Research topics: Civil rights leaders around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries

Civil rights movement in South Africa.

Civil rights movement in South Africa.

During this Black History Month, focus is on the Civil Rights leaders in the American South. But the struggle for civil rights is fought by many people in many countries worldwide, from Nelson Mandela in South Africa to Mahatma Gandhi in India to Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Here is only a sample of the people who fought for civil rights around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) is one of the most renowned civil rights leaders in the world. In South Africa he campaigned for the end of apartheid, the government mandate that segregated blacks and whites. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) which resisted apartheid policies. The ANC was banned in 1960, and Mandela was arrested in 1962, convicted of plotting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life in prison.

From prison he wrote about democracy and civil rights for both blacks and whites. In Nelson Mandela – Biographical from the Nobel Peace Prize 1993 report, “[Mandela] was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.” Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and elected President of South Africa in 1991. In 1993, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another noteworthy anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa, Desmond Tutu (1931–) is an Anglican bishop who has campaigned against racism, sexism, homophobia, AIDS and poverty.

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948), known with the honorific Mahatma, was a non-violent Indian nationalist, activist, and politician who campaigned for Indian self-determination and independence from Great Britain. His non-violent protests, civil disobedience, sit-ins, and hunger strikes gained worldwide attention. Educated in England, learning humility and forgiveness from the New Testament, and seeing racial injustice in South Africa, Gandhi turned his attention to his home country.

Known as the “Father of the Nation,” he led a nationalist movement for independence and racial and gender equality in India. “Mahatma Gandhi Biography” on Biography Online offers this quote from Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – ) is a national leader who opposed military rule in Burma, now known as Myanmar. She is the daughter of the opposition leader of Burma’s independence movement, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was two years old. By 1988 popular unrest against military rule was strong, and Aung San Suu Kyi assumed a leading role in the struggle for political change. She and her supporters formed the National League for Democracy.

According to the Dictionary of the Modern Politics of South-East Asia, by Michael Leifer, 1995, found on, “Aung San Suu Kyi has been the most credible opposition leader to have challenged military rule in Burma since its establishment in 1962.” In 1989, she was placed under house arrest by the military. When offered her freedom if she left the country, she refused. She was elected Prime Minister in 1990, but the military disavowed the vote. In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent fight for democracy. In 2012, she was released from house arrest and now speaks up for democracy around the world.

Other civil rights pioneers

When we think of the gay rights movement, we might think of Americans like Harvey Milk. But 19th-century German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825 – 1895) is known as a pioneer of gay rights. In the 1860s, he published his scientific theory that homosexuality was inborn, not a learned vice, and that the biological basis for homosexuality logically would lead to equal legal and social treatment of homosexuals.

In New Zealand, suffragist Kate Sheppard (1847 – 1934) was instrumental in making that country the first to have universal voting rights for women. As a member of the Temperance Union, Sheppard petitioned Parliament in 1891 in favor of women’s suffrage. After it passed, she encouraged women to register as voters for the 1893 election. She succeeded when nearly two-thirds of women voted.

Who are some other civil rights leaders around the world that have influenced you? Let us know in the comments. 

For more information on civil rights struggles and leaders around the world, check out’s History page and Politics and Government outside the United States.

5 replies
  1. Karamat Iqbal says:

    One figure which could be justifiably added to the above list is that of Mohaamed Ali Jinnah, who gave the Pakistanis their country.

    Laterly, I have also been learning about the history of my birthplace, Kashmir. It has been a disputed territory since 1947, ruled by India and Pakistan between them. One leader who has particularly fascinated me is Sardar Shaukat Ali Kashmiri. His United Kingdom People’s National Party seems to be rare in that it is not concerned so much for its own success but that of pulling together all the diffetent and disperate groups across Kashmir .

    Sardar Shaukat Ali Kashmiri has been declared a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International and is currently living in exile in Switzerland.

  2. muhammad hasan imam says:

    an unexplored horizon rightly explored. how the civil rights were suppressed also valuable and can be explored in this article, though not fully.

  3. Carolyn says:

    While I understand the connection to Civil Rights, I find it ridiculous that you would use the 28 days set aside for Black History to talk about civil rights leaders in other country. There are 11 other months out of the year when you can do that.

  4. Misbah I says:

    An observation to note about the situation of human rights of minorities
    in Myanmar. Her complete silence on the brutal treatment of Rohingya minority
    in her own country smacks of multiple-standards and is most deplorable.
    Why has she not condemned these atrocities? In that case she would have
    done some justice to the august Nobel prize she received. Why?


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