11 of the World’s Greatest Dissenters

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.”

Paul Lauterbur, scientist

In the 1960s, Paul Lauterbur wondered if the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology used to analyze chemicals might help locate cancerous tissue in the human body. His colleagues only chortled. Lauterbur had to sneak into the labs at Stony Brook University at night to run experiments. When he finally produced images, the science journal Nature rejected his paper, and the university refused to patent the technology. It took Lauterbur another 10 years to convince government skeptics to fund a prototype. In 2003, Lauterbur was awarded the Nobel Prize for his role in the invention of the modern MRI machine.

Tank Man, Chinese activist

Dissidents aren’t always aware of their impact. This is surely the case with the Chinese demonstrator known only as Tank Man. In April of 1989, a ceremony mourning the death of a political reformer was transformed into a massive protest for greater democracy in China. The government ordered soldiers to clear Tiananmen Square. They did so, killing and wounding thousands. Amid the carnage, photographers captured a man standing before a line of tanks to stop them. Although he was never identified, and the photograph is virtually unknown in China, the image remains a testament to the strength of individual dissent in the face of tyranny.

Alexander Nikitin, Russian naval officer

A loyal commander in the Russian Navy, Alexander Nikitin was expected to continue toeing the military line when he was named a safety inspector in the 1990s. Instead, he was so horrified by the condition of his country’s nuclear submarines that he submitted damning reports to his government. When they were ignored, he contacted a Norwegian environmental group to draw attention to the brewing human and ecological disaster. Russia’s decaying fleet became an international concern and Nikitin was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Sadly, he was unable to collect his prize; the Russian government arrested him and charged him with treason.

Howard Zinn, historian and activist

Although he lost his teaching job for endorsing a student uprising and was arrested during Vietnam War protests, Howard Zinn will be remembered for less dramatic dissent. Zinn believed traditional education led to passivity because it was based on student obedience. His goal was to inspire “a new generation of people who can do away with war, who can do away with racism and sexism.” And this is exactly what he did through his legendary courses at Boston University and with A People’s History of the United States, a progressive interpretation of history now used in many high schools and universities.

Nelson Mandela,South African anti-apartheid pioneer

With the apartheid regime teetering and international protests intensifying, South African President P.W. Botha came up with a plan to defuse the situation. In 1985, he offered to release Nelson Mandela from prison as long as his political party, the African National Congress, renounced certain policies. Even though Mandela had spent 21 crushing years in custody, he refused, believing that any compromise would undermine the anti-apartheid movement. For this self-sacrificing dissidence, Mandela spent another five years in prison. But he inspired a fresh generation of activists and stoked the flames of the uprising that eventually brought full democracy to South Africa.

Toni Hoffman, nurse

When a new surgeon agreed to come to a remote hospital in Australia, administrators were thrilled that they had been able to recruit successfully during a doctor shortage. Nurse Toni Hoffman, however, watched as this surgeon ignored basic hygiene, conducted unnecessary operations and botched procedures. When her complaints were repeatedly ignored, Hoffman mounted a campaign to expose the doctor, despite threats of lawsuits and dismissal. Finally, a parliamentary investigation linked the surgeon to 87 deaths. He now faces multiple counts of manslaughter. As a result of her heroic dissent, recruiting practices at hospitals were overhauled and Hoffman was named Australian of the Year.

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, Malawian gay rights advocates

A hateful wave of intolerance is washing across Africa. In Senegal, two dozen men were jailed for frequenting a gay bar, while in Uganda, conservative politicians and Christian ministers are lobbying to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. In this atmosphere, the decision by Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga to become the first openly gay married couple in Malawi is one of the most courageous acts of dissent in recent memory. Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison following their wedding last year but have recently been released.

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Rani Lyons
Rani Lyons4 years ago


Andy Kadir-Buxton

Protest and survive!

myra d.
myra d.4 years ago

Brave, Great, Amazing people as Robert O. says, really illustrating the true power of one.

William Y.
William Y.4 years ago

It would be much better if such people didn't have to do these things, if humans started treating others with fairness, dignity and love, there would be no need for dissenters.

Andrew H.
- -.4 years ago

maybe not on the level of the people above, but someone (not the only person), who I think supports the feelings of animals is rupert sheldrake - the really important fact of empathy between species.


Lisa B.
Elizabeth B.4 years ago

Thanks - I learned about a couple of unsung heroes that I was unaware of their contributions.

Joe R.
Joe R.4 years ago

Great, brave people. We need more like them.

Robert O.
Robert O.4 years ago

They are truly amazing people that really illustrate the true power of one.