In late May 2020, George Floyd spoke his last words. I can’t breathe. These words and his gruesome killing were the catalyst for a revolution that echoed, not only across the United States, but around the world.
His death, the insidious fruit of our nation’s systematic racism, led to public outcry for change, which is reshaping the course of our country. Many people are finally speaking out against racial injustice.
Summer 2020 has reminded us that silence is not neutrality. Instead, it serves only to encourage evil and wrongdoing. Years of social psychology research backs this up. Racism, like sexism and other forms of bigotry and violence, is a system. When we do nothing to interrupt it, it will simply continue. As Holocaust survivor and human rights champion Elie Wiesel once said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Elie Wiesel once said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I am inspired by the bravery of men and women throughout history who have stood up and protested against injustice, even at their own personal risk. They have taught us that the march for justice is often a marathon—not a sprint—and that for real change to occur, we need to keep going. In that spirit, here are four inspiring change makers who show the power of refusing to stay silent in the face of injustice. Hopefully, their stories will fuel us to continue speaking truth to power, no matter what we face.
A Swedish diplomat and businessman, Raoul Wallenberg led a diplomatic mission during World War II to rescue Hungarian Jews by issuing Swedish passports and renting buildings to serve as safe houses. He did this courageously and relentlessly, even in the face of threats and extreme pressure from both the Hungarian and German governments, in total saving tens of thousands of lives. He was rounded up by Soviet forces in 1945 and was killed for his courage.
Today, he remains one of just seven people to be named honorary citizens of the United States and is honored as one of the most brave men in history. In the preface of the Smoltsov Report, Swedish Secretary of State Hans Dahlgren wrote of Raoul Wallenberg with high esteem.
“He did not ask what needed to be done. He did not need a decision-making process in the face of evil. His unerring moral compass indicated the path that he should take… Raoul Wallenberg thus set an example. He knew that we need not always be prepared to do what is right. He showed that we are all able to meet a challenge.”
Tank Man, also known as the Unknown Protester or Unknown Rebel, is one of history’s most famous heroes. He remains nameless 30 years later. In 1989, the Chinese government launched a brutal crackdown on students, workers and citizens peacefully protesting for their freedoms in Tiananmen Square.
No display of courage was as enduring as that of “Tank Man,” a lone man in the street, meeting rows of tanks and soldiers with calm, courage and quiet. His bravery exposed the cruelty of the regime for the world to see. Because of him, Tiananmen remain seared in the world’s memory as an iconic and enduring struggle for freedom, inspiring millions around the world today.
Congressman John Lewis
Fifty-five years ago, a young John Lewis packed two books, an apple, a toothbrush and toothpaste in his backpack in preparation for a long night in jail. He set off on a march to change the course of history. Together, with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, he joined the march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African Americans.
Peaceful demonstrators were met with brutal attacks by oncoming state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Lewis was repeatedly struck with a billy club on his head, and his skull was fractured. The day would later be called Bloody Sunday.
Yousafzai is best known for defying the Taliban in Pakistan and demanding equal access to education for girls. At age 11, as one of the few girls to go school in the Taliban-run Swat Valley, she wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC speaking out about the importance of girls’ education.
On Oct. 9, 2012, a gunman shot Yousafzai as she was returning home from school. Her harrowing near-death experience shone a powerful light on the brutality of the Taliban regime, leading to widespread international condemnation that has ramped up pressure for change.
Today, Yousafzai has become a global activist for the right to education. In 2014, she became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She also co-founded the Malala Fund, a non-profit organization that offers education and training for girls ages 14 to 18.
What present day or historical leaders inspire you to use your voice for positive change? Do you have any fears attached to speaking up against injustice? What are they?
Image via Michael Avedon