Skip to main content Accessibility

Black History Month 2023: Facts, influential figures

For #BlackHistoryMonth 2023, the Southern Poverty Law Center is highlighting the liberation, creativity, resilience and intersecting identities of Black people.

Law/Politics: Sydney Barber | Robert G. Clark Jr. | Kristen M Clarke | Kamala Harris | Ketanji Brown Jackson | Raphael Warnock | Maxine Waters | Sports: Magic Johnson | Trude Lamb | Patricio Manuel | Oscar Robertson | Jason Wright

In Law and Politics

Black people who have broken new ground in law and politics.

Sydney Barber

Sydney Barcer
In 2020, Sydney Barber was selected as the Naval Academy’s first African American woman brigade commander. (Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Burke/U.S. Navy/ AP Images)

At 21, Sydney Barber became the United States Naval Academy’s first African American woman brigade commander, leading over 4,000 midshipmen and a staff of 30 people. But Barber’s accomplishments don’t end there. Barber serves as the secretary of the National Society of Black Engineers, sings as part of the Naval Academy’s gospel choir, and has performed humanitarian work in India and the Dominican Republic. Barber also started a program to mentor young girls of color studying science, technology, engineering and math.

Back to top

Robert G. Clark Jr.

Robert Clark Jr.
Serving in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1968 to 2004, Robert G. Clark Jr., right, chaired its Education Committee starting in 1977. (Credit: Rory Doyle/Getty Images)

In 1968, Robert G. Clark Jr. was elected to represent the state of Mississippi in the House of Representatives, becoming the first African American to serve on the Mississippi Legislature since 1894. In 1977, Clark became the first African American to hold a chairmanship in the Mississippi House of Representatives, leading the Education Committee for 10 years. During this time, he was crucial in passing the 1982 Education Reform Act and the 1984 Vocational Education Reform Act.

Back to top

Kristen M. Clarke

Kristen Clarke
Since 2021, Kristen M. Clarke has served as assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. (Credit: Tom Williams/AP Images)

Kristen M. Clarke is an American attorney who was sworn in as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2021. She is the first woman confirmed to lead this division. Clarke has dedicated her life and career to public service, having previously worked to defend the Voting Rights Act, implement reform in police practices, eliminate unlawful redlining, and much more. Among her many accomplishments, Clarke defended Taylor Dumpson, American University’s first Black American female student body president, in her case against neo-Nazi white supremacists. In 2015, Clarke was appointed president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a renowned civil rights organization established at the request of President John F. Kennedy.

Back to top

Kamala Harris

Before becoming vice president, Kamala Harris served as San Francisco’s district attorney, California’s attorney general and as a United States senator. (Credit: Lawrence Jackson/The White House)

The 49th vice president of the United States, Kamala Devi Harris, is the first woman, Black American, and South Asian American to be elected vice president. These firsts are not unique to her vice presidency but also apply to her career in public service as the district attorney of San Francisco, California attorney general, and United States senator.

Harris has led a career dedicated to the American people. As district attorney of San Francisco, she established a program that allowed first-time drug offenders to complete their high school education and obtain employment. This program was later named a national model for innovation for law enforcement by the U.S. Department of Justice. As California attorney general, she secured a $20 billion settlement for Californians with home foreclosures, in addition to $1.1 billion for individuals who had been taken advantage of by the private education sector. As senator, she passed a bipartisan, anti-lynching bill and legislation to preserve historically Black colleges and universities. As vice president, Harris has focused her efforts on getting Americans vaccinated, eliminating child poverty, rebuilding the economy, protecting American citizens’ freedom to vote, defending reproductive rights, and much more.

Back to top

Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ketanji Brown-Jackson
Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first Black woman and first former public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. (Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images)

On June 30, 2022, Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the 116th associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, making her the first Black woman and first former public defender to serve on the court. Jackson previously served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and public defender. Jackson’s efforts contributed to reducing the sentencing guideline range for drug offenses. As a public defender, she provided representation to defendants lacking the financial resources to pay for legal representation.

Back to top

Raphael Warnock

Senator Raphael Warnock
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia has been a major proponent of voting rights, health care access, criminal justice reform and more. (Credit: Tom Williams/AP IMAGES)

Raphael Warnock is a senator, pastor and activist. He is the first African American senator to be elected to represent Georgia. As both a pastor and senator, Warnock has been a major proponent of voting rights, health care access, criminal justice reform, protecting women’s rights to their bodies, eliminating poverty and ending capital punishment.

Back to top

Maxine Waters

US Representative Maxine Waters
In 2019, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California became the first woman and first African American to serve as chair of the House Financial Services Committee. (Credit: Richard Shotwell/AP Images)

Maxine Waters has represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1991. From 1997 to 1999, Waters chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 2019 became the first woman and first African American chair of the House Financial Services Committee. Throughout her career, Waters has been outspoken on issues ranging from divestment from South Africa’s apartheid regime to opposition to the Iraq War. Over the course of her career, Waters has developed a reputation as a fearless advocate for the rights and well-being of marginalized groups.

In Sports

Athletes who have made history in and out of uniform.

Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson
After a storied NBA career, Magic Johnson has focused on activism and philanthropy as well as his entrepreneurial ventures. (Credit: Walter Iooss Jr./ Getty Images)

Former NBA player Magic Johnson, known to many as the greatest point guard of all time, played 13 seasons of professional basketball and was a three-time winner of both the NBA MVP Award and the NBA Finals MVP Award, and a member of the 1992 gold medal U.S. Olympic team.

In 1991, Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. Despite his efforts to continue playing, he faced a lot of backlash from fellow players who wanted to see him retire. Johnson officially retired from his NBA career in 1996. Soon after, Johnson went public with his diagnosis, which played a major role in dispelling the widespread stereotype at the time that HIV was a “gay disease.” Johnson became an activist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex. In 2009, Ebony magazine named Johnson, who previously owned part of the Lakers and currently owns shares in the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most influential Black businessmen in the country.

Back to top

Trude Lamb

Trude Lamb and Dennis Teuber
Thanks to the efforts of student Trude Lamb, pictured with her track coach, Dennis Teuber, Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, was renamed Tyler Legacy High School. (Credit: Jamie Maldonado)

In 2020, Trude Lamb, a track and cross-country star at Robert E. Lee High School in Texas, wrote a letter to her school board stating that she will no longer be wearing her school jersey. As a student from Ghana at a school named after a slave-owning Confederate general, she felt uncomfortable playing sports and attending a school wearing the name of someone who participated in the oppression and abuse of her community.

Lamb’s letter brought widespread attention to the issue, which even led to a protest on the day of the board meeting. Her efforts prevailed, and the school changed its name, eliminating all traces of Robert E. Lee.

Back to top

Patricio ‘Pat’ Manuel

Patricio Manuel
Patricio Manuel, the first publicly transgender pro boxer, won his first fight in the men’s professional boxing division. (Credit: Brandon Magpantay/Imagn)

Patricio Manuel is the first publicly transgender boxer to participate in a professional boxing match. Before transitioning, Manuel was a five-time national champion in the amateur women’s division and competed in the first U.S. women’s boxing trials for the 2012 Olympics. In 2013, Manuel began his medical transition under the USA Boxing and International Olympic Committee guidelines, returning to the ring in 2016 to win his first fight in the men’s professional boxing division.

Back to top

Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson
Thanks to Oscar Robertson’s advocacy efforts, NBA players were granted the ability to negotiate their own contracts and compensation. (Credit: AP Images)

Oscar Robertson, aka “the Big O,” is considered to be one of the top NBA players of all time. Robertson was not just an NBA player or a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, he was also a labor activist and the first Black president of a national sports or entertainment labor union, serving as president of the National Basketball Players Association in the 1960s and 1970s.

Robertson’s legacy also includes his advocacy efforts, which contributed to a 1976 court settlement, often referred to as the “Oscar Robertson Rule,” which granted NBA players free agency and the ability to negotiate their own contracts and compensation. As a founding member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, Johnson worked to ensure that retired NBA players received fair pension benefits and medical care.

Back to top

Jason Wright

Jason Wright
A former NFL running back, Jason Wright today is president of the league’s Washington Commanders. (Credit: Getty Images)

In 2020, Jason Wright became the first Black NFL team president when he was appointed to the Washington Football Team, now known as the Washington Commanders. Wright was also the youngest president to ever be appointed to an NFL team. Wright earned his MBA from the University of Chicago and worked at McKinsey & Company as a culture and diversity adviser. Wright’s leadership experience dates back to his time as a player in the league, when he was team captain of the Arizona Cardinals and served as their National Football League Players Association representative.

Back to top