A list of famous courageous people who have sacrificed their own comfort and freedom to stand up for principles of human dignity and liberty.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) – Galileo was willing to challenge the orthodoxy of the church through his own scientific discoveries. This commitment to truth and science came despite personal threats to his well-being.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) German Lutheran Pastor who was consistently outspoken in his criticism of Nazism in Germany. Preferring to stay in the country of his birth, he was eventually arrested and executed in Flossian concentration camp.
Witold Pilecki (1901 – 1948) During WW2 Pilecki joined the underground Polish resistance. In 1943, he volunteered to smuggle himself into Auschwitz concentration camp so he could report on the holocaust to the allies. He then escaped Auschwitz and took part in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. In 1948, he was executed by the Stalinist secret police for retaining loyalty to the non-Communist Polish government.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) – Overcame the dual disability of deaf-blindness to champion the deaf and helped improve societies treatment of deaf people.
Moses After escaping from his slavery in Egypt led his people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea.
Jesus Christ (0 – 33 AD) Jesus stuck to the truth of his message, despite the consequences. On many occasions, he had the opportunity to escape or change his message. But, he felt the right thing to do was to suffer outer humiliation and pain in order to leave a legacy of spiritual truth.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) A key figure in the American revolution and foremost author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson sought to challenge existing policies on religious tolerance, education and slavery.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1805-1872) – National hero of Italy. Garibaldi led a volunteer army in the Italian wars of Independence. He played a key role in uniting Italy and ending foreign rule. He also fought in Latin America and became known as ‘The Hero of Two Worlds’.
Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) A symbol of the fight against racial discrimination. Martin Luther King passionately supported the civil rights movement, despite virulent opposition and discrimination in parts of America.
Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) Nelson Mandela had the courage to fight against the unjust system of apartheid. For his political activities, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released to lead a free South Africa.
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) In 1940, Britain stood, alone against Nazi Germany. Some in Britain wanted to seek a deal with Hitler, but Churchill wanted to fight on, and he inspired Britain through their darkest hour.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) Refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and started a mass protest which led to the end of segregation on public transport.
Socrates (469 BC–399 BC) – Greek philosopher. Socrates was willing to die for his beliefs. Arrested for his philosophic teachings, Socrates was willing to accept death rather than change his opinions and beliefs. It is said he calmly accepted his fate.
Muhammad Ali Refused to fight in Vietnam despite having the threat of public opprobrium and jail.
Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941 ) A Polish Franciscan priest. During the Polish occupation, he was arrested twice by the Nazis but continued to offer shelter to Jews and Polish refugees. In 1941, he was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death, showing great courage, faith and dignity.
George Orwell (1903 – 1950) – Went to fight in the Spanish civil war because of his sympathies for the Republican movement. Also, gave up his privileged upbringing to work as a ‘down and out’ worker in Paris and London.
Mahatma Gandhi. (1869 – 1948) Leader of the non-violent movement for Indian independence. Gandhi led the influential Salt Tax protest and was jailed several times for his protests against British rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi – Leader of Burmese opposition party. Kept under house arrest for several years. She has always sought to fight for democratic principles in her country Burma.
Desmond Tutu – Outspoken critic of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Leading figure in the reconciliation movement in the post-apartheid era.
Dalai Lama – Spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. Led non-violent resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet.
Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937) – First female to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928. Disappeared while attempting to be the first female to circumnavigate the world.
Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913) Tubman escaped from slavery but returned on many dangerous missions to Maryland where she helped lead slaves to freedom. She also served as an agent and leader during the Civil War.
Emmeline Pankhurst – Leading suffragette in the UK. Emmeline Pankhurst went to jail several times for her protests to gain women the vote.
Joan of Arc – Peasant girl who went to Dauphin of France to encourage him to fight English occupation. Led French army into battle.
St Teresa Avila – Founded many religious orders and wrote about mystical experiences at a time of the Spanish Inquisition, when women rarely played any role in public life.
Boudicca – d. 60AD (Also known as Boadicea) Leader of British revolt against Roman occupation.
Edith Cavell – Nurse in Belgium during World War One. Arrested and executed for helping Allied servicemen escape back to England. Shortly before her execution, said ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’
Odette Sansom – British secret service agent during World War Two. She was captured, tortured and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, but she survived the war.
Abraham Lincoln – US president during American civil war. Later extended aims of civil war to ending slavery in America.
Martin Niemöller (1892 – 1984) Lutheran pastor and anti-nazi theologian. A founder of the Confessional church which sought to reject the Nazification of churches. He opposed the idea of Aryan supremacy. For his opposition to Nazi ideology, he was imprisoned in concentration camps until the end of the war.
Sophie Scholl (1921-1943) German student who took part in the White Rose Resistance group who opposed Hitler and the Nazi Party. She was arrested in 1943 for distributing anti-war leaflets and was executed.
William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) – A leader of the campaign against slavery in Britain. He lived to see the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1933, which was passed after overcoming opposition from interested parties.
Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797) – The first black African slave to write about his experience as a slave. His book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano‘ played a pivotal role in turning public opinion in Britain against slavery.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) Douglass escaped slavery and became a leading figurehead in the anti-slavery movement in the US. His dazzling oratory and powerful writing impressed many people and helped to show the intellectual capacities of those held in slavery.
Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986) Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul to Lithuania during the Second World War. He helped several thousand Jews to escape from Lithuania by personally writing exit visas – despite the fact he was disobeying orders from Tokyo not to do so. It is estimated, because of Sugihara’s actions, 6,000 Jews were able to escape from Lithuania and avoid the holocaust.
William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) – Translated the Bible into English, which at the time was forbidden. For his controversial views and belief that everyone should be able to read the Bible in their native tongue, he was later arrested and executed.
Leonard Cheshire – British pilot in RAF during World War Two. Made over 103 missions during six years of war. After the war, set up a charity for the disabled.
Malala Yousafzai (1997 – ) – Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for human rights, women’s rights and the right to education.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Gorbachev was willing to erode his own power base, though his policies of liberating the politics and economics of the Soviet Union. His policies invoked the ire of those who lost out, leading to his replacement in 1990.
Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997) Born in Albania, Mother Teresa left for India with virtually no money and devoted her life to serving the poor of Calcutta – overcoming poverty, disease and criticism. She expanded her mission to support the poor and disadvantaged across the world.
David Livingstone ( 1813 – 1872) Livingstone was a popular Victorian missionary who explored the continent of Africa when it was largely unknown. He was also active in the anti-slave movement within Africa, which made him unpopular with local slave traders.
Women who have changed the world
Courage for Beginners at Amazon
by Karen Harrington
People who fought for human /civil rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice.
People in the anti-slavery movement – Men and women who campaigned for the end of slavery. This includes former slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and political campaigners, such as William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln.
People who changed their minds – Famous people who dramatically changed their minds during their lives. Including the Buddha, Ashoka, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Niemoller.