Clockwise from top left: Havel, Gandhi,
Mandela, Hanh, King.
Václav Havel was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 Havel provided narrative on Radio Free Czechoslovakia thus helping the resistance. As an essayist and playwright Havel wrote many publications opposing the Soviet occupation. In doing so he found himself imprisoned numerous times, subjected to surveillance and questioning. One of his most famous essays The Power of the Powerless was written during the Soviet occupation.
Although seen as a dissident, Havel was reluctant to view himself in the same way saying that “we simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.” Nor was he interested in politics, or so he claimed, yet he became Czechoslovakia’s President two days before the end of 1989 and retained the Presidency in the country’s first free elections in 1990. Following the dissolution of the country in 1992 Havel became the first President of the Czech Republic on 26 January 1993.
The Czechs seemed to have a love-hate relationship with him and sometimes it appeared that he enjoyed a greater popularity outside the country rather than within. One of his first acts as the new President was to release political prisoners and those that had been falsely imprisoned during the Communist rule. Included amongst this release was that of indigenous Germans imprisoned after WW II, a highly controversial act.
After quitting politics Havel remained active in human rights organisations and went back to writing plays. In 2005 he was voted by Czechs as the third greatest Czech alive. He received a number of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Order of Canada and was the inaugural recipient of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award.
What can be said about Gandhi that has not already been told and repeated dozens, nay thousands, of times throughout the world. Most well known for leading the non-violent campaign to rid India of the British colonists, Gandhi had already become famous for campaigning for the rights of Muslim and Hindu Indians in South Africa.
Behind the highly noticeable campaign for Swaraj (independence of India from British rule) Gandhi had led nationwide campaigns to end untouchability, to expand women’s rights, to reduce poverty, to build religious and ethnic harmony and foster economic self-reliance.
Perhaps his most inspired act was the 400km Dandi Salt March in 1930 protesting against the national salt tax. As a protest against the tax on salt Gandhi marched the 400km from Ahmedabad to Dandi so that he could make the salt himself. It took him more than three weeks and he was joined by thousands of Indians along the way. It was to be one of the most successful campaigns in ending British rule.
Often attributed as the father of nonviolent resistance Gandhi himself said that “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.” He was however the first to utilise nonviolence on a large scale.
Mandela was initially very influenced by Gandhi and his nonviolent approach to struggle, which he and the African National Congress (ANC) used until the Sharpeville Massacre. In response to this outrageous act, believing it to be the last resort, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC in 1961. Via this organisation he planned and undertook sabotage campaigns against the South African racist government. Mandela was later to rue this move and admitted that the ANC had also violated human rights.
In 1962 Mandela was arrested and accused of sabotage for which he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. During his imprisonment Mandela became an international symbol of the world-wide anti-apartheid movement. Mounting international pressure finally saw the South African president (F W de Klerk) reverse the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups as well as release Mandela in February 1990.
Mandela immediately went back to leading the ANC and helped lead the party to the country’s first multi-racial elections. At those elections, held in 1994, the ANC won 62% of the vote and Mandela became the country’s first black President. F W de Klerk was chosen as his deputy, the man with whom Mandela had shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Nelson Mandela has inspired not only human rights and social justice organisations world-wide but also a host of musicians including: Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Simple Minds, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston, The Special AKA and Youssou N’Dour.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
As much as Gandhi was to Indian independence or Mandela to South African freedom, King was to African-American emancipation. King was also significantly influenced by Gandhi and nonviolence.
So much was he inspired by Gandhi that King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in 1959. At the end of that visit King stated on radio that: “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”
Following the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired by Rosa Parks (see 5 Inspiring Social Justice Campaigners) King went on to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leading to the 1963 March on Washington. It was here that King delivered what could arguably be considered one of the most inspiring speeches of all-time – “I Have a Dream”. This famous speech was given in front of the Lincoln Memorial to more than a quarter of a million people of many ethnicities.
King remained committed to nonviolence (although some of the marches and sit-ins did turn violent) and led many marches seeking the right of African-Americans to vote, for desegregation, for the implementation of labour laws and other human rights, Many of these campaigns were successful with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. He was arrested and imprisoned many times.
King was not just focused on human rights within the US but also outside of it. By 1965 he was speaking out strongly against US involvement in Vietnam. He recognised the injustice of one nation attempting to colonise another as well as the wastefulness of the war in terms of lives of young men (many of whom were black) and that money spent on the war was money that could be spent on welfare.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968 the day after giving another of his famous addresses: “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” Words from this speech turned out to be prophetic. There had been threats of bombs and so King had finished his speech with these words:
“I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man”
Thich Nhat Hanh
In 1966 Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh visited the US for the second time and whilst there met with Martin Luther King, Jr. and urged King to denounce the war in Vietnam. It was King who the following year nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, no such prize was awarded that year.
In the 1950s Hanh established a Buddhist University in Saigon and a corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who helped to build schools and healthcare clinics and re-build villages in rural Vietnam.
The 1960s saw Hanh lecturing in Buddhism at Columbia University and becoming proficient in six languages as well as his native Vietnamese. At the end of the decade, in 1969, he was the delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace talks. However, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 he was denied permission to return to his native land and went into exile in France.
Although since managing to return to Vietnam a couple of times, Hanh continues to reside in south-western France where he established Plum Village along with Sister Chan Khong. He is well known also for establishing the Order of Inter-Being and coining the phrase Engaged Buddhism (a movement that promotes individual contribution to social change within a Buddhist framework).
Thich Nhat Hanh has written well over 75 books many of which are geared towards Buddhist readers but there are many from a wider audience amongst his readers. One of the most widely read is The Art of Power from which comes:
“It is my conviction that there is no way to peace – peace is the way.”