4 Black North Carolina icons who deserve their own movie

Civil rights visionary Ella Baker, who grew up in eastern North Carolina, at a 1968 news conference. (AP Photo/Jack Harris)

By Billy Ball

February 29, 2024

Until some A-list actor is standing at the Oscars talking about these four extraordinary Black North Carolinians, we’re still coming up short.

Biopics are boring, and that’s usually because we know how they’ll turn out. But what if Hollywood made a real concerted effort to make films about people who’ve never gotten their due?

There’s a list a mile long of Black North Carolinians who haven’t been celebrated enough. I’m going to pick a few here who lived extraordinary lives and deserve to have their story told in every theater in America.

This list isn’t comprehensive. But it’s a start. Let’s jump in.

Abraham Galloway

How is this person not a household name already?

Abraham Galloway—born an enslaved person in Brunswick County— was a spy, freedom fighter, politician, and abolitionist. That he did it all in just 33 years of life is staggering.

During the Civil War, Galloway spied on Confederates for the Union. He took the case for abolition directly to President Abraham Lincoln and later served in the state legislature.

The historian David Cecelski has written a definitive book on Galloway. Check out a video on Galloway below from the NC Museum of History.

Pauli Murray

We’ve written about this remarkable writer, priest, attorney, LGBTQ advocate, and freedom fighter from Durham before. But chances are that Murray is still an unknown person to the national audience she deserves.

She is, in so many ways, a 2024 hero who endured the 20th century.

There is so much to acknowledge about Murray’s life. Her legal writings laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education and the dismantling of desegregation.

Later, she imagined, and spoke for, a version of Christianity that embraced people regardless of their gender, sexuality, or identity.

In 2021, Amazon released a documentary on Murray but until some A-list actor is standing at the Oscars and thanking people for believing in a story about Pauli Murray, the culture’s still coming up short.

Ella Baker

In Baker’s biography, the writer Barbara Ransby called Baker “one of the most important American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.”

Baker grew up in Littleton, NC, a Halifax County community in NC’s rural “Black belt.” Descendants of enslaved North Carolinians still live there. Baker grew up hearing her grandmother’s stories of slavery, and she lived the everyday injustices of the Jim Crow South in the early 20th century.

Which is why she became one of the fiercest advocates of the Civil Rights Movement, even if she tended to take a back seat to the men she worked with—giants like Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. DuBois.

Black women like Baker were often the overlooked organizers of the movement. Baker did a lot of the legwork, recruiting for the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—the principal player behind the sit-in movement in the South.

“You didn’t see me on television,” Baker once said. “You didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Thelonious Monk

The first time I heard Thelonious Monk, playing his 1965 rendition of “I Should Care,” I thought he was either the worst piano player I’d ever heard or the best.

It’s the latter.

This prodigious pianist started playing as a child, eventually becoming the house player at a Manhattan jazz club. The playing can sound awkward, ungainly, and very often beautiful. It’s been said that he played the notes between the keys. The pauses between the notes contained worlds.

He is not as revered as Duke Ellington, or as commercially successful as Dave Brubeck. Monk’s music was, perhaps, a little too odd for that. But in his day, jazz critics talked about him as a giant. In recent years, his Nash County home recognized him with a new mural.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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