Celebs Who've Played Civil Rights Icons

These actors stepped into historical shoes.

Jackie Robinson as himself

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Jackie Robinson as himself - Three years after joining the Brooklyn Dodgers — breaking Major League Baseball’s long-standing color barrier — Jackie Robinson found himself playing, well, himself in the biographical film The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950. After retiring in ‘57, the baseball Hall of Famer served on the board of the NAACP and co-founded the Freedom National Bank — a Black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem. (Photo: Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures, Inc)

Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz \r

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Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz \r - A year before her Oscar nod for playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Angela Bassett starred in 1992’s Malcolm X as Betty Shabazz, wife of the slain Black nationalist leader. Three years later, she reprised her role — albeit a cameo — as Mrs. Shabazz for the film Panther, about the Black Panther Party.\r\r\r\r(Photo: Courtesy of Largo International)

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X - Playing the role of slain Black nationalist leader Malcolm X wasn’t a stretch for Denzel Washington, having played him on stage in the play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. In Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Washington earned an Oscar nomination.\r(Photo: Courtesy of Largo International)

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X - Playing the role of slain Black nationalist leader Malcolm X wasn’t a stretch for Denzel Washington, having played him on stage in the play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. In Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Washington earned an Oscar nomination.\r(Photo: Courtesy of Largo International)

Cicely Tyson as Coretta Scott King

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Cicely Tyson as Coretta Scott King - In the ‘70s, if any actress was going to play Coretta Scott King, it was going to be Cicely Tyson. In King, the Oscar-nominated actress played the wife of the civil rights icon. The pairing of Tyson and Paul Winfield played off the cinematic magic the two created playing husband and wife in the 1972 film Sounder (for which Tyson garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination).(Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Paul Winfield as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

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Paul Winfield as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  - For the 1978 TV mini-series King, actor extraordinaire Paul Winfield not only plays the monumental civil rights leader, he gives him the edge Black folks so wanted to see. In one marching scene, when hit with a rock thrown by a white supremacist, Winfield’s King tries to aggressively confront the man.(Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

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Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker

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Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker - Josephine Baker circumvented the racist restrictions of America by becoming an iconic entertainer in France during the 1920s and ‘30s. Actress Lynn Whitfield portrayed the dancer/singer/actress in the TV movie The Josephine Baker Story in 1991.(Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela 

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Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela  - In the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus,  Morgan Freeman plays anti-apartheid icon and South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela served 27 years in a South African prison for fighting against the country’s racist, separate-but-unequal system of apartheid.(Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers)

Courtney B. Vance as Bobby Seale \r

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Courtney B. Vance as Bobby Seale \r - Vance (Angela Bassett’s hubby) takes on the role of Bobby Seale, co-founder and chairman of the Black Panther Party, in Panther.\r(Photo: Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures)

Daniel Sunjata as Langston Hughes

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Daniel Sunjata as Langston Hughes - Legendary Harlem Renaissance poet and activist Langston Hughes is portrayed by Daniel Sunjata in the 2004 drama Brother to Brother.(Photo: Miasma Films Production)

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

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Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo - The actress was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for playing the famous Mexican painter and activist, Frida Kahlo, in 2002’s Frida. (Photo: REUTERS/HO/Landov)

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Ali - Will Smith got into the best shape of his life to play the champion, Muhammad Ali in the biopic Ali. Besides studying tons of Ali's film, Will took on the role and played the champ to a T which included him getting his ears pinned back during filming to look more like the man himself.  (Photo: Peter Brandt/Getty Images)

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 Will Smith as Muhammad Ali - For his portrayal of boxing champ and activist Muhammad Ali in 2001’s Ali, Will Smith became the first rap artist to receive a nomination for a Best Actor Oscar.(Photo: Peter Brandt/Getty Images)

 Angela Bassett as Rosa Parks \r

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 Angela Bassett as Rosa Parks \r - Continuing her streak of playing strong Black women, Angela Bassett stepped into the shoes of Rosa Parks — who helped set off the civil rights movement — in the 2002 TV film The Rosa Parks Story.\r(Photo: CBS/Landov)