Category Archives: Activist Heroes

Pedro Albizu Campos: Hero of the Puerto Rican People

By Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman

Pedro Albizu Campos was the consummate hero. In 1921 he became the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School while mastering many different languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and Greek. After earning his Harvard law degree, he returned to Puerto Rico and opened a one-man law office where he accepted food, water, and clothing as payment for his legal services from people who could not afford a lawyer.

Pedro Albizu Campos was a man who was more concerned with the progress of the Puerto Rican people than with his own personal gain. As president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNP), he was determined to lead Puerto Rico in its political battle against the United States for the island’s independence. It was during his time as president of the PNP that Puerto Rico would rally the most support it had ever seen towards its fight for political autonomy.

As befitting a hero, Albizu Campos was able to overcome considerable adversity. During his time in the United States, like many other people of color, he had to overcome blatant racism. After World War I broke out, Campos volunteered for the U.S. military and was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the army reserves. Upon completing his training Campos was assigned to the 375th Regiment, the unit reserved strictly for blacks—an act that was in accordance with the US military policies of the time due to racial segregation. Pedro Albizu Campos would eventually be honorably discharged in 1919 with the rank of First Lieutenant.

Campos graduated from Harvard Law School with the highest grade-point average in his entire law class, earning him the right to give the valedictorian speech at his graduation ceremony. Many people at Harvard did not appreciate having a mulatto Puerto Rican as valedictorian, so one of his professors delayed two of his final exams, thus keeping Campos from graduating on time. He would eventually receive his degree a year later after taking both exams and passing them while in Puerto Rico.

The conflicts that Pedro Albizu Campos experienced with the U.S. were his motivation for leading the PNP in its fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. During his time as president, members of the PNP met U.S. repression with armed resistance. In 1950 Campos was arrested as a political prisoner and was subjected to human radiation experiments leading to his death in 1965. Ironically enough this abuse occurred decades after Campos accused Dr. Cornelius Rhoads (a leading cancer specialists with the Rockefeller Institute) of injecting live cancer cells into Puerto Ricans to see if the cancer could spread. The accusations came from a manuscript Rhoads had written which Campos had published after getting his hands on it.

It was not until 1994 that the U.S. Department of Energy admitted to conducting these human radiation experiments on Campos and other individuals. Campos thus became the focal point of tension between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, putting his life on the line in the process. The lasting legacy of Pedro Albizu Campos and his fight for his people’s freedom has been compared to that of Patrick Henry, Nat Turner, Chief Crazy Horse, Frederick Douglass, and Nelson Mandela. Albizu’s political and military actions forever transformed Puerto Rico, its people, and its culture.

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Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond.  They are enrolled in Scott Allison’s Social Psychology course and composed this essay as part of their course requirement

Harriet Quimby: Aviatrix One

By Rick Hutchins

In the early 20th Century, men and women were considered quite different animals and the social roles assigned to them reflected that belief. Women were expected to keep house and raise children while the adventures of invention and exploration were left to the men. Going beyond those expectations was not encouraged, and often punished. Most people conformed to those limitations, but some were not content to be grounded–- some, like Harriet Quimby, felt compelled to find new horizons.

Long before being bitten by the aviation bug, Quimby led an independent and liberated lifestyle that was the envy of many women of her day. An unmarried woman in New York City, she was a successful writer, turning out articles for the magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly for many years, as well as several screenplays for DW Griffith in the early days of Hollywood. She was an “old maid” of thirty-five when she attended an international aviation tournament on Long Island and met famous aviator John Moisant (whose sister was to quickly follow in Quimby’s footsteps). Her first flying lessons soon followed. A headline in The New York Times, typical of the attitudes of that era, stated “Woman in Trousers Daring Aviator; Long Island Folk Discover That Miss Harriet Quimby Is Making Flights at Garden City.”

A year later, in 1911 (more than a decade before Amelia Earhart), Quimby became the first woman in the United States to earn an aviator’s certificate. Her friend Matilde Moisant became the second shortly thereafter.

But Quimby was not yet finished with making history. The next year, in April of 1912 (the day after the sinking of the Titanic), she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel.

Sadly, her next milestone was a tragic one. In July of 1912, she attended, and participated in, The Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum on Dorchester Bay. While circling Boston Harbor, with event organizer William Willard as a passenger, her plane experienced unexpected turbulence and both pilot and passenger fell to their deaths, the plane crashing on the beach.

A century has now passed since the untimely death of Harriet Quimby. The romantic figure of the first aviatrix in her distinctive purple flight suit is all but forgotten. But thanks to her and others like her, the opportunities for women in society have expanded to a degree that few in her lifetime would have believed possible. Yet it is still true, well into the 21st Century, that both women and men are pressed to limit themselves to roles defined by their gender. Most will conform. But some will not be content to be grounded. And thanks to those like Harriet Quimby, their flight may be a little smoother.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on

This is Hutchins’ fifth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards,  appears in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Harriet Tubman: The Hero Who Fought Slavery

By Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow

In 1820, Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was born into a family of slaves in Maryland. Several of her siblings were sold by their owners and she never saw them again. Harriet spent countless hours laboring for others. Along with doing manual work for her owners, she had to put up with numerous beatings, one in particular that split her skull open and never healed, causing severe brain damage. She never received any medical attention and the trauma resulted in epileptic seizures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Her resentment and anger at her circumstances steadily grew, particularly after she was threatened with being sold, fueling her passion to escape and bring others along with her.

Harriet was called to be a freedom hero. In 1849, Harriet became ill once again as a result of her head injury. Her value as a slave was diminishing and her owners were attempting to sell her. Soon afterward, one of her owners died and it became likely that her family would be split up and sold to different owners to settle his estate. Harriet decided she would not be sold again so she fled to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. She successfully avoided slave catchers by traveling at night and seeking the protection of abolitionists.

She had not been in free territory for long when she heard that her niece was going to be sold. Tubman decided to go back to slave territory to save her niece and her children. She selflessly wanted to help others and she would risk her life in doing so.

In December of 1850, Tubman made the bold and dangerous decision to return south. Risking her own re-enslavement, she courageously embarked on the first of many journeys to set her people free. On her first trip she brought her niece and family to the north by the same route she escaped by.

A few months later she returned for her own brother and was well on her way to earning the nickname “the Moses” of her people. In over a decade she made 19 trips to the south and back, rescuing over 300 slaves. Slave owners in the south never knew there was one person behind the escape of so many slaves, but other abolitionists did.

She worked with many abolitionists like Thomas Garrett, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.  Douglass and Brown both counted Tubman among the bravest and most important anti-slavery heroes of the day. Tubman successfully led slaves to freedom for nearly a decade without ever being discovered or losing a single passenger on her “underground railroad.” She was a valued activist and spoke publicly to abolitionists while taking care of her relatives and fighting her illness.

When the Civil War began Harriet first served as a nurse before adopting a more active role by helping map terrain for the Union Army and even leading armed assaults. When slaves were liberated from captured Confederate Territory she helped to recruit them to the Union Army.

Despite her incredible work and dedication to the Union, Harriet was never compensated and the U.S. government did not properly recognize her service until nearly 40 years later. The fact that she never received compensation combined with her role as caretaker for her family and rescued slaves meant that she was in a perpetual state of poverty. Despite the constant difficulties she faced with her health, her finances and the total lack of recognition, Harriet never stopped working to help other people.

Harriet Tubman showed great heroism during her journey from slavery to freedom to liberator. Her life was not easy and her experience of belittlement and hardship persisted even into the 20th century. Even though she was oppressed herself in being a disabled, uneducated, black, former slave woman, she navigated physical, social and political danger for the sake of freedom. She received some recognition for all of her many achievements, including her work in the suffragette movement.  She pursued her vision unswervingly and by the end of her life, Tubman was widely known and finally received the respect she deserved. After her death she has become widely recognized as one of the most important American heroes and activists for the end of slavery and civil rights for former slaves, African-Americans, and women.

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Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Birmingham’s Child Heroes

By Steve Theunissen

The heroic figures of the Alabama civil rights movement are well known and rightly revered. Who can forget the stoic resilience of Rosa Parks, the brilliant rhetoric of Martin Luther King or the fearless tenacity of Fred Shuttlesworth? These ones were, after all, the faces of the movement, the ones who others rallied around, the people at the forefront. Heroes, however, come in all shapes and sizes and nowhere was this more evident than in the blistering streets of Birmingham in the summer of 1963. At that time, a generation of oppressed youngsters, some as young as five years of age, traded in their play-things and quietly said “enough”, taking their stand on the front-lines of a battle that was turning their state into a war zone.

By April of 1963, the campaign to desegregate the city of Birmingham was spluttering to a standstill. Support from local Black people was waning under threats that they would lose their jobs if they got involved. The imprisonment of Martin Luther King on April 12 did nothing to bolster support. With it’s chairman behind bars, it was now up to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) director of direct action, James Bevel, to find a way to reinvigorate the campaign.

Bevel came up with a controversial strategy, one that King was, initially, opposed to.  Get the children involved, Bevel urged. Children, he reasoned, were full of energy, they had no jobs to be threatened with losing and they were already organized and unified through their schooling. They were more teachable than their parents, more inclined to adopt the non-violent philosophy.

And so it was that on May 2nd, more than one thousand Black students skipped school and congregated at the 16th Street Baptist church ready to march downtown. Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor marshaled his forces against them. Coming out of the church in waves of 50, the students were arrested and carted off in police vans. Soon, however, there were no vans left and the police had to recruit school busses. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent goal of filling the jails was being realized.

The next day hundreds more children turned up at 16th Street Baptist, ready and willing to be carted off to jail. In fact, going to jail became a symbol of honor and pride, to the clear disgust of Bull Connor. Needing a trump card, Connor directed the police force and fire department to use force in order to put a stop to the marches. By so doing, he was unwittingly playing into the SCLC’s hand. They knew that images of innocent children being pummeled by fire hoses and mauled by police dogs would force the nation to confront what Dr. King called “a crisis of conscience.”

The images that captured the events of May 3rd and 4th did, indeed, shock not only the nation, but the entire world. There, in black and white, under screaming headlines, was undeniable proof of the racially fueled injustice that millions of Americans were suffering under day in and day out. But there, too, were images of young African-Americans standing proud. The cameras captured their dignity, their resolve and their courage. In contrast, the vitriol of the white crowds, the cold, clinical Gestapo-like efficiency of the Birmingham police department and the smirking, cigar crunching countenance of Bull Connor were also captured on film.

The contrast between good and evil was blatant and millions of people around the world were won over to the cause that the young people of Birmingham were championing. As a result national force was brought to bear on the issue of segregation. Although desegregation occurred slowly in Birmingham, the Children’s marches were a major factor in the national push towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring practices and public services in the United States. And it was all thanks to the children.

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About the author: Steve Theunissen is a history teacher and author. His new Young Adult novel “Through Angel’s Eyes” chronicles the historic events of the Birmingham campaign as seen through the eyes of a 13 year old black girl.  Here is the trailer previewing the novel.

You can purchase “Through Angel’s Eyes” by clicking here.

The Heroism and Leadership of Fred Korematsu

Fred KorematsuBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Heroes show leadership by taking steps to save or improve our lives.  A hero’s leadership can be direct, as when the leader interacts directly with followers, or it can be indirect, as when the leader’s works and deeds provide an example or model for others.  Two of the 20th century’s greatest indirect leaders were Rosa Parks and Fred Korematsu.  Parks became a civil rights hero when she refused to vacate her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.  Korematsu’s indirect leadership is not as well known but is no less important.

Korematsu was an ordinary 22 year-old American living in Oakland, California, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  In the weeks that followed, Americans feared another Japanese attack on the west coast of the United States. Racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans, already a problem before Pearl Harbor, became intensified.  Korematsu was fired from his job as a welder in a shipyard, simply because of his ancestry.

Ten weeks after the attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which required all people of Japanese ancestry along the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington, to leave their homes and report to internment camps.  At the time, most Americans supported Roosevelt’s decision.  Even the Los Angeles Times defended it:  “While it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies,” wrote the editor, “I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”

Most Japanese-Americans complied with Executive Order 9066 to demonstrate their loyalty to America and its laws.  But KorematsuKorematsu recognized the inherent injustice of the decree.  “I was just living my life, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said in a 1987 interview.

Korematsu did not turn himself in to authorities.  Consequently, he was arrested, jailed, convicted of a felony, and sent to the Topaz internment camp in Utah.

While imprisoned at the camp, Korematsu appealed his conviction, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated.  The court ruled against him.  In 1944 he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction in a 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Hugo Black.  The Court ruled that Executive Order 9066, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during times of “emergency and peril”.

After the war, Korematsu waited nearly 40 years to clear his name.  In 1982 he obtained suppressed government documents indicating that the forced relocation of Americans to internment camps was motivated by racism, not military necessity.  With this evidence, the courts overturned Korematsu’s conviction.  In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.  At the ceremony Clinton said, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls €” Plessy, Brown, Parks.  To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”

Heroism can take time.  Leaders know when to stay the course, and heroic leaders such as Korematsu stay the course to its triumphant conclusion.  “It may take time to prove you’re right,” he said, “but you have to stick to it.”  In the face of injustice, he urged people “to protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up.  One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”

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One of our readers suggested that we profile Fred Korematsu.  We welcome your suggestions as well.  Please send your ideas to Scott T. Allison ( or to George R. Goethals (

Michael J. Fox’s Heroic Battle With Parkinson’s Disease

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In a previous blog post, we discussed the courageous story of actor Christopher Reeve, who suffered a paralyzing accident in the prime of his life.  With the help and support of his remarkable wife Dana, Christopher emerged as a gutsy champion of philanthropic causes and an inspiring hero to millions of people.  A similar story describes the life of actor Michael J. Fox.  An ultra-successful artist and comedic talent, Fox contracted Parkinson’s disease as a young man and has waged a courageous and inspiring battle ever since.

Fox first made his mark in Hollywood in his portrayal as teenager Alex Keaton in the popular television series Family Ties during the 1980s.  He then made the successful transition to feature films, his breakthrough performance coming in the blockbuster film trilogy Back to the Future.  Fox was on top of the world.  He was rich, handsome, talented, and wildly successful at his craft.  He even married the woman of his dreams, Tracy Pollan, in 1988.

Fox’s life then took a tragic, unexpected turn.  In 1991, he received the devastating diagnosis from doctors:  He had Parkinson’s disease, an incurable degenerative illness that attacks the central nervous system.  Fox continued his acting career while taking medications and undergoing numerous medical procedures.  But while starring in the hit television series Spin City ten years ago, he went public with his disease, acknowledging his steady decline and his need to curtail his acting.

His goals during his semi-retirement have been twofold:  Spend more time with his wife Tracy and their four children, and devote his remaining energies toward finding a cure for Parkinson’s.  Fox has been a workhorse in that regard.  His foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, was created to help promote and support research aimed at curing Parkinson’s disease, primarily through embryonic stem cell studies.

Fox has testified a number of times before Congress to increase federal funding to defeat Parkinson’s.  He’s also rallied support from both Democrats and Republicans, using his fame and inspirational story to garner funding for his cause.  Said Fox: “Medical science has proven time and again that when the resources are provided, great progress in the treatment, cure, and prevention of disease can occur.”

The life we plan to lead is rarely the life we actually lead.  Twenty years ago, Michael J. Fox probably thought that he’d only make his mark in the world as an entertainer.  Life threw him a cruel curve, however.  Like many heroes, Fox has risen to the challenge with great aplomb and grace.  Rather than moving people with his acting, he is moving people in a far more significant and life-affirming way:  As a tireless advocate of funding and research aimed at defeating his crippling disease.  Fox’s steadfast commitment to triumphing over adversity is truly heroic.

Fox’s work has earned him some well-deserved recognition:  In 2007, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”  We wish him well on his remarkable journey.

Below is a clip from Katie Couric’s interview with Michael J. Fox in 2006.