Profiles in Courage: Inspiring Leaders Who Fought for Freedom and Justice


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Courage is grace under pressure. Leadership requires courage even when your cause might threaten your life. Boudicca and Joan of Arc died fighting for independence. George Washington (militarily) and Mahatma Gandhi (non-violently) successfully fought the British. Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. demanded the U.S. honor civil rights. John F. Kennedy discussed independent-minded U.S. senators in his book Profiles in Courage. Malala Yousafzai and other young leaders provide models of courageous leadership.

Courageous Leadership 

Ernest Hemingway defined “courage” as grace under pressure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that courage is not the absence of fear. It is not letting fear stop you from doing what is right. He argued: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

A true leader sometimes has to be courageous. A person can be a leader on the battlefield, as part of a social movement, or in the White House. Courage is fundamental in each case. 

Courage means acting in the face of fear. It means to stand up for what is right. 

Courage In the Face Of Defeat 

We study many great empires in history. Courageous leadership was necessary, especially when taking part in close hand-to-hand warfare. Resistance was also only for the brave. 

Boudicca was a British queen who rebelled against Ancient Rome. Rome took advantage of her husband’s death (60 CE) to seize his kingdom. The odds were high against the best army in the world. The warrior queen won a great victory. It took a hard fight for the Romans to win. 

She died of suicide or illness shortly afterward. Nonetheless, she remains famous for her courage. Courage means continuing no matter what roadblocks, including personal suffering. Sometimes, it is not enough. Sometimes, you will fail. Failure does not erase true courage. 

Joan of Arc was a French peasant girl who rallied French troops against the English during the Hundred Years War. She became a symbol of French patriotism. Joan retained her courage and religious beliefs even after her capture by the British. 

William Wallace (1270-1305) became a Scottish independence leader. He led an army that defeated the British. Wallace became the Guardian of Scotland. He was later captured by the British and executed. Wallace became a martyr, now called “Braveheart.”

Successful Independence Leaders 

Many American presidents previously fought in wars, including leading men into battle. Others courageously led their country during the ebbs and flows of wartime. 

George Washington knew the stakes when he became a leader of the American Revolution. The chances of failure were great. The British Empire battled against apparently hopeless rebels. Washington and his compatriots knew the price of failure could be execution for treason. 

Mahatma Gandhi also lead an independence movement against the British. Gandhi was a member of the colonial elite. He could have had an easy life. Gandhi instead led a long but successful peaceful resistance to British rule. Sadly, he died from an assassin’s bullet. 

Nelson Mandela fought against racial apartheid in South Africa. Mandela served a decades-long prison sentence. He later became the first black president of South Africa.

Civil Rights Leaders 

The United States fought for its independence to protect fundamental rights. Our basic values involve democracy and equality. Courageous leaders have died fighting to honor them. 

Frederick Douglas escaped from slavery. He defended racial justice and sexual equality. Harriet Tubman led people to freedom. Hiram Revels was the first African American member of Congress.  He was a chaplain during the Civil War. He later became a U.S. Senator.  

The end of slavery was only the beginning of true racial equality. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolence in the face of violent resistance to demand full equality. John Lewis marched for voting rights and later became a U.S. congressman. 

Profiles in Courage 

Sen. John F. Kennedy, before he became President Kennedy, wrote a book entitled Profiles in Courage. The book discussed acts of courage by eight U.S. senators. 

John Quincy Adams challenged his party’s pro-British policies. Adams returned to Congress after being president and became a strong voice against slavery. He opposed an attempt to stop anti-slavery petitions and defended freed slaves in front of the Supreme Court. 

Kennedy honored multiple senators who courageously defended unpopular causes. Sam Houston was a senator and governor of Texas. He opposed secession and the Civil War. Senator George Norris resisted policies that would bring the U.S. into World War I

Sen. Robert Taft believed the trials of Germans after World War II were unfair. Many people argue that the Nuremberg Trials promoted the rule of law. He courageously dissented. 

Senator Margaret Chase Smith is a possible addition to his list of brave senators. The senator from Maine opposed McCarthyism. She supported the right to protest and dissent. 

Young Leaders of Today 

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani educational activist. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age seventeen. She survived an assassination attempt at age eleven. 

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist. She protested as a teenager for action on climate change. Greta became world-renowned, repeatedly addressing the United Nations. She did not let opposition, including ridicule about her age, quiet her voice. 

Rep. Justine Pearson did not let a threat of expulsion from the Tennesee legislature stop him from speaking out about gun violence. He is a modern-day civil rights leader. 

Young people today are showing themselves to be the voice of the future, full of courage.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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