The people of Chicago played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, with the Chicago Freedom Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) often cited as a key force leading to the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
While countless figures made their mark on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, some activists continued their work into older age. These people demonstrate that you can make a difference in the world at any age. Read about these three civil rights activists with connections to Chicago who continued to make an impact in older age.
Diane Nash was born in Chicago in 1938, and became a leader of the student wing of the civil rights movement.
Nash participated in a variety of civil rights campaigns as a student activist. She helped integrate lunch counters in Nashville and was part of the Freedom Riders group, which worked to desegregate interstate travel. She co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized voting drives across the U.S. Additionally, Nash co-initiated the Alabama Voting Rights Project and worked on the Selma Voting Rights Movement. Her efforts contributed to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Though she did not initially receive as much recognition for her efforts during the civil rights movement as her male peers, Nash was recognized more widely later in life. She was awarded the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library in 2003 at age 65, the LBJ Award for Leadership in civil rights in 2004 at age 66 and Freedom Award from National Civil Rights Museum in 2008 at age 70.
Nash’s activism continued later in life. She moved back to Chicago and has continued to support fair housing and anti-war causes, speaking out against policies she opposes.
Born in Texas in 1920, James Farmer was known as one of the “Big Four” civil rights leaders of the 1960s. Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality in Chicago in 1942, later called the Congress of Racial Equality. The organization was dedicated to ending racial segregation in the U.S. through nonviolence. Additionally, Farmer helped organize the Freedom Ride in 1961 to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals.
Farmer continued his activism efforts throughout his life, and published his autobiography, “Lay Bare the Heart,” in 1985 at age 65. He taught at University of Mary Washington from the time he was 64 until his retirement at age 78. In 1987, the James Farmer Scholars program at Mary Washington was named after him to prepare local African-American students for college.
Like Nash, Farmer received national recognition for his work during the civil rights movement later in life. In 1998, former president Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Farmer passed away in 1999 at age 79.
Civil rights activist and politician Jesse Jackson was born in South Carolina in 1941. Jackson made his move to Chicago to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary for gradua te school, but dropped out to focus on the civil rights movement full time. He was eventually ordained in 1968.
Jackson began working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave him a role in the SCLC. Jackson then helped establish a frontline office for SCLC in Chicago. He also led SCLC’s Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, a job placement agency for African-Americans. Check out Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago, 1966-1971 by Chicago Methodist Senior Services’ board member Martin Deppe to learn more about the program’s history.
Jackson founded People United to Save Humanity in 1971 and the Rainbow Coalition in 1984, which later merged in 1996 as the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. The organizations originally focused on urging businesses to hire more African-Americans and now aims to level economic and educational playing fields and to promote peace and justice around the world.
Jackson’s political career took off in the 1980s, where he advocated for civil rights. In 1983, he was the second African American to ever officially run for president, running again in 1988. He served as “shadow senator” for Washington D.C. from 1991 to 1997, advocating for D.C. statehood and full representation.
Jackson remained politically active as an older adult. In 2007, at age 66, he was arrested for protesting a gun store for selling guns to gangs in Riverdale, Illinois. He attended Barack Obama’s victory rally in 2008 and supported Obama’s 2012 announcement of his advocacy for gay marriage rights.
These figures demonstrate that age has no limit on what you can accomplish in life — and that struggles for equality aren’t over. Let them inspire you. There is no time like the present to take a stance on an issue important to you, whether you are in your 20s or your 90s. What will you do with your time?