The Top: Inspirational African-Americans According to UCR Professors

Scholars name personal inspirations, from authors such as W.E.B. Dubois to sports figures such as Jesse Owens

Photo Courtesy of Streaming Truth | YouTube

Welcome to The Top!

Each issue, we present a list of UCR staff and faculty favorites — from walking spots to gardens to events.

This week, in honor of February being Black History Month, we asked UCR professors to name an African-American leader that has inspired them most.

If you have something you’d like featured in The Top or an activity you’d like to share, email your suggestions!

1. Fred Moten, professor of English

Fred Moten Photo by Kari Orvik

Fred Moten
Photo by Kari Orvik

“One of the groups of African Americans that most inspire me is the League of Black Revolutionary Workers. They were autoworkers from Detroit who, in the 1960s, provided principled, intellectually rich resistance to the oppressive regimes that controlled the U.S. auto industry and the United Auto Workers. The United Auto Workers was a union that was supposed to represent — but seldom did — the interests of auto workers. The League produced brilliant, prescient analysis of the emerging neoliberal order which is now strangling the life out of our planet. They worked for — and with — all the citizens of Detroit, introducing the riches of the black radical tradition to anyone willing to receive them, not only in their city but also all over the world. I am trying as hard as I can to be part of something that someone could justly say follows in their footsteps.”

2. Michael Nduati, associate dean of clinical affairs

Michael Nduati

Michael Nduati

“Aside from the obvious names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Jesse Owens has been an inspirational figure to me. I actually wrote a paper on him when I was young (I think I was in junior high), and it was fascinating to learn more about him. His bravery stands out to me as his main inspirational trait – to win four Olympic gold medals directly in front of Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Germany, is an exceptional feat. He lived in a time of segregation, when many felt blacks were inferior, but managed to succeed in the face of adversity and inspired many blacks to realize that they could be just as good, if not better, than any other group of people.”

Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete and was the first black captain of the Ohio State team. Despite Owens’ athletic successes, he was not awarded a scholarship for his efforts and was not allowed to live on campus, like the white athletes were. In 1935, at the Big Ten track meet, Owens broke three world records and tied one — all with an injured back. In 1936, Owens competed for the U.S. at the Berlin Summer Olympics, winning four Olympic gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler. Hitler left the Olympics in disgust, humiliated that his Aryan-superiority propaganda had failed for the event. Then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never acknowledged Owens for his triumphs at the Olympics. Later, in 1990, then U.S. President George H. W. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Gold Medal.

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin.

3. Emma Simmons, associate dean of student affairs and clinical professor of family medicine

Emma Simmons

Emma Simmons

“The person who I would most like to honor for Black History Month is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer comes from humble beginnings— born in 1917, the youngest of 20 children, to a sharecropper family living on a plantation in Mississippi. She started picking cotton at six-years-old and obtained less than six years of formal education. At the age of 44, she learned, for the first time, that she was indeed able to register to vote.

“Within weeks of obtaining this information, she tried to exercise her right to register to vote, but was unable to do so due to the unfair testing requirements in place — primarily to dissuade blacks from trying to register. When she returned to her plantation later that evening, her boss informed her that if she did not retract her registration, she would have to get off his property immediately. She bravely refused and thus had to look for a new job and place to live.

“She, as well as her house hosts, were then subjected to violence and insults as a consequence of her attempt to register to vote. Mrs. Hamer returned three times before she was allowed to finally pass the test required of her prior to allowing her to register to vote.”

“There was, however, something positive that occurred as a result of this injustice. Because of her leadership, bravery and positive attitude, she became a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) employee and civil rights activist who was able to encourage other disenfranchised African-Americans to exercise their right to vote. As a result of her activism, she was threatened, falsely imprisoned and beaten to the point of disability while in custody for a trumped up charge. Through it all, she remained strong, principled and caring despite the injustices inflicted upon her. She argued for integration within the freedom fighter ranks and was known as ‘mother’ to the young adult activists. (It should be noted that Hamer never had any biological children because her uterus was taken without her consent.)

“Mrs. Hamer co-founded the Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 to protest the absence of black delegates in the Democratic Party and was elected vice chair. Her passion, intelligence and conviction in detailing to the Democratic National Convention Credentials Committee why she would not accept substandard representation in the party pushed her further into the spotlight and catapulted her to national fame.

“Her conviction and grace, despite having so many social, economic, racial and educational disadvantages and barriers, as well as her important contributions to society are a source of constant inspiration for me especially because I, too, come from humble beginnings in Mississippi and from a family of Civil Rights Activists. Although I never met Mrs. Hamer personally, she also touched my professional life. My first practice location after I completed my residency was at the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Center in the Mississippi Delta. Dr. Henry, a frequent presence at the clinic that was named in his honor, was a friend and confidant as well as the other delegate chosen to represent the Freedom Democratic Party along with Fannie Lou Hamer.

“Mrs. Hamer eloquently handled all that life threw at her. Her famous quote ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired’ illustrates how she ‘kept it real’ and remains a call to action for the disenfranchised in our society.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, American civil rights leader, at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

4. Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education

Eddie Comeaux

Eddie Comeaux

“I am inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most towering intellectuals of the 20th century. He was an incredibly brilliant scholar who was known for foregrounding issues of race and racism. The central premise of his work — still relevant and powerful as ever — informs my own educational scholarship today. ‘Black Reconstruction in America’ is a must read!”

William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and was the editor of the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis. As an author, Du Bois wrote many influential pieces. “Black Reconstruction in America” challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. The United Sates’ Civil Rights Act embodied many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned for his entire life.

 W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1918. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1918. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

5. Raj Singh, continuing lecturer of management

Raj Singh

Raj Singh

“An African-American who inspired me was Dr. Vernon Broussard. I was his student at the University of Southern California. He was passionate about teaching and helping students in order to succeed.

“Dr. Broussard grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. I found him to be very warm, nurturing and sensitive to needs of his students. I always looked forward to his class lectures each week. We connected to each other right after the first class meeting. I spent countless hours in his office and I found him to be very generous with his time and treated me like his own son.

“I shared with him my experience of growing up in India as a first-generation college graduate, and he shared with me his similar experience. We had similar challenges to pursue college education. To date, I am inspired by Dr. Broussard’s example of passion for teaching and helping our UCR students to succeed.”

6.Ray A. Kea, professor emeritus of history

Ray A. Kea

Ray A. Kea

Ray Kea, professor emeritus of history, could not choose just one African-American that he is inspired by. So he gave us an entire list! Here is his answer separated into time periods.

“Here is my list of African Americans who have influenced me over the course of my life up to my graduate school days. I have excluded family members and members of the church I attended growing up who influenced my personal and intellectual development in one way or another. I should add that the list is not definitive.

Pre-high school: Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Paul L. Dunbar, Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Shirley Graham, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Jack Johnson.

High school and post-high school: Paul Robson, W.E.B. DuBois, J.A. Rogers, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Alphaeus Hunton.

I should add William Leo Hansberry of Howard University who introduced me to African history as a field of research and study.

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