The road to equality is not easy for anyone. But throughout history, people have paid the price of their personal freedom in the names of justice and equality. Here are eight of those people, each of whom broke the law to change the world for the better.
In 1942, Mandela joined the African National Congress and fought against apartheid in South Africa. He was arrested on multiple occasions for his anti-apartheid activism. He was given a life sentence in 1962, of which he served 27 years before release. His activism continued while in prison, leading to the abolition of aparthaid and his eventual presidency in 1994.
Without Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the abolition of apartheid in the face of oppression and imprisonment, the world could be a very different place. He represents equality, fairness, democracy, and freedom in an often unequal, unfair, and undemocratic world.
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental, political, and gender equality activist. She’s well known for founding the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which prioritized environmental conservation and women’s rights. Her work earned her many accolades, including serving as a member of the Kenyan Parliament and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Wangari was arrested for the first time in 1992 for being part of a pro-democracy activist group. After her and other activists received threats of arrest and assassination, she barricaded herself in her home. Police broke in to arrest her, then released her two days later.
“You worry that you, your family, or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassinations or targeted “accidents,” is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s,” said Wangari of the incident.
She was arrested twice again in 2001: once for collecting petition signatures to protect public forests, and again for planting trees in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. She was released both times without being charged.
Liu Xiaobo was a Chinese writer, professor, and human rights activist who called for political reforms and the end of communist single-party rule.
Liu was detained in 2008 because of his work with the Charter 08 manifesto. The manifesto called for an independent legal system, freedom of association, and the end of one-party rule in China. He was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” He was sentenced to 11 years in jail and deprivation of political rights for two years. He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2017 and granted medical parole, and later passed away in July 2017.
During his fourth prison term, he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He was the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize while residing in China and the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention, after Germany’s Carl von Ossietzky (1935) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).
India’s great independence leader first went to prison in 1922 for civil disobedience and sedition after a protest march turned violent, resulting in the deaths of 22 people. The incident deeply affected Gandhi, who called it a “divine warning.”
He was released from prison after serving five years of his six year sentence, and went on to become the most famous advocate of peaceful protest and campaigning in the world.
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km Dandi Salt March in 1930, for which he was imprisoned for a year without trial. He later led the Quit India Movement, calling for Britain’s withdrawal. An advocate until the end, Gandhi sadly paid for his beliefs with his life when he was assassinated by a militant nationalist in 1948.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the face of the US civil rights movement in the 1950s, making a seismic impact on race relations.
Through his activism, he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African American citizens, as well as creating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among several other honors.
King was arrested five times in his life. He wrote his second most influential speech, “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” while in prison in 1963 for protesting against the treatment of the black community in Birmingham, Alabama. This speech, which was written on the margins of a newspaper and smuggled out of the prison, defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.
Tragically, he was assassinated in 1968 at the age of just 39.
Rosa Parks was an African American civil rights activist who became famous for taking a stand — by sitting down.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks sat at the front of a bus in Alabama, heading home after a long day of work. During her journey, she was asked by a conductor to give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused and was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black people to relinquish seats to white people when the bus was full.
Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. It also led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.
Susan B, as some gender studies students know her, is an American social reformer and feminist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.
Actively involved in social justice from a young age, Anthony and her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded the Women’s Loyal National League. This league conducted the largest petition drive in the nation’s history up to that time, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery. In 1866, they initiated the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans.
In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicised trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, the authorities declined to take further action. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Popularly known as the Anthony Amendment, it became the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
Roxana Saberi is an American journalist who was arrested in Iran and detained for 100 days after being falsely accused of espionage. She lived in Iran for six years while doing research for a book that she hoped would show a more complete and balanced picture of Iranian society.
Under pressure and being threatened with a 10-20 year sentence or even execution, Roxana falsely confessed to being a spy. She quickly realized this was a mistake and recanted her confession — knowing this would jeopardize her freedom. Instead of freeing her, her case was sent to trial, sentencing her to eight years of prison.
“I would rather tell the truth and stay in prison instead of telling lies to be free,” said Roxana.
After her trial, she began her hunger strike, during which she only drank water with sugar. After two weeks, Roxana’s attorney appealed her conviction. She was released from prison after an appeals court cut her jail term to a two-year suspended sentence.
“I learned that maybe other people can hurt my body, maybe they could imprison me, but I did not need to fear those who hurt my body, because they could not hurt my soul unless I let them.”