Controversial Topic: Civil Rights

Controversial Topic: Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Movement refers to one of the most consequential struggles in American history, one that continues to present date. Civil Rights refer to the freedoms, liberties, and protections under the law that are meant to be accorded to all people. But civil rights advocates argue that racial inequality is ingrained in American life through realities like economic disenfranchisement, police brutality, and mass incarceration. The Civil Rights debate topic pits groups, organizations, and communities who advocate for greater racial equality against those who work to maintain or advance a white racial hierarchy. The ongoing public controversy over civil rights makes this a popular persuasive essay topic.

The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the civil rights debate and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this controversial topic. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a nuanced look at the public discourse on this subject, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.

A Brief History of The Issue

The United States has a deep-rooted history of racial inequality beginning with the formative role that African slavery played in the nation’s economic, social, and political development. Even after the Civil War and the consequent abolition of slavery, inequality and segregation shaped life for most Black Americans.

While inequality was widespread in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, racial discrimination took an even more severe and codified form in the states of the Confederacy. Though the Southern states had been forced to free their slaves, local and state leaders adopted a set of laws enforcing segregation. Known informally as Jim Crow, these laws created a harsh set of realities for newly freed slaves, who were relegated to separate communities, schools, hospitals, and public spaces. Southern Black citizens were invariably subjected to institutionalized prejudices by employers, realtors, the police, and the courts.

Southern Black citizens were invariably subjected to institutionalized prejudices by employers, realtors, the police, and the courts.” – @AcademicInflux

This period also saw the emergence of racialized violence through groups such as the Ku Klux Klan-hooded white supremacists who terrorized black families with cross-burnings and lynchings-often not just with impunity, but with support from local law enforcement.

These were the realities which would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement-a period of peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts aimed at undoing the injustices that had persisted for centuries in the United States. President Truman was the first American president to establish a meaningful Civil Rights agenda, beginning with a 1948 order desegregating the military.

But in the Southern states, real change would require the bravery of actual citizens like Rosa Parks, who famously and unwittingly provoked the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus; the Little Rock Nine, who had the courage to become the first black students at a newly integrated Central High School; and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose stirring oratories made him the face of the Civil Rights movement.

President Truman was the first American president to establish a meaningful Civil Rights agenda, beginning with a 1948 order desegregating the military.” – @AcademicInflux

Though their efforts led to groundbreaking federal legislation-most particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964-the work of the Civil Rights Movement continues today. This is the history that informs the present-day Civil Rights Movement and the controversy that we explore below.


Jump to our look at The Colleges with the Most Influential Black Graduates to see where many of the most prominent Civil Rights icons studied.


Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of civil rights in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list of prominent civil rights activists as well as individuals who opposed the civil rights movement. Also included are prominent martyrs and artists of the civil rights era.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Civil Rights Debate
1Rosa Parks
2John Lewis
3Martin Luther King Jr.
4Coretta Scott King
5Malcolm X
6George Wallace
7Emmett Till” />
8Bob Dylan
9Jesse Jackson
10Thurgood Marshall

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of civil rights in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude religious scriptures, and is largely comprised of historical texts as well as works or fiction and moral philosophy which have confronted issues of racial inequality and the push for equal rights.

Top Ten Historical Influential Books in the Civil Rights Debate
RankBook Title
1100 Greatest African Americans
2The Help
3The Feminine Mystique
4Who Speaks for the Negro?
5The New Jim Crow
6The Years of Lyndon Johnson
7The Color Purple
8Blood Done Sign My Name
9I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
10The Fire Next Time
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The Current Controversy

This topic’s appearance at the top of our list underscores the extent to which the battle over Civil Rights continues even to present day. While it is tempting to break this issue into simple terms of pro- and con-, the complexity of the matter defies such easy categorization. There are those who oppose the advancement of Civil Rights for Black Americans because they identify as white supremacist. But there are also those who oppose the current movement for Civil Rights because they are critical of the protest methods employed, or because of their political affiliation, or for a wide range of other reasons that may defy simply categorization. Likewise, there are also numerous strands of the current movement for civil rights, social activism, and for support of the Black Lives Matter platform. The discussion below looks at top influencers representing these varying strands of support and opposition and attempts to make sense of the perceived controversy surrounding the Civil Rights Movement today.

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A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate-and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions-we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

While it is tempting to break this issue into simple terms of pro- and con-, the complexity of the matter defies such easy categorization” – @AcademicInflux

On the subject of Civil Rights, you’ll note that this is not merely a list of the most prominent figures in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the story of Civil Rights cannot be told without acknowledgement of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X-for instance-a look at the present day discourse requires us to spotlight those who permeate current literature, journalism, and activism. Similarly, the influencers that we identify below as opposing the Civil Rights Movement are not historically noted segregationists such as Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms or George Wallace. Instead, a look at the issue through a present day lens requires acknowledgment of both the fringe and mainstream movements aimed at rolling back or preventing the advancement of civil rights.

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the civil rights issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or to the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you a unique and nuanced way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

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Key Terms:

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter refers to a decentralized system based on political and social action aimed at ending police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black Americans. The movement began as a Twitter hashtag-#blacklivesmatter-in reaction to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Marvin white he walked unarmed through his neighborhood. Since that time, Black Lives Matter has become the most visible and influential force in confronting instances of police violence against Black citizens and pushing for law enforcement and justice reforms to reduce racially discriminatory policing.


  • Janaya Khan is a social activist from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto as well as an international ambassador for the Black Lives Matter Network.
  • Marissa Johnson is an activist who attained notoriety when she interrupted U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at an August 2015 rally in Seattle, Johnson’s is a founder of a Seattle-based justice group called Outside Agitators 206, which was disbanded when she became a cofounder of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter...”
  • Demico Boothe is an African-American bestselling author of several books on the plight of African American men in the American prison system. Boothe’s book, Why Are There So Many Black Men in Jail?, which is on the Black Lives Matter recommended reading list, addresses the issue of racism in the Crack versus Cocaine Laws and was published in 2007.

Civil Rights Law

Legal advocacy is a major component of the civil rights movement. Prominent influencers in this area work through the courts, prisons, and within communities to bring about legal reform, protect the rights of Americans against discrimination, and promote greater justice and equality in America’s broader legal system.


  • Margo Jane Schlanger is a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, and the founder and director of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. From 2010-2012, while on leave from her professorial position, she served as the presidentially-appointed Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the United States Department of Homeland Security.
  • James C. Harrington is a Texas civil rights lawyer and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Dedicated to social justice, he fought for worker’s rights alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
  • Frank Ruff Parker III was an American civil rights lawyer and voting rights activist. Beginning in 1981, while working for The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, he directed the Voting Rights Project, where he helped secure from the United States Congress a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Civil Rights Activism

Activism takes on many forms from protest and demonstration to community organization and investigative journalism. Activists have long played a central role in creating greater visibility, awareness, and agency for the movement to promote a more racially equal society.


  • Dionicio Morales was a Latino civil rights leader and social entrepreneur. Morales was the founder of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation , the largest Hispanic nonprofit in the nation. He spent his life fighting segregation and prejudice in the United States.
  • Joseph Echols Lowery was an American minister in the United Methodist Church and leader in the civil rights movement. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and others, serving as its vice president, later chairman of the board, and from 1977 to 1997 its president.
  • John Beecher was an activist poet, writer, and journalist who wrote about the Southern United States during the Great Depression and the American Civil Rights Movement. Beecher was active in the American labor and civil rights movements.

Social Justice

The social justice movement is not a specific or coordinated movement, but a conceptual approach to politics, economics, criminal justice, and numerous overlapping areas of life that impact opportunities, freedoms, and protections for marginalized groups. Social justice advocates and activists use various platforms-including public service, outreach, journalism, community organization, legal advocacy, and protest-in order to further the causes of equality and to confront institutionalized injustice.


  • Jeffery Shaun King is an American writer, civil rights activist and co-founder of Real Justice PAC. King uses social media to promote social justice causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Talmage Newman Cooley is an American social justice activist and founder of several social justice organizations. He was Founder of The Gun Violence Project and then co-Founder and co-CEO of The Center to Prevent Youth Violence.
  • Joel E. Tabora is a Jesuit priest and the president of Ateneo de Davao University. He demonstrated a commitment to “whole person formation”, ‘social justice’ and spirituality. He described social justice as equal distribution of resources and opportunities.

White Supremacy

White supremacy is the belief in the superiority of the white race. Those who advocate for this viewpoint argue in favor of the preservation of white culture and believe that people of color, Jewish people, and other minority or marginalized groups are a threat to this culture. White supremacists confront this perceived threat through tactics that include print and online platforms, public demonstrations, and advocacy for confrontational tactics which are frequently categorized as hate crimes.


  • Peter Brimelow is a British-born American neo-Nazi, white supremacist and anti-semitic conspiracy theorist. He is the founder of the website VDARE, an anti-immigration site associated with white supremacy, white nationalism, and the alt-right. He believes that “whites built American culture” and that “it is at risk from non-whites who would seek to change it”.
  • Steven Ernest Sailer is an American journalist, movie critic, white nationalist, and columnist. He is a former correspondent for UPI and a columnist for Taki’s Magazine and VDARE, a website associated with white supremacy, white nationalism, and the alt-right.
  • Gregory Withrow is an American far-right White supremacy activist. He was described by the Chicago Sun-Times as being “widely acknowledged as the founder of the [white power] ‘skinhead’ movement in 1978”.

Black Power

The Black Power movement is a political and philosophical movement embracing Black identity, culture, and self-empowerment in the face of institutional oppression. The Black Power movement emphasizes Black Pride and, for some of its practitioners, has also taken the form of Black Nationalism, in which more militant groups like the Black Panthers have advocated for freedom from the ingrained racial inequality of America through Black separatism. More generally though, Black Power refers to the self-determined push for racial equality.


  • Obi Benue Egbuna was a Nigerian-born novelist, playwright, and political activist, most famous for leading the Universal Coloured People’s Association and being a member of the British Black Panther Movement between 1961 and 1973. Egbuna also published several texts on Marxist-Black Power, including Destroy This Temple: The Voice of Black Power in Britain and The ABC of Black Power Thought.
  • Kathleen Neal Cleaver is an American professor of law, known for her involvement with the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party.
  • Brittany Michelle Friedman is an American sociologist focusing on criminology, racial inequality, and incarceration. She is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate in the Program in Criminal Justice at Rutgers University New-Brunswick. Her research intersects at the sociology of law, sociology of race, and criminal justice.

White Power

Like white supremacy, the White Power movement is founded on the belief in the superiority of white culture, and is closely associated with the American neo-Nazi and skinhead movements. In addition to demonstrations and literature advocating for the preservation of white culture against Black and Jewish people, as well as immigrants, the White Power movement has also been connected with a sub-genre of punk music built on hate speech.


  • Christian Marco Picciolini is an American author, public speaker, former neo-Nazi punk rock musician, and founder of the Free Radicals Project, a global network of people who are working to prevent extremism and helping people disengage from hate movements and other violent ideologies.
  • Clark Reid Martell is an American white supremacist and the former leader of Chicago Area SkinHeads , which was founded in 1987 by six skinheads under his leadership. the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States. The group was also called Romantic Violence, and was the first US distributor of Skrewdriver records and tapes.
  • Bill Riccio is a leader in the white power skinhead movement in the United States gained public notoriety for his appearance in the 1992 documentary Skinheads: Soldiers of the Race War. He has been convicted numerous times on illegal weapon possession, the most recent of which was in 1992.

White Nationalist

The increasingly visible white nationalist movement centers around the idea of white supremacy as connected to a national identity. American white nationalists, for instance, argue that America is a fundamentally white nation and that its cultural identity and greatness depend on the defense of white culture from the influence of people of color. The white nationalist movement uses demonstration and online communities to convey its message, and has made inroads into public office in the U.S. and other nations.


  • Stefan Basil Molyneux is a Canadian far-right, white nationalist, white supremacist, banned YouTuber and podcaster, who is best known for his promotion of conspiracy theories, scientific racism, eugenics, and racist views.
  • William Luther Pierce III was an American white supremacist, neo-Nazi, antisemitic author and political commentator. For more than 30 years, he was one of the highest profile individuals of the white nationalist movement. A physicist by profession, he was author of the novels The Turner Diaries and Hunter under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The former has inspired multiple hate crimes and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
  • Greg Johnson is an American white nationalist and advocate for a white ethnostate. He is opposed to immigration and is a self-identified transphobe. He is known for his role as editor-in-chief of the white nationalist imprint Counter-Currents Publishing, which he founded in 2010 with Michael Polignano.

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory is a theoretical framework that examines the connection between race, law and power, and how these factors shape societies and cultures. Proponents of critical race theory argue that white supremacy and racial hierarchies persist through time, and that these forces are bolstered by unequal legal constructs. The goal of those who research, teach, and write about critical race theory is to transform the relationship between law and race, and to advance racial equality.


  • Richard Delgado teaches civil rights and critical race theory at University of Alabama School of Law. He has written and co-authored numerous articles and books, many with his wife Jean Stefancic. He is a founder of the critical race theory school of legal scholarship, and is also notable for his scholarship on hate speech, and for introducing storytelling into legal scholarship.
  • Mari J. Matsuda is an American lawyer, activist, and law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. She was the first tenured female Asian American law professor in the United States, at University of California, Los Angeles School of Law in 1998 and one of the leading voices in critical race theory since its inception.
  • Juana María Rodríguez is a professor of Ethnic Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly writing in queer theory, critical race theory, and performance studies highlights the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and embodiment in constructing subjectivity.
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Influential Organizations Involved in the Civil Rights Controversy

If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...

Civil Rights Advocates

White Supremacists/White Nationalists:

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