7 Unsung Heroes To Remember Heading Into 2017

Wil Stewart
Wil Stewart

At any given point in time, people have an apocalyptic vision of humanity. We humans have a terrible time with forgetting, and then repeating, the past. Considering several watershed movements of the 21st century, here is a look back at seven people that put community before self and furthered the causes that remain current struggles.

1. Maurice Hilleman (1919-2005)

Maurice was a Montana kid during the Great Depression. His twin sister died in childbirth, and his mother died soon after. He dreamed of becoming a manager at JC Penney. He barely had funds for college, but received assistance from family and scholarships. In college, he studied science and ended up working for the Merck Co. Hilleman is credited with developing vaccines against polio, encephalitis, influenza, MMR and hepatitis B, many of which are still in use today, and thus he is credited with saving more lives than any other person in history.

However, few people have ever heard of Hilleman. This is partly due to his simple, quiet existence, but also in part to the role of business interests in the scientific community. The modern uprising against harmful vaccines isn’t new. Hilleman himself knew there were risks and appears to have acknowledged that we were knowingly giving vaccines that contained cancerous viruses. While that might be controversial, there was
fodder for opposing viewpoints
calling early crude science an “obfuscation of the future of vaccines” with long term effects of cancer from vaccines. It is rather ironic that Hilleman and other Merck scientists were laughed off by colleagues at the time and fielded questions about why such relevant information doesn’t go out to the press.

2. Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1950s)

The memory of Holocaust victims lives on as the world’s most notorious historical reminder of how far and how fast hate can spread without people even being aware they are spreading it. It took the force of the world to stop that hate.

Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian, was notorious for handing out protective passports to Jews during World War II. He climbed on train cars and handed passports through the doors in plain view of SS officers. It has been speculated that officers fired shots over his head, saving him in admiration for his bold deeds. He is said to have saved tens of thousands of people. He survived the war and the Holocaust, finally being captured and allegedly killed by the Soviet Union in the early 1950s.

Though most people don’t know about Wallenberg, he is revered worldwide. He is one of only two people to have ever received honorary US citizenship as well as receiving the honor and other accolades from many other other countries. Sweden finally declared him dead for official purposes just last month.

3. Ralph Lazo (1924-1992)

The Germans weren’t the only guilty parties of wartime atrocities. Every country had fears and methods of dealing with perceived threats. The United States and Canada authorized the use of internment camps for the Japanese-Americans, conditions not too much better than their European counterparts.

Ralph, who grew up without parents in his life, was very close with Japanese and Filipino friends and otherwise had diverse relationships. When friends that he grew up with were sent away, Ralph took the train to be interred with them. For two years, he was undetected, until he was drafted into the Pacific theatre in 1944. He received a medal for bravery in the war, but had no recognition for standing up for his beliefs. After the war, he received a master’s degree from Cal State and spent a quiet life teaching until his death in 1992.

4. George Jackson (1941-1971)

Prisons are theoretically a rehabilitative tool. Though not exactly a healthy environment, prisons saw drastic improvements over the twentieth century. Prison conditions began to be taken seriously in the 1960s when inmates organized around many of the issues the rest of the world did, even protesting the Vietnam War. As revolutionary movements in prisons solidified, prison crack downs became more common.

Many prisoners complained that their crimes paled in comparison to the wrongs committed by guards and other officials. The penal system became one where low level offenders had their entire lives stripped from them and found no alternative but to fight back. George Jackson was one such person. Sentenced indefinitely for a $70 robbery, he ended up spending more than ten years in prison. His anger resulted in him speaking out, even writing a book. Such voices needed to be silenced, and Jackson was controversially killed during an alleged escape attempt.

Jackson’s death sparked rioting at many prisons, including Attica. While brutally ugly inside prisons, a movement outside prisons began to change things. Prison support groups and studies of crime and punishment became more prolific.

And while some things improved, the reality of prison life left much to be desired. Severe and growing problems with overcrowding and the rise of the for-profit prison industry has given rise to more injustices. It turns out that it’s really profitable to warehouse people and make them do menial slave labor work. Private prisons have been condemned by the Department of Justice. Still, our capitalist economy boasts the most prisoners in the world. Thirty-three percent of Americans have a criminal record and one in thirty-one are currently incarcerated. To be sure, this population is also disproportionately filled by African Americans.

With the capitalist nature and the mass housing of black people, slavery seems to be alive and well in 2016. When the system is done profiting from prisoners, they ill-equipped to return to society and the system profits further from the low wage jobs they must take and the lack of voice for things like voting. Not much life for a certain specific demographic to look forward to, but basically must just deal with it because complaining isn’t much allowed in today’s non politically correct world. Society still seems to make victims of scary people. As long as that is a reality, the writings of George Jackson will continue to push criminal justice to new frontiers.

5. Toyin Saraki (1964-present)

In the United States, we think of issues from our own experiences and confusing laws. But we hardly have it bad compared to civil rights and women’s health access of third world nations where people are even more often treated like commodities. From these locales come the real unsung heroes. People like Toyin Saraki are few and far between trying to alter the balance of power. Toyin is a healthcare advocate in Nigeria, where she founded Wellbeing Foundation Africa. The group focuses on health, gender equality and clean water and sanitation services.

Throughout history, women’s health was never a political issue and really only started midway through the 1800s. In 1899, abortion was made illegal in the United States. The backlash from the opposition was fierce and immediate. By the 1960s, there were some inroads to women regaining political control of their own bodies. Still, a large part of society has come to believe that they can tell others how to take care of themselves.

The complicating factor making this a legal and political issue is that different people have different levels of ability to understand, making things like informed consent rely on what patients are told. At the same time, people should appreciate that there are strong, educated and confident women that know exactly what they need and want for their own health but are forbidden from doing it because of overly oppressive health care. Unrelenting educators like Toyin Saraki give this critical power back to the poor people who have been robbed of it.

6. Elaine Thompson (1992-present)

The general public is well aware of Usain Bolt. He’s probably the most famous Jamaican, other than Bob Marley. Through the 20th century, Jamaica had five total Olympic gold medals. In the 21st century, Bolt has nine gold medals, along with other world records, championships and worldwide admiration to help give Jamaica exposure on the world stage.

Bolt is also giving some exposure to gender issues through his “womanizing” in Rio de Janeiro and beyond, which he chalks up to being part of Jamaican culture. Interesting, and sadly common among many cultures, but still not an appropriate reaction.

Beyond Bolt’s accolades, unbeknownst to much of the world, the Jamaican women sprinters have outpaced their male countrymen in the 21st century, particularly in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Few people know who Elaine Thompson is, yet she won just as many gold medals in the Rio Olympics as Usain did.

Elaine is two years into her professional career, so there is still time for her to become that legend. Elaine, who specializes in 100 and 200 meter sprints, was joined by youngster Shericka Jackson, who won bronze in the 400 meter race at Rio. Beyond these two, are a couple legends that also contributed mightily in 2016. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, known as the “Pocket Rocket”, has been called the greatest female sprinter of all time by Michael Johnson. Breast cancer survivor Novlene Williams-Mills, who lost her sister to ovarian cancer, made a comeback at the age of 34 to help the ladies win silver in the 4×400.

Despite an overwhelming female presence, Jamaican Olympics are associated with Usain Bolt and a culture that apparently doesn’t mind their women being relegated to boy toy status.

7. Joe Bell (1964-2013)

In 2013, Jadin Bell, a 15-year-old kid in Oregon committed suicide after persistent bullying from classmates. He was shamed for being gay and for being a member of the cheerleading team. Classmates tormented him at school and online persistently. The town of La Grande, steeped in old world Christianity, treats homosexuality as a choice and a sin. The school treated Jadin as much of an outcast as his bullies did and parents of the bullies defended their kids’ own actions. Jadin’s father Joe quit his job to walk across America raising awareness of bullying. Six months into his walk, Joe was killed by a truck driver who apparently had fallen asleep at the wheel.

While Jadin and Joe Bell were not the first, and not the last, to be victims of bullying, it is should be a wakeup call to society. Instead, initial outrage subsides and people forget about another senseless tragedy. The entire movement against bullying gets pushed to the back pages when the establishment in control is complicit in the tragedy and no one accepts wrongdoing.

There are no positive consequences to bullying. The bully is not empowered. At the most, the bully gets a short-term false sense of empowerment. Those who are bullied have a
host of issues to deal with beyond even suicide attempts. Other results are chronic depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and many even become abusers themselves. As the Bell case exhibits, entire families can be destroyed.

Ninety percent of elementary students report being bullied, while sixty percent report having bullied someone else. These numbers are ridiculously high and show signs of self-perpetuating behavior. All we need is empathy and an establishment which persecutes victimizers rather than victims. Instead, we live in a society that bashes victims and dismisses people for being cry babies.

What these cases have in common are a strong lack of representation and political clout. The economy and government appear to be dependent on marginalizing and pushing down sects of society. Whether the discussion is health care, imprisonment, or civil rights, citizens of the world have a lot to learn about how to get along. In a political climate that doesn’t tolerate fighting back, and where there is no repercussion for victimizers, we continue to rely on the little guys to stand up and demand justice. It’s the only way we have made positive change in society and the only way it will continue. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog