before school, a child’s nutrition and education is compromised, and historically disadvantaged communities have been affected most by this problem. Through the actions of Aaron Lloyd Dixon and his contemporaries, the Free Breakfast for Children Program spread across the U.S., with eventually more than ten thousand children being fed before school each day. The positive impact of the program was amazing. By 1975, a federal program was in place that would provide free breakfast for children before school each day. Today, over 14 million children are fed by the program, and it may never have happened if it had not been for community organizers like Aaron Lloyd Dixon.
Like Aaron Dixon, Brad Lomax’s connection to the Black Panthers would be instrumental in achieving monumental social change that would positively impact millions of Americans. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Lomax used a wheelchair and found that many public buildings were inaccessible to people with disabilities. In 1977, he was one of over a hundred people with disabilities who occupied the Federal Building in San Francisco in response to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s failure to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a piece of legislature providing protections for people with disabilities. The two-week San Francisco 504 Sit-In was considered instrumental in getting the legislation signed into law, and many credit Lomax with its success. To try and get the activists to leave the building, electricity and water was shut off. Lomax solicited support from the Black Panther Party, who kept the protesters fed and supplied during their stay. The enactment of Section 504 was the precursor to other important civil rights laws that would protect the civil liberties and dignity of people with disabilities, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
On the other side of the country, Peggy Shepard of New York City has developed a reputation as one of the most critical Black environmental justice activists. During the 1970s and 1980s, a majority of the city’s bus terminals were located in Northern Manhattan, a predominantly Black and Latino area, reducing the air quality and causing negative health effects of the residents in the area. Further complicating the issue, a sewage treatment plant was built in West Harlem in the mid-‘80s, further polluting the air and water in the area. On Martin Luther King Day in 1988, Shepard and a group of fellow activists blocked traffic near the sewage treatment plant to protest the air quality issues caused by the plant. That same year, she helped found the WE ACT for Environmental Justice organization, which continues to advocate for environmental justice issues in the region. Throughout the 1990s, WE ACT helped to oversee improvements made by the city to the sewage treatment plant to improve the quality of the air in West Harlem. Shepard and WE ACT’s perseverance and fortitude would also lead the city to make efforts to reduce the pollution of its diesel bus fleet and rethink its practices for building bus terminals. Today, Shepard is a board member of the League of Conservation Voters, a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund, and sits on the board of trustees of the Waterfront Alliance. She was also appointed to chair New York’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board in 2020.
Though she is still young, Joy Buolamwini’s contributions to social justice in the 21st century should not be discounted. The Ghanian-American computer scientist holds Masters degrees from Jesus College at the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has founded the Algorithmic Justice League. Throughout her studies with artificial intelligence (AI) and computers, Buolamwini realized that in many cases, facial recognition software could not recognize or misclassified people with darker skin. Her research on the subject and how to combat the issue has led to her influencing how tech companies such as IBM and Microsoft design their software. Her fight for justice and inclusivity in the technology sphere has led to her recognition by Fortune Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes, and the BBC.
Though activists like Dixon, Lomax, Shepard, and Buolamwini haven’t gained the same level of name recognition as more well-known civil rights leaders, their contributions are no less significant. There are thousands of activists and leaders throughout history and in the present day who fight for social, economic, educational, and environmental justice. Whether it is within their local communities or on a global scale, the differences these brave individuals have made and continue to make deserves recognition and celebration all the same. In honor of Black History Month, Sahoja encourages you to educate yourself further on the contributions of other leaders and activists like those mentioned above, to contribute to making your community more inclusive, accessible, and just, and to do what you can to make the world a better place for all people.
Matt Bonaccio graduated from Le Moyne College in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. He is a freelance writer and blogger who seeks to make thought-provoking connections to the real world in his work. In his free time, he enjoys playing the guitar (badly) and learning how strange, obsolete mechanical and electrical devices work.