The study of History most often focuses on the rise and fall of demagogues and dictators. But you can be sure that behind each one there are stories – some little known, others perhaps never told – of the brave individuals who made it their life's work to stop them. Even at their own peril.
This is one such story.
In the early 1930s in Germany, there arose to national prominence a man with very peculiar views. His name was Adolf Hitler and he blamed Germany’s post-WWI humiliation and economic failure on the Jews and the communists.
The country's economic distress was more realistically due to the harsh punishment Germany received for being on the losing side of “the war to end all wars” – a nickname for WWI. But paybacks imposed by the victors were so excessive they bankrupted the country and plunged its people into abject, crushing poverty. This created a witch’s brew of bitterness and pain: the perfect environment for a demagogue – a leader who seeks support through prejudice rather than rational argument – to exploit.
In public museums as well as private art galleries all over Australia, you will find the highly prized works of William Barak. With good reason: they are beautiful. They also tell the story of the culture of Australia's indigenous Kulin people – before, during, and after the arrival of white European colonizers. It's a story Barak knew well because he lived it.
Beruk Barak was born near what is now Melbourne, Australia, in 1823, roughly 40 years after the British sailed into Melbourne Harbor. It wasn't long before the white settlers started pushing the native aboriginal people around, scamming them out of their land.
Barak's Wurundjeri clan was one of five tribes to form an alliance called the Kulin Nation. The Kulins referred to the land that had fed their people for millennia – 60,000 to 100,000 years – as the "Yarra." To them, the Yarra was sacred. At the time of Barak's birth, it was deeply under threat. So too, therefore, was Kulin culture.
From a childhood of backbreaking work in the cornfields to Cinco de Mayo, this indigenous peasant grew up to become a symbol of freedom and national pride for the Mexican people.
Benito Juárez was born to the Zapotec Indian tribe in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1806. His parents were poor peasants who’d died by the time he was three. At 12, Benito worked in the cornfields to feed himself. But when he wasn't working, he walked, every day, to the city of Oaxaca to attend school. He learned to read, write, and speak in Spanish. In his 20s, the brilliant young mind turned its attention to the study of law.
Like elsewhere in the world, Mexico was then undergoing tremendous change. For centuries, politics had been dominated by European-descended landowners and the Catholic Church. This "conservative" faction owned nearly all the country's land and wealth. They now feared the grassroots power of the peasant classes. To maintain the status quo, they supported a repressive dictatorship, ruled by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had no qualms about using violence to oppress the peasant and indigenous peoples.
Written in obscurity from a prison cell, this hero's ideas about power and the roots of social inequality would change the world.
In 1925 the Prime Minister of Italy, who ruled constitutionally from 1922, dropped all pretense of democracy and established a dictatorship. His name was Benito Mussolini. And if he didn't like the way you thought or what you believed, he had his goons eliminate you or throw you in prison on the remote island of Ustica.
This is where our story of Antonio Gramsci begins. Mussolini had him arrested in 1926, not for his actions but his words and ideas. Gramsci's vocal point of view was simply too dangerous to allow him to walk free. He was a threat to Mussolini's power.
Like Jesse Owens, Man 'o War was fast. He loved to run and he loved to win. Unlike Jesse Owens – or Louise Stokes or Usain Bolt – Man o’ War was a horse, but one more human in will and determination. And no animal in the history of sports – before or since – has been compared to the greatest human athletes as often as he has.
Man o’ War’s original breeder, August Belmont (yes, of The Belmont Stakes fame), had high hopes for the fiery chestnut colt that kicked and fought with his handlers from his birth in 1917. But global events conspired against their partnership. At age 65, August volunteered to serve the US Army in WWI.
August’s wife named Man o' War in honor of her husband and the armed effort overseas. But wartime brought money trouble. The Belmont’s sold their entire 1918 yearling crop to make ends meet. Man o’ War went to the highest bidder: Samuel Riddle walked away with the offspring of champions for only $5,000. It was the greatest deal in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.
She rose, unexpectedly, to be queen of a doomed people. But in her veins flowed the blood of heroes. And she knew it.
Rani Durgavati was born in 1524 in what is now central India. Her father, Keerat Raj, was then a king of the ancient and powerful Chandel Dynasty, which 500 years earlier had brought advanced art and architecture to its region.
To cement his position of power, Keerat Raj arranged for Rani to marry the eldest son of the King of a nearby kingdom called Gond. Upon the marriage of Rani to Dalpat Shah in 1542, the Chandel and Gond were united into the single kingdom of Gondwana. As was the custom in ancient dynasties, theirs was as much political alliance as marriage.
Rani soon gave birth to a son named Vir. The dynastic lineage Raj imaged was thus secured. However, Dalpat Shah sickened and died in 1550. Indian queens were rarely called on to rule, but because Vir was just a child, Rani had no choice but to take up the reigns of power. She was just 26. She soon made a name for herself as a fair and just leader of her people.
Alexis de Tocqueville was the outsider who explained what made an adolescent United States tick. His book, Democracy in America, was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Two centuries later, de Tocqueville's observations ring truer than ever.
In the late 18th century, France and the United States had one thing in common: Revolution. Both nations fought – with each other’s help – to overcome despotic, feudal rule. Both revolutions sought to create societies marked by liberty, equality, and fairness under the law. Both societies communicated these ideals in similar defining documents, both made public in 1789: The Bill of Rights and the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen). Both documents led to the creation of constitutions, which defined processes for governance by rotating elected representation rather than by an absolute monarch who ruled for life.
But as 1789 drew to a close, while the US was busy electing its first president, the French Revolution had been hijacked by extremist factions on both the radical left and ultra-conservative right, plunging its short-lived experiment in republicanism into chaos. The chaos was called The Reign of Terror. Frenchman fought Frenchman, their weapons: imprisonment, sham trials, and the guillotine. Basically, if you didn’t agree with those in power, they took your head.
You've heard the story of how Rosa Parks, sparked the US Civil Rights movement in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man? Well, get ready to meet Canada's Rosa Parks, who stood up to the injustices of racial segregation 10 years before...
In June 1945, Canada joined 49 other national governments to sign the Charter of the United Nations (UN). Established after World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the UN was established with the aim of preventing another such conflict by promoting international cooperation and order.
The UN Charter is the foundational document of the now famous intergovernmental institution. It responded to the genocide fueled by Hitler’s racist ideology of Aryan supremacy by articulating a commitment among member nations to uphold human rights “for all,” irrespective of race, gender, language, or religion.
Yet in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, hundreds of thousands of black citizens lived in slums and suffered intense discrimination within a legally sanctioned system of segregation not unlike that which was alive and well in the deep south of it's southern neighbor: the United “Jim Crow” States.
Today, we shine a light on ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of terror brought on by gun violence, while simultaneously tipping our hat to the youth now on the front lines of the #NeverAgain movement.
Enough is indeed enough. We applaud you. We stand by you. And to put the struggle for sensible gun control measures in greater context, we offer you the story of the first school shooting in US history...
...52 years ago.
Far too long for this deathly epidemic not to have been eradicated.
Hers was a long-tail plan: Chip away at the manifestations of social inequality one case at a time, plant “seeds” of social progress with powerful words, and provide ground-up support to the movements effecting positive change, all as a means toward constructing an unshakeable legal foundation for women’s rights and gender equality.
Celia Bader (née Amster) was brilliant. So smart, she graduated from high school at 15. But it was the early 1900s and her parents, unable to afford to further educate all their children, supported her brother’s future instead. Celia went to work to help put her brother through college. But she never forgot her love of learning or her dream of having a career. When it was her turn to be a mother, she took an active role in the education of her daughter, Joan Ruth, instilling in the girl a love of reading, and setting her on the path to becoming a teacher.
A feminist poet and revolutionary, Qui Jin refused to compromise her dreams for liberation, becoming a symbol of – and hero to – modern China.
Qui Jin was born into a China on the brink of collapse. In 1875, the country had suffered two back-to-back conflicts on its own soil. Collectively referred to as the Opium Wars, they had rapidly undermined the ruling Qing Dynasty, which had been in power since 1644. Opium is a highly addictive substance -- one try and you're hooked -- which made dealers rich. But the traders were mostly British and French, and their importation of opium from India into China was largely illegal.
She risked her life to escape from slavery. Once free, she risked her life again... and again... to help others gain their freedom as well.
No one knows exactly when Araminta “Minty” Ross was born. Few bothered to record the origins of the enslaved. We know only that her mother was named Rit, a cook on the Brodess family plantation in Maryland. Rit had nine children. Three of her daughters were sold into the Deep South by her master and never heard from again. When her master attempted to sell her youngest son Moses, Rit hid him in her cabin and promised to split the head of the first man who entered to take him. That time, the sale was called off.
As a child, Harriet did chores for local white families. She was beaten frequently for working too slowly. On one occasion, a white man she offended struck the five-foot slip of a girl in the head with a two-pound weight, fracturing her skull. After that, she suffered seizures, likely from epilepsy, the remainder of her life.
In her 20s, Minty could no longer bear life. She proclaimed that she feared life in captivity more than death. She decided to run away to the North, where slavery had been abolished. Unable to openly tell her mother goodbye, she bid adieu with a song: "I'll meet you in the morning … I'm bound for the promised land." That's also when she changed her first name to Harriet, her mother's full name, and adopted the last name Tubman.
Born from the ruins of a 5,000-year-old dynasty, this young woman outsmarted the most powerful men of her age to become the most famous queen in history!
Egypt was in chaos. The corrupt Pharaoh, Ptolemy XII, known for his love of wine and music, was hated by his people. They protested increasingly high taxation, which Ptolemy XII exacted to pay tribute -- a sign of respect, submission, and/or allegiance -- to then Roman Emperor Pompey. The cost of living was high enough! So they overthrew Ptolemy in 58 B.C.E., forcing him into exile. He fled to Rome, taking his teenage daughter, Cleopatra, with him.
Though robbed of speech, along with her hearing and sight, Helen Keller learned how to make herself heard more clearly than most of us, all thanks to Anne Sullivan.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. A perfectly healthy and thoroughly precocious child, she is said to have started speaking at 6 months old and was already walking by 1. But when she was just 19 months old, Helen was stricken by an illness -- called "brain fever" by the family doctor, it was likely Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. Whatever it was, it ravaged poor Helen. She survived, but she was left permanently deaf and blind.
At the time, disabled Americans like Helen were labeled "deaf and dumb" and more often than not committed to asylums for life where they were treated like caged animals. Helen's parents, however, though not particularly wealthy, were proud. They refused to give up on their daughter. They knew in their hearts that she was intelligent. It was just a matter of unlocking it.
Henrietta Lacks saved millions of lives. For more than 60 years, she has been credited for helping cure polio as well as developing treatments for cancer.
The only thing is... she never knew about her contribution to medical science!
Loretta Pleasant (she later changed her name to Henrietta) was an African-American woman born in the US state of Virginia in 1920. When she was four-years-old, her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Unable to care for his large family, Henrietta's father sent his children to live among various relatives. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, who raised her in a log cabin that sixty years before had been the slave quarters of a Southern plantation.
Like most members of her family, Henrietta went to work rather than to school. She helped to farm acres of Virginia tobacco fields. Life was hard....
Being an oppressed, second-class citizen doesn't mean you don't have anything to say ,and that what you do have to say won't resonate with people all over the world. It might even spur them to action and change lives for the better.
Introducing... Mariama Bâ.
Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar in 1929, the capital of what is now Senegal, then French West Africa. Mariama's mother died shortly after she was born. That's when her father, a very busy high-profile civil servant for the French government, sent Mariama to live with her maternal grandparents.
As conservative Muslims, Mariama's grandparents did not believe that girls should be educated. However, though largely absent through her childhood, Mariama's father insisted that his daughter learn to read and write. He made it possible for her to attend a private French-language school.
He grew up in a society that deliberately separated blacks and whites while claiming they were equal. In reality, he and other African-Americans had few rights and even fewer opportunities. Despite this, our hero reached for the stars and achieved them… four times in a row! In so doing, he found acceptance -- albeit briefly -- in an unlikely place, offering hope that equality might one day become reality even in the United States.
The grandson of slaves, Jesse Owens and his parents joined the "great northward migration" of Southern blacks, fleeing the increasing threat of lynching by Southern whites. They landed in Ohio in 1922. Jesse was not quite 10 years old.
In secondary school, Jesse’s passion for running and jumping earned him a scholarship to Ohio State University. He won award after award for the Buckeyes, earning him the nickname: "Buckeye Bullet." Yet because of the color of his skin, when he traveled with the team, he could not enter restaurants or stay in the same hotel as his white mates. It didn't matter that he was their star performer. In Jim Crow America, “separate but equal" held sway, even in the North.
On May 25, 1935, Jesse set three world records for running and the long jump in a single day. This made him a shoe-in to represent the US at the 1936 Olympic Games. But there was a catch: the Games were being hosted in Berlin that year, no the capital of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.
Even before Winston Churchill coined the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain, this unsung hero of medicine established blood ties between the two countries.
Charles Drew was born in Washington D.C. in 1904. An African American, Charles was raised in a segregated city where black people had few opportunities for economic advancement. Yet Charles had one advantage: he was gifted at sports. By winning medals as a swimmer, Charles gained entrance into Dunbar High School, the only black school in the District of Columbia that paid its teachers as well as their white counterparts.
His athletic skill went on to earn him a scholarship to New England's prestigious Amherst College, where Charles was indeed a star – of both the track and American football teams. But sports was not Charles' only talent. He also dreamed of becoming a medical doctor.
Imagine this: You're one of the best athletes in the world. You train and you train and you qualify to represent your nation in the Olympic Games. You raise the money to afford the travel costs just to get there -- the next step in the long journey toward the gold. But when you arrive, you find you've been replaced by an athlete who didn't qualify because her skin color is less offensive to the fans than yours.
Now, imagine that happening to you twice.
This is a true story. It's the story of Louise Stokes.
Even as a child, Louise was fast. By the time she was 15, in 1928, she dominated the track team at her high school in Malden, Massachusetts. She was unbeatable. An all-rounder, she was also star center of the school basketball team. And she still made time to sing with her church choir.
Though Louise was black, her high school leadership team saw past the color of her skin, for she was a tremendously talented athlete: a true natural. By the time she graduated, Louise had set the New England record for the 100-meter dash. She'd also tied the world's highest standing broad jump when she leapt 8 feet, 5 inches (more than 2 1/2 meters) into the air. When the International Olympic Committee announced not long after that they would include women's track and field events at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, hope ignited in the heart of Louise Stokes.
He overcame enslavement and abject poverty and went on to help lift others up through the power of education. What was his recipe? Hard work, discipline, patience, and a long tail view.
Both beloved and controversial, Booker T. Washington was undeniably one of the greatest Americans of his generation. He had a vision for the future that he knew was unachievable in his own lifetime. But he did not let that stop him from constructing a foundation for a more equitable and just nation, one brick -- or educated African-American -- at a time.
Booker T. began life on a Virginia plantation in 1856. His youth coincided with the final years of institutionalized slavery in the United States; the succession of the southern "slave states" from the nation as northern states moved to abolish the practice; and the eruption of a brutal Civil War as a result of this moral and ideological division.
It was a critical time in history of the United States. Would the country finally make good on the promise set forth by its own constitution over 100 years before: to treat all "men" as equals? Or would it continue to traffic and trade people of color?