Some of today’s students often question why studying history is important. History provides us with examples of people who faced adversity and survived. It also helps us understand how our current history has evolved. We can gain insight into today’s world by reflecting on some of the following influential figures:
Fidel Castro’s significance as one of the world’s top historical figures centered on his status as leader of the nation of Cuba for almost 50 years. Castro became a lawyer and developed a reputation as a local attorney who represented the poor in Havana. Castro began organizing the poor in 1952 to protest the government of General Fulgencio Batista.
In 1959, Batista was forced to leave Cuba, and Castro began making improvements to benefit the people. Castro took control of the nation’s commerce and industry, expanded health services, and worked to eliminate illiteracy. He outlawed all political parties except the Communist Party. At that time, Castro had control of every aspect of the Cuban government and was taking money from the Soviet Union.
The U.S. tried to overthrow Castro’s government but failed, causing the Bay of Pigs incident, and initiating the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it devastated Cuba’s economy. Castro allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and began sending healthcare workers to Venezuela in exchange for oil. In 2006, the ailing Castro passed power to his brother, Raul, and finally stepped down from power in 2008.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson grew up in Texas and entered the political arena with a seat in the House of Representatives, and then a post as a Senator. In 1960, he was chosen as Vice-President by John F. Kennedy. Johnson’s emergence as one of the world’s top historical figures occurred in 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, and Johnson was sworn in as President.
Johnson established social programs that benefit many people, including the Medicare Bill, in 1965. The Medicare bill also established Medicaid, which provides healthcare benefits for low-income people. Both programs continue to help U.S. citizens today, although many people today need assistance from Medicare and Medicaid lawyers.
Despite Johnson’s successes, there was unrest in urban areas, as the ghettos began to be overrun with protestors. A national crisis arose when our relationship with Vietnam deteriorated and came to a head in 1965. Johnson reduced some of our country’s bombings in Vietnam, so he could devote more efforts toward negotiations for peace. President Johnson was so intent on trying to achieve peace that he withdrew his candidacy for Presidential re-election to devote his efforts to working toward peace.
Benjamin Franklin grew up in Boston and began working as a printer and essayist. During the 1730s, he established the country’s first public library, post office, and fire department. During the 1740s, he became interested in science – especially electricity. He conducted several experiments, including the now-famous kite experiment that proved lightning is electrical.
Franklin was also a prolific inventor and improved eyeglasses by inventing bifocals. In 1751, he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Assembly, where he began his emergence as one of the world’s top historical figures. Franklin made several trips to Europe to speak on behalf of the colonies and returned to the U.S. just as the Revolutionary War was starting.
Franklin then attended the Second Continental Congress and helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, Franklin was appointed as ambassador to France, and then, in 1782-1783, he traveled to Britain to facilitate the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. In 1785, Franklin returned to Pennsylvania to serve in the Pennsylvania government.
Malcolm X began life as Malcolm Little and grew up in Nebraska. When he was 21, Malcolm was sent to jail for robbery. In prison, he learned of the Islamic teachings of Elijah Muhammed. Malcolm converted to Islam and changed his surname to Malcolm ‘X.’
Malcolm became instrumental in the growth of the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and 1960s. Malcolm’s philosophy promoted self-defense and urged the people to resist racial oppression ‘by any means necessary.’ His popularity soon made him one of the world’s top historical figures in the cause of Civil Rights.
In 1963, he left the Nation of Islam, and his philosophy became more moderate. In 1964, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which named racism – rather than white supremacy – as the enemy. In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three gunmen in New York City. His lasting influence is evident in the number of custom T shirt printing services that continue to display his image.
Nelson Mandela was born in South Africa and began working as a lawyer. In 1944, he became the leader of the ANC (African National Congress) and led that group to vocally oppose apartheid (a policy of racial segregation) in South Africa. In 1952, Mandela and Oliver Tambo started the first Black law firm in South Africa. Those two attorneys specialized in cases that opposed apartheid policies.
His policies angered the government, and in 1956, he was jailed for treason. His opposition to apartheid made him one of the world’s top historical figures. In 1960, a group of Black South Africans were killed by police, leading Mandela to encourage sabotage against the government. In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison but remained a unifying symbol of justice for his supporters.
In 1988-1989, South Africa’s Presidents Botha and De Klerk met with Mandela to see if he could help them defuse the deteriorating political climate. Mandela was released from prison by President De Klerk in 1990 and quickly became the President of the ANC. In 1994, Mandela was elected President of South Africa and continued to work for peace and social justice for the rest of his life.
Jonas Salk was an M.D., appointed as the head of the Virus Research Laboratory of the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. There, he began researching polio – a virus that affected hundreds of thousands of children. Polio had also caused paralysis of both legs for President Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt created a Foundation to fund research into Poliovirus.
The Foundation used celebrity endorsements to raise $20 million for polio research. Salk’s research at the University was primarily funded by the March of Dimes. Salk’s research led to the development of an injectable polio vaccine. In 1955, Salk’s injectable vaccine for polio was released for use in the U.S.
Although an oral polio vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin in 1960, Salk is remembered as one of the world’s top historical figures because his polio vaccine was the first. The two polio vaccinations dramatically reduced the percentage of children who contracted the virus. In its way, the eradication of diseases by such vaccines was as influential on the health of the world’s citizens as everyday healthcare measures like tactical medical kits.
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia is more commonly known as ‘Catherine the Great”. When she was 14, Catherine was chosen to marry her cousin, Peter III, the crown prince of Russia. Unfortunately for Catherine, Peter was mentally unbalanced, drank heavily, and enjoyed humiliating his wife. Several high-ranking Russian officials admired Catherine and began to believe she was more fit to wear the crown than her morally bankrupt husband.
Catherine also had the support of the liberals of society, and in 1762, she led a group of her supporters into St. Petersburg and proclaimed herself Empress of Russia, becoming one of the world’s top historical figures. Peter III abdicated his throne and was assassinated eight days later. Catherine had grand ambitions for Russia and longed to bring about a culture of justice. Her biggest challenge was to restore the royal treasury, which had been depleted for many years.
Catherine therefore taxed the land belonging to the clergy, which equaled about one-third of Russia’s land. In 1773, Yemelyan Pugachov, claiming to be the ghost of the dead Emperor Peter III, led an uprising against Catherine, but he was captured and beheaded. To gather more revenue, Catherine enslaved the Ukrainians and placed her allies into positions of power. The Russian people will remember her reign in Russia as a time when the peasants’ lives worsened while the Empress preserved an indulgent and luxurious life for herself.
Martin Luther was a German monk who became dissatisfied with some of the actions of the Catholic Church, which he believed were inconsistent with the Bible. In 1517, Luther began publicly protesting the church for its sale of indulgences (documents purchased at the church to give the buyer forgiveness for specific sins). Luther argued that only faith can provide forgiveness for sin. In October 1517, Luther nailed a list of his ’95 Theses’ on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.
Luther chose Wittenberg’s door because one of its friars, Johann Tetzel, had been vocal in promoting indulgences. Luther’s ideas spread through Europe, making Luther one of the world’s top historical figures. During 1519 – 1520, Luther wrote and distributed pamphlets detailing his views of the truths of Christian theology.
Luther’s ideas became popular, despite opposition from the Pope, and grew to the point of inspiring a public outcry – known as the Reformation. Their main theological points surrounded the ideas that forgiveness from sin comes only from faith in God, and their desire to decrease the authority of the Pope. Luther was excommunicated but remained steadfast in his beliefs. He went into hiding, married an ex-nun – and opened the doors to marriage for Protestant clergy.
Vladimir Lenin was a philosopher who became a devotee of Karl Marx and declared himself a Marxist. He earned his law degree and got some legal experience in St. Petersburg during the 1890s. His Marxist activities led to his arrest, and he was exiled to Siberia. In 1898, he changed his surname to Lenin and founded the Bolshevik Party.
From then on, his reputation grew, and he became considered one of the world’s top historical figures. In 1917, at the climax of the Russian Revolution, Lenin organized an army of the people and seized control of the government. Lenin was proclaimed ruler of the new government of Russia. One of the first acts of the Soviet government was to end Russia’s role in World War I.
Lenin then attempted to replenish the treasury by nationalizing all manufacturing and industry. Lenin also established the Checka – a secret police force. The Checka was intended to silence Lenin’s opposition and executed 100,000 ‘enemies’ of Lenin. In 1922, Lenin’s Red Army won the Russian Civil War, and he annexed several of his nearby allied countries to create the new nation known as the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
Socrates was a Greek philosopher whose views were considered controversial. He wasn’t a writer, but his philosophical views were publicized by fellow philosophers Plato and Xenophon. Writings about Socrates portray him as a man of great wisdom and integrity and a worthy addition to the list of top historical figures. At age 70, Socrates was tried for impiety.
Aristotle’s work, ‘Apology of Socrates,’ is alleged to have been the speech Socrates gave in support of Socrates’ views at his trial. Socrates was found guilty by the court and sentenced to death by poison. After his death, his beliefs were popularized by Plato and Xenophon.
One of Xenophon’s works, Memorabilia, was a clear defense of the charges against Socrates. Some of Xenophon’s writing revealed thoughts attributed to Socrates. It is felt that Plato’s works on Socrates accurately portray Socrates and his views. Much of the art inspired by Socrates depicts him seated in a courtyard on a piece of carpet, with a group of followers seated around him, giving him looks of rapt attention.
When examining the lives of these top historical figures, we see patterns. We see the rise and fall in popularity for many of these people. We also see their boldness and selflessness. Most of all, they serve as an example that those who make an impact on history can emerge from anywhere, so perhaps we can also make an impact on history if we make our views and actions known.