In 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great conquered the city of Babylon. But rather than rape and pillage, Cyrus freed the slaves, declared freedom of religion and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded in cuneiform on a baked-clay cylinder now known as the Cyrus Cylinder. It is generally considered the world’s first charter of human rights.
In the millennia following, there have been many who wanted to oppress, and a few like Cyrus the Great, who strove against tyranny in the name of human rights. It’s hard to say who’s winning. A look at any recent Amnesty International report reveals grim statistics, yet history is replete with the stories of great people who have changed the world by championing human and civil rights. Although they may not don capes, the following public figures are just a few of history's superheroes, those who have devoted themselves to the fight for justice.
1. Chief Joseph (1840–1904):
Son of a Nez Perce chief during the United State’s westward expansion, Joseph was born at a time of many disputes over land treaties, which led to years of injustice and attacks from the American military. In 1871, Joseph became chief and worked hard to keep his tribe from retaliating against violence inflicted upon them. At one point, Chief Joseph negotiated a deal with the federal government that would allow his tribe to remain on their land; as was all too often the case in such situations, the government reversed the agreement three years later and threatened to attack if the tribe did not relocate to a reservation.
In 1879, Chief Joseph met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead on behalf of his tribe. For a quarter of a century, he was a great leader to his tribe and an eloquent public advocate, lashing out against the injustices and unconstitutional policies of the United States towards his people. He traveled around the country championing on behalf of Native Americans, peacefully fighting for equality and justice until the end of his life.
2. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948)
In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared the day of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth, Oct. 2, as the International Day of Non-Violence, and it’s no wonder. Developing and spreading the art of non-violent civil disobedience and applying it to a large scale, Gandhi — who was commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi — brilliantly brought independence to India and became an inspiration for movements of nonviolence, civil rights and freedom across the world. (Want to know more? 5 things you don't know about Gandhi)
3. Oskar Schindler (1908–1974)
An ethnic German and Catholic, Oskar Schindler was a ruthless industrialist and a member of the Nazi party. Yet despite the foreboding bio, Schindler risked it all to rescue more than 1,000 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz during World War II.
Why did he help? In a 1964 interview he said, “The persecution of Jews in the General Government in Polish territory gradually worsened in its cruelty. In 1939 and 1940, they were forced to wear the Star of David and were herded together and confined in ghettos. In 1941 and 1942, this unadulterated sadism was fully revealed. And then a thinking man, who had overcome his inner cowardice, simply had to help. There was no other choice.”
Schindler died in Germany, broke and virtually unknown, in 1974. Many of the people he helped and their descendents financed the transfer of his body for burial in Israel, his final wish. In 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council posthumously presented the Museum's Medal of Remembrance to Schindler.
4. Rosa Parks (1913–2005)
Rosa Louise Parks is considered the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement in America. She is famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a while man in Alabama in 1955, leading to her arrest. Protests in the form of sit-ins and eat-ins began in Montgomery and soon spread across the state, the South and the country. As her official biography states, "Her quiet courageous act changed America, its view of black people and redirected the course of history."
She was an activist even prior to the bus incident. In the 1930s, she fought to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. Parks and her husband, Raymond Parks, also worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She later moved to Detroit, Michigan, and became a deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Parks has received more than 43 honorary doctorate degrees, and in 1996, President William Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
5. Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)
The South African anti-apartheid revolutionary inspired an international campaign for his release from prison where he was serving a life sentence on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. After 27 years in prison, he was released in 1990; three years later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk for their work to undo South Africa’s racist apartheid policies. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president, a position he held until 1999. Among other accolades, he has variously been called "the father of the nation,” "the founding father of democracy,” and "the national liberator, the savior, its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one.”
6. Jimmy Carter (1924–)
As the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter left office in 1980 with a low 34 percent approval rating. In the decades since, he’s more than made up for it. In 1982, he and wife Rosalynn established The Carter Center in Atlanta, which is guided by “a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering; it seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health,” according to the mission statement.
The nonprofit center has a remarkable list of accomplishments under it belt including: the observation of 94 elections in 37 countries to encourage democracy; peace work in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, the Korean Peninsula, Haiti, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Middle East; great advocacy for people with mental illnesses; and strengthening international standards for human rights and the voices of individuals defending those rights in their communities worldwide, among other important work.
In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work "to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development" through The Carter Center.
7. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968)
American clergyman, activist, and leader in the African-American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. King led the first African-American nonviolent demonstration with the bus boycott, which began in 1955 and led to the end of segregation on buses. In the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled more than 6 million miles and spoke more than 2,500 times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest and action — all the while authoring five books and numerous essays. At the age of 35, King was the youngest man to have ever received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated four years later in 1968.
8. 14th Dalai Lama (1935–)
Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. He has consistently advocated policies of nonviolence, even in the face of extreme aggression. He also became the first Nobel laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems.
And the man is busy in his pursuit of peace. He has received more than 150 awards, honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition of his message of peace, nonviolence, inter-religious understanding, universal responsibility and compassion. He has also authored or co-authored more than 110 books; not to mention having more than 7 million followers on Twitter. For your daily dose of the Dalai, see @DalaiLama.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in June 2013.
All photos: Wikimedia Commons