A Tribute to the Champions of Democracy Whose Names You May or May Not Know

This midterm election cycle is rife with election deniers, poll worker intimidation and attacks on elected officials. It is a perfect time to remember a few of the courageous people who wrongly faced imprisonment, brutality, and death by those intent upon sabotaging fair elections and human rights.

A Tribute to the Champions of Democracy Whose Names You May or May Not Know
Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

Not all heroes wear capes, nor do their names become household words, but led by the fire to see people in the world have the right to govern their own personal lives, express their preferences by a democratic vote, and fend off dictatorships, these ordinary people sacrificed their personal freedoms or their lives.

French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges was executed by guillotine in 1793 for her writings on women’s rights and abolitionism. She also challenged male authority and male/female inequality.

John Q. Stephens was a state senator from North Carolina who was stabbed and strangled by the Ku Klux Klan in 1870. Stephens had support of most African Americans. He was nearly completely ostracized socially by the white community of Caswell County, and even expelled from the church.

George Wesley Lee was an African American civil rights leader, minister and entrepreneur. He was vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and head of the NAACP branch in Belzoni, Mississippi. He was assassinated in 1955 for registering Black voters. Lee was the first Back person in memory to register to vote in the majority Black Humphreys County, Mississippi. Black citizens were disenfranchised by poll taxes and literacy tests, part of voter suppression tactics.

Before the Stonewall Uprising, (gay community protests in New York), Randy Wicker became known for his gay rights movement in the late 1950s. He created one of the country’s first organizations for gay rights, while attending the University of Texas. After graduation, he started the Homosexual League of New York, which worked to promote gays and lesbians in the mainstream media. Wicker also picketed in front of the U.S. Army Induction Center to protect the confidentiality of gay men’s draft records in 1964.

There was a movie based on this incident, Mississippi Burning, but I don’t think we hear much about them these days. Three incredibly brave civil rights workers were abducted and murdered by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the summer of 1964. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were with the Council of Federated Organizations and working with the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote in southern states. Southern states had disenfranchised Black voters using discrimination and suppression methods. They were arrested during a traffic stop for speeding outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, taken to jail and held there. They were released and while leaving town, their car was pulled over. The three (two White men and one Black) were abducted, driven to another location, and shot to death at close range. Their bodies were taken to an earthen dam where they were buried.

Berta Cáceres, a Honduran Indigenous and environmental leader and Goldman Environmental Prize Winner was assassinated in her home March of 2016 by armed intruders, after years of threats against her life. At least three of the intruders were linked to US-trained elite military troops. She fought tirelessly for the rights of Honduras’s Indigenous Peoples, including opposing the Agua Zarca Dam, which would obstruct the Gualcarque River, a source of food and water for local communities. Media reports were that she received death threats from police, the army and landholders’ groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi was considered a beacon for human rights who gave up her freedom to challenge the ruthless army generals who ruled Myanmar for decades.

In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while still under house arrest, and hailed as "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless". In 2015, she led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years. But she was deposed by a coup in 2021 when the military took control and arrested her and the political leadership around her.

In December 2021, Ms Suu Kyi was found guilty of inciting dissent and breaking Covid rules in the first of a series of verdicts that could see her jailed for life. UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet called it a "sham trial" that would only "deepen rejection of the coup". Ms Suu Kyi faces 11 charges in total and denies them all.

Say Their Names:

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost. ~Arthur Ashe

Throughout history, the fight for individual freedom is a recurring battle. We can’t name all of those who held the front lines, but we honor them all.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy of Illinois. Killed in 1837. American journalist, newspaper editor and abolitionist. Killed by a mob.

Ruben Um Nyobe, an anti-colonialist activist of Cameroon was killed in 1958 by the French army.

Marsha Johnson of New York City was a Gay liberation and AIDS activist, killed in 1992 by what’s called a group of thugs.

Jaswant Singh, human rights activist in India was killed in 1995 by the Indian Police Service.

Warning and Words of Hope from Freedom House

“The enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people’s needs. In fact, democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it. Global leadership and solidarity from democratic states are urgently needed. Governments that understand the value of democracy, including the new administration in Washington, have a responsibility to band together to deliver on its benefits, counter its adversaries, and support its defenders…...Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.”
(-Freedom House, supports and defends democracies around the world).

Myra Jolivet is a storyteller. First a TV news anchor and reporter. Then came PR work and consulting. That's where she is today - banging her head against the wall - trying to help CEOs and political candidates tell their stories well. Myra writes a series of murder mysteries She was a kid with an imaginary friend. That says it all.