A brief history of some of the world’s great dissenters.
Henry David Thoreau, author
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He refused to pay because he objected to the U.S. government’s support of slavery. His night in a cell in Concord, Massachusetts, was the inspiration for his essay “Civil Disobedience,” in which he argued that breaking an unjust law is sometimes the just thing to do. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he wrote, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The essay inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in their struggles against injustice and through them, countless others.
Lucy Burns, suffragette
One common way to quiet reformers is simply to say, “Have patience.” This is what the U.S. government tried to tell suffragettes during World War I. When a group of women led by Lucy Burns began picketing the White House every day, President Woodrow Wilson asked them to desist, citing the need for national unity during wartime. Burns refused and began carrying a banner proclaiming that in Russia, women had the right to vote. Even after being arrested seven times, and being brutalized in jail, Burns continued her picketing until the 19th Amendment was finally passed in 1920.
Mahatma Gandhi, social justice leader
Few people in history have been assailed by so many factions and in so many fashions as Mohandas Gandhi during his struggle for a more just Indian society. Landowners had him arrested for his efforts to improve conditions for tenant farmers; Hindu traditionalists engineered assassination attempts to stop his campaign against the caste system; he provoked the wrath of the British by organizing the Salt March and other protests against colonial rule. Still, Gandhi never faltered in his allegiance to satyagraha, the principle of non-violent resistance. An eye for an eye, Gandhi constantly reminded his followers, leaves everyone blind.
Rosa Parks, civil rights campaigner
Sometimes the simplest acts of dissent have the most profound effects. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to cede her seat to a white passenger on the No. 2857 bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This small gesture became a rallying point for the civil rights movement and Parks was catapulted to the front lines of the national fight for racial equality. “People always say that I didnít give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” Parks wrote in her autobiography. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”