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10 Human Rights Activists That You Should Know About

Jane Partizpanyan

10 Human Rights Activists That You Should Know About

Decades ago, on December 10, 1948, The United Nations General Assembly outlined basic rights and freedoms that all humans are entitled to. In 1950, the United Nations invited all members to celebrate Human Rights Day. Half a century later, in 2001, President George W. Bush declared the first ever Human Rights Week, which has now expanded to be a monthlong world-wide holiday.

Since today, December 10, is Human Rights Day, here are ten human rights activists, stemming from the United States and the Soviet Union, that you should know about.

  1. Georgy Pavlovich Khomizuri

Born on February 9, 1942 in Baku, Azerbaijan, Georgy Pavlovich Khomizuri is a Georgian scientist and journalist. He began copying and distributing samizdat literature in Yerevan,Armenia soon after meeting active dissidents. On November 10, 1982 he was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. He was sentenced to six years in a maximum security prison camp and three years in exile. His verdict stated “In order to weaken and undermine Soviet power, the defendant was engaged in anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda – he produced, stored and distributed literature containing slanderous fabrications that discredited the Soviet state and social system.”

He was released early in 1987 due to Gorbachev’s perestroika. After his release he edited for the Armenian Subcommittee of the International Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners and he now dedicates most of his time studying forms of Soviet repressions towards scientists.


Khomizuri in Yerevan, Armenia at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Armenian SSR / KGB, 1987.

2. Yelena Bonner

Yelena Bonner was a human rights activist and Soviet dissident born to an Armenian father and Jewish mother. Her step-father founded the Soviet Armenian Communist Party and her mother was a communist activist. Her step-father and uncle were executed during Stalin’s Great Purge and her mother was sent to the gulag for ten years and exile for 9. Bonner served as head nurse during World War II and was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran after being wounded twice. She earned a degree in pediatrics and later married Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. 

Beginning in the 1940’s, Bonner began helping the families of political prisoners. Several years later she began to actively take part in human rights related activities. She co-founded the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976 and was later arrested for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda in April of 1984. She was sent to exile in Gorky, Russia where she took part in multiple hunger strikes. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bonner stayed active in human rights activity all around the world. She died in Boston, Massachusetts in 2011 at the age of 88 from heart failure.

Yelena Bonner June 15, 1989

3. Andrei Sakharov

Nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and activist, Andrei Sakharov won great respect within the Soviet Union for his design of the Soviet thermonuclear weapons. 

Sakharov began his political activism in the 1960’s. While advocating against nuclear proliferation, this prompted the KGB to keep tabs on his activity. One of his essays was published in samizdat and illegally circulated. Once discovered, he lost his ability to conduct military-related research. 

For 12 years before his exile to Gorky, Russia, Sakharov worked openly as a dissident in society. He fought for prisoners and democratization. In 1970 he became one of the co-founders of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR. On January 22, 1980, Sahharov was arrested and sent into internal exile in Gorky, Russia, which was off limits to foreigners. He was kept under KGB surveillance for 6 years. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights activism while he was in exile.

After his release from exile he became a political leader, as the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. He died unexpectedly in 1989, the day before he was supposed to present an important speech to Congress.

Sakharov being interviewed at a USSR Academy of Sciences conference.

4. Rafael Papayan

Rafael Papayan was an Armenian philologist, political prisoner, human rights activist, writer and judge on the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia.

Papyan was arrested on November 10, 1982 by the KGB in Soviet Armenia for circulating samizdat literature and taking part in dissident activity. Samizdat literature was illegally printed literature that the government of the Soviet Union had banned due to their anti-Soviet qualities, which included advocating for human rights. He was charged under Article 65 of the Criminal Code of the Armenian SSR, which was anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Papayan was sentenced to four years in a maximum security prison camp in Barashevo, Mordovia and two years in exile. During his sentencing he still continued illegal activity by notifying friends outside of the camp about the human rights abuses taking place within the labor camp.

After being released early in 1987 due to Gorbachev’s reforms, he continued to fight for human rights. He was one of the leading intellectual figures that pushed for Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union and in 1990 he became the chairman of the Standing Committee for Human Rights. He became the first person to present the human rights crisis of Nagorno-Karabakh on the stage of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He later was elected as a judge on the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia. At the end of his life, he published a book of poetry and translations titled “Flight.” He dedicated it to all of the victims of the Soviet Gulag.

Rafael Papayan on the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia.

5. Tatyana Velikanova

Velikanova became a Soviet dissident in 1968 after witnessing the 1968 Red Square demonstration, which was a protest that took place by 8 demonstrators who were against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her husband, Konstantin Babitsky, was one of the demonstrators and was arrested on the spot, being sentenced to 3 years in exile. In May of 1969, Velikanova and fourteen other dissidents co-founded the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR. This action group became the first civic organization of the Soviet human rights movement.

In 1970 she began writing for the periodical A Chronicle of Current Events, which was an unofficial samizdat periodical being circulated in secret. This periodical reported on human rights violations that were happening throughout the entire USSR. Four years later, a massive crackdown was brought upon the journal by the KGB. In order to save others from blame, Velikanova and two other people took sole responsibility. She was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda. She was sentenced to 4 years in a prison camp and 5 years in exile. She was one of the last women political prisoners still in captivity and refused Gorbachev’s offer of amnesty, demanding to be absolved of any crimes and serving her sentence until the very end.

Tatyana Velikanova

6. James Farmer

During the civil rights movement, James Leonard Farmer Jr. worked as an activist and leader. He advocated for non-violent resistance in order to end segregation. He helped organize the first ever Freedom Ride, where a group of Black and White anti-segregationists rode interstate buses throughout the segregated south of America in order to showcase the severe racism going on in these areas of the country. This encouraged the Supreme Court to enforce that segregated buses are unconstitutional. 

Farmer was considered to be one of the four most important civil rights leaders of the time, standing shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King Jr. In 1942 he co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality in Chicago, Illinois, which was dedicated to ending racial segregation in the United States through non-violent tactics. In 1963, armed Louisiana state troopers tried to hunt Farmer down in order to stop his protest organizations. He had to play dead in the back of a hearse in order to escape town unharmed. 

In his later life, Farmer gave lectures in universities, ran for office and even worked in the White House under the Nixon administration before resigning.

James Farmer at an American Society of Newspaper Editors Meeting.

7. Catherine Burks-Brooks

Catherine Burks-Brooks worked as a teacher and social worker after graduating Tennessee State University in America. But before dedicating her life to her students and social work, she took part in civil rights activism in 1961. She took part in the Freedom Rides after hearing about it first from John Lewis. But even before taking part in the Freedom Rides, Burk-Brooks has already been arrested multiple times in Birmingham, Alabama for taking part in anti-segregation demonstrations. 

During one of the Freedom Rides through the south, Burks-Brooks was caught in the midst of a riot as White supremacists attacked the bus she was riding in. She witnessed one of her fellow Freedom Riders, James Zwerg, being attacked. The following day, she watched as angry segregationists surrounded First Baptist Church and set the building on fire. 

In August of 1961, Burks-Brooks married Paul Brooks, a fellow Freedom Rider. Together they went on to advocate for Mississippi voter registration.

Catherine Burks-Brooks’ mugshot, taken in Jackson, Mississippi.

8. James Zwerg

Born on November 28, 1939, James Zwerg was a minister who took part in the civil rights movement and the Freedom Rides when he was young. Zwerg was able to see the unfair treatment his Black friend got while they attended Beloit College. His first taste of activism was when he unpledged from a sorority after finding out that his Black friend would not be allowed to join. While attending Nashville Fisk University as an exchange student, Zwerg met John Lewis who was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He soon joined the SNCC. His first assignment was to try and walk in a movie theater with a Black man. Zwerg was hit in the head with a wretch and knocked unconscious.

During the Freedom Rides, Zwerg was initially arrested, while heading to Birmingham, Alabama, for not moving to the back of the bus with his Black companion Paul Brooks. Later, while heading to Montgomery, the Freedom Riders in the bus were attacked on all sides. Zwerg was pummeled and beaten unconscious. He remained in the hospital for five days and was unconscious for two of them. He gave a moving anti-segregation speech in the hospital and gruesome photos of his injuries were splattered all over the newspapers.

Later in 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. presented him with the Christian Leadership Conference Freedom Award. With the encouragement of King, Zwerg enrolled in Garrett Theological Seminary to pursue theology. He has explored multiple careers since then, including charity work.

A bloodied Zwerg stands, waiting for an ambulance, just after being beaten by White supremacists during the Freedom Rides.

Courtesy of Getty Images

9. Mary Livermore

Mary Livermore was born on December 19, 1820. She was an American journalist, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was extremely bright since she was a child, graduating school several years early. She wasn’t able to expand her education much, as women were not allowed to seek any higher form of education at the time, but she graduated from an all-women’s seminary in 1836. She taught there for two years after graduating, then began tutoring at a Virginia plantation. After witnessing the horrors of slavery at the plantation, she became an abolitionist. She left the plantation to teach and eventually began to do journalistic work. While reporting from the Republican National Convention, Livermore was the only woman journalist among hundreds of men. 

During the Civil War, Livermore worked as a nurse and sent food and supplies to hundreds of hospitals and battlefields. After the war, she dedicated her time to women’s suffrage. In 1868 she co-founded the Chicago Sorosis Club, which was the first women’s group in Chicago, Illinois to advocate for a women’s right to vote. She went on to write for a couple of suffragist journals and co-founded the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, serving also as its first president.

Steel engraving of Mary Livermore by A.H. Ritchie.

10. Mary Ann Shadd

American-Canadian anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher and lawyer, Mary Ann Shadd, was born on October 9, 1823. She was the first Black woman to attend law school in the United States and was the first Black woman published in North America. Her family was involved with the Underground Railroad.

In 1840, when she returned back from school, she founded an all Black school for children. When she was 25 years old she wrote to Frederick Douglass in a letter, expressing her opinion on how to improve the lives of African-Americans. Douglass published her letter in his paper. In 1853, she founded her own anti-slavery paper. Four years later the paper shut down due to financial difficulty. From 1855-1856, Shadd traveled America as an anti-slavery speaker. She became the only woman allowed to attend the 1855 Philadelphia Colored Convention due to her pro-emigration stance. During the Civil War she recruited Black volunteers into the Union Army in the state of Indiana. 

After the war she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association and later became the first Black woman to vote in a national election. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and in 2021 had a post office named after her in Delaware.

Mary Ann Shadd