4 Most Important Civil Rights Leaders of Today


Nelson Mandela, one of the most famous and most loved human rights activists of our time, turns 94 today. Throughout his lifetime, he has fought for equality in South Africa and an end to poverty throughout the world. He began his work as an anti-apartheid activist, working to found Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of African National Congress. These actions led to his imprisonment by the South African government, a term which began in 1962 and lasted for 27 years. Even while imprisoned, his efforts never ceased, and in 1993 the Nobel committee awarded him their annual Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps an even greater prize was being elected president of South Africa the next year, in the country’s first ever election with universal suffrage. He served as president until 1999, when he retired from politics. Ever since, Mandela has devoted himself to organizations such as Make Poverty History and to fighting the global AIDS epidemic.

In honor of Nelson Mandela, here are four other Nobel-winning activists who are still alive today, and the accomplishments they’ve made for peace and equality worldwide.

1) His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (Tibet)

The Dalai Lama is both the spiritual and the political leader of Tibet. Due to the tense political relations between China and Tibet, perhaps a more apt description of him would be as the leader of the Tibetan people. Politically, Tibet and its people have been under Chinese control since 1951, when China took over in the so-called “Peaceful Liberation” of Tibet (which followed the 1950 entrance of the People’s Liberation Army into Tibet).

Facing threats to his life, His Holiness escaped into exile in 1959, and has been leading his people from exile ever since. Although he seeks political autonomy for Tibet, His Holiness is not bound by tradition: he has called for a truly free, democratic Tibet, including a constitutional government chosen by popular election.

2) Liu Xiaobo (China)

Liu is another human rights activist who has spent major time in prison, and another opponent of Communist China. He has been imprisoned four times since 1989, including a three-year stint in a labor camp, and is currently serving an 11-year prison term which began  in 2009. When he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu was unable to collect the prize in person and forbidden from sending a representative. One of China’s most vocal political critics, Liu has spoken out frequently against the one-party communist system, calling for political reforms. He was one of the key writers and a signatory of the Charter 08 manifesto, which calls for free markets, freedom of expression, democratic elections, and human rights.

3) Lech Walesa (Poland)

Speaking of fighting against communism, here is a man who began his career as an uneducated electrician and who ended it as the first president of an independent, post-Soviet Poland. Soon after taking a job at the now-famous Gdansk Shipyard, Walesa became involved in and began organizing a series of strikes and boycotts that escalated into a fight for trade unions and workers’ rights. Eventually, he founded the Solidarity movement, the first independent trade union in the USSR, for which he was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. Solidarity became a major factor in the movement of Poland towards independence from the Soviet Union, and Walesa was elected president of Poland in 1990.

4) Tawakul Karman (Yemen)

Karman, the youngest on our list and the most recent Nobel laureate, belongs to the next generation of human rights activists. This female activist from Yemen shared the 2011 Nobel Peace prize with two other women’s rights activists, both from Liberia. In 2005, Karman founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains, which fights for free speech and press freedom for Yemeni women. When the Arab Spring protests began heating up in 2011, Karman was one of the most visible and influential leaders of the Yemeni youth and a source of information for Western journalists hoping to report on the protests. In looking for a member of the Arab Spring movement to honor, the Nobel committee is quoted as saying that they selected Karman because her activism both precedes the 2011 movement and involves campaigns for women’s rights. Right on! 

Bonus: if you’re wondering how Mandela’s life and activism would have been different in our modern era of social networking technology, check out this tribute video: