People who broke the rules to do the right thing
July 31, 2012 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Please tell me about obscure, little-known, or forgotten people who broke the rules, disobeyed orders, destroyed their careers, got ostracized, or endangered themselves in order to do what they saw as the right thing.

I think the actions of Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew during the My Lai Massacre are a good example of what I mean. (Though this event is probably still more well-known than what I'm looking for).

But I'm also interested in actions that were way less dangerous, more mundane, and way more obscure, like the young Swedish women who infiltrated medical lectures at the University of London in 1902 to expose vivisection practices.

I have also found many accounts like these in the stories collected by Yad Vashem about the Righteous Among the Nations during the Holocaust. But the stories don't have to be heroic, just rule-breaking is enough.
posted by cairdeas to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
There was a post on the blue recently about a WWII US Navy Captain/Commander from the Pacific theater who was wrongly blamed for the sinking of his ship by a Japanese sub. Looks like it was about Charles McVay. Not that he willfully did the right thing instead of an "easier" option as much as he was framed for doing the wrong thing I suppose but most of the rest of your descriptors fit and he was later discovered to be doing the right thing.

I'm sure a few early polar explorers I've read about fit the bill as well but I can't think of names off the top of my head.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:38 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mary Seacole.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:42 AM on July 31, 2012

"Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станисла́в Евгра́фович Петро́в; born c. 1939) is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. On September 26, 1983 he was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early warning system when the system reported a small launch from the United States. Petrov judged that the report was a false alarm. This decision may have prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its Western allies. Investigation later confirmed that the satellite warning system had malfunctioned." - Wikipedia
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:43 AM on July 31, 2012 [16 favorites]

Does anyone outside of Connecticut know about Prudence Crandall?
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:44 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tim DeChristopher. I met him last year before his trial, super nice guy, good heart. His decision to go ahead and bid on that land was a last minute decision - he only came there to protest, but was so moved by the whole situation that he decided to break the law.
posted by carmel at 11:45 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mihajlo Mihajlov:
Only much later did I become aware of how deeply this quality resided in Misha’s spirit. Not only did he never fight for power, but he could not have been more indifferent to rank, title, or career. When he left for the West in 1978, he had worldwide renown. Andrei Sakharov nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, Malcolm Muggeridge, a leading British publicist, proclaimed the collection of essays that he authored, Unscientific Thoughts, to be the book of the year, Prince Charles sent him a handwritten letter, and politicians, artists and distinguished intellectuals wanted to meet him. However, even though he was teaching Russian literature and philosophy at prestigious American universities, Misha devoted most of his energy and time to activities from which he gained no personal benefit – he wrote political articles and gave interviews, initiated actions that would help dissidents in Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, created committees for democracy in Yugoslavia and worldwide, and engaged in polemics with Yugoslav and Russian émigrés.

Misha showed no concern for his well-being. He did not eat regularly, nor did he care if the food he ate was healthy. He slept little, he visited the doctor only on rare occasions, he often did not dress warmly. He could have lived anywhere he wanted – in America, in European capitals, in Moscow – but he chose to return to our country and to end his days in a tiny apartment in Belgrade. And he was never bitter that our society did not bestow upon him the honors he undoubtedly deserved.
posted by languagehat at 11:45 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Stanislav Petrov averted a potential nuclear war when an early warning system malfunctioned and reported the US had fired missiles at Russia. He judged the warnings to be a false alarm and didn't report it up to his superiors. After a lot of questioning and early praise he was reprimanded, reassigned to a different post and then took early retirement and had a nervous breakdown.
posted by mikesch at 11:47 AM on July 31, 2012

Mordechai Vanunu is well-known in activist circles for blowing the whistle on Israel's nuclear weapons program but is hardly a household name.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:48 AM on July 31, 2012

Benjamin Lay
posted by donpardo at 11:51 AM on July 31, 2012

You should read Miep Gies' book; she, of course, is well-known for her role in hiding Anne Frank and her family, but her book chronicles an entire network working to save other people.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:59 AM on July 31, 2012

I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC last fall and was amazed at the display showing people who had hidden or otherwise assisted Jews during the Holocaust, people who you've never heard of. Couldn't find anything comprehensive on their website but this list looks great and has lots of links for more info.
posted by jabes at 12:02 PM on July 31, 2012

Dr Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt saved many of his patients during Aktion T4.
posted by scruss at 12:12 PM on July 31, 2012

Bayard Rustin is my hero.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:39 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

The American Civil Rights movement has a number of folks that broke the rules in order to challenge the status quo.

Among them, Anne Braden and her husband, Carl purchased a home for an African American family in a redlined neighborhood in Kentucky. Carl was sentenced and served 8 years in prison for sedition. Afterword, Anne and Carl were blacklisted from employment in Kentucky. Catherine Fosl wrote about her life in Subversive Southerner.
posted by teleri025 at 1:01 PM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Eyal Press has written a great book (Beautiful Souls) all about these people. Nazi officers who allowed Jewish refugees to enter their country, etc.
posted by wintersonata9 at 1:40 PM on July 31, 2012

Timely, since yesterday was the anniversary of the USS Indianapolis sinking
A PBY Catalina seaplane under the command of Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. En route to the scene, Marks overflew Cecil J. Doyle and alerted her captain, future U.S. Secretary of the Navy W. Graham Claytor, Jr., of the emergency. On his own authority, Claytor decided to divert to the scene.

Arriving hours ahead of Doyle, Marks' crew began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. Having seen men being attacked by sharks, Marks disobeyed standing orders and landed on the open sea. He began taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at the greatest risk of shark attack. Learning the men were the crew of Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. Doyle responded while en route. When Marks' plane was full, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord, damaging the wings so that the plane would never fly again and had to be sunk. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day.

The Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing on Marks's Catalina in total darkness, Doyle halted to avoid killing or further injuring survivors, and began taking Marks' survivors aboard. Disregarding the safety of his own vessel, Captain Claytor pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. This beacon was the first indication to most survivors that rescuers had arrived.
There's also Tomas Lopez, a Florida lifeguard who was fired earlier this summer for leaving his "zone" to save a person drowning on another part of the beach.
posted by Brittanie at 2:36 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is (was) a BBC series called The Choice that featured a lot of people faced with difficult decisions, many of which would seem to fit your criteria. There are 5 years of programme descriptions that name the people being featured and what they are notable for.
posted by sagwalla at 3:18 PM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's also Booker Wright, a black waiter in Greenwood, MS in the early 60's who was interviewed for a documentary about how white people viewed black people. In the documentary, he described what it felt like to be on the receiving end of racism. This documentary was viewed throughout the nation making it a very dangerous thing for him to do. You can read more about it here.
posted by 5Leepy! at 3:36 PM on July 31, 2012

I don't know if it's obscure enough for you, but Chiune Sugihara is an absolute hero in my book.
posted by smoke at 5:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dirk Willems was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his religious beliefs. He escaped, but a man pursuing him fell through thin ice. He turned back to rescue the man and was recaptured and subsequently executed.
posted by madmethods at 8:08 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Norman Morrison burned himself to death outside the office of the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to protest the Vietnam War.

Thich Quang Duc's similar protest is much more famous.
posted by lamp at 8:27 PM on July 31, 2012

Ignaz Semmelweis! As a doctor in 19th-century Vienna, he realized that death in childbirth could be reduced dramatically if the doctor washed his hands before delivering the baby. After he imposed policies requiring the doctors in his clinic to wash their hands, maternal deaths dropped dramatically . . . but since germ theory wasn't yet accepted, he was ridiculed, and most of the medical establishment dismissed his suggested procedures. His outrage over the reception of his ideas and continuing high rates of maternal death almost certainly contributed to his apparent mental breakdown; he was forcibly committed to a mental institution, where he died.

You probably already know about him if you've been researching the Righteous among the Nations, but Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued visas to about 30,000 refugees from the Nazis and lost his career for it.

Moses Wright, Emmett Till's uncle, identified his nephew's murderers in court at a time when it was unheard of for a black man to testify against a white man. He left for Chicago immediately after testifying and was never able to live in Mississippi again.
posted by ostro at 9:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well there is this man, Leonid Telyatnikov, who tried desperately to contaiin the fire at reactor #4 in Chernobyl.

The pilots of the airliner described in this accident. Do not click if you are afraid of flying.

Doris Miller, navy cook in the segregated military, unsung hero of Pearl Harbor, died at sea later in the war.
posted by xetere at 9:29 PM on July 31, 2012

Malachi Ritscher poured gasoline over himself and burned himself to death on the side of the Kennedy expressway during morning rush hour, Friday November 3, 2006, his way of protesting the US rape of Iraq.

He left a suicide video on youtube, explaining his reasons.

An interesting guy, he spent his death wisely -- he says in the vid that he's only got one death and he intended to use it as a voice. A voice that was not heard, mostly -- none of the news wires picked it up.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:14 PM on July 31, 2012

Oh, and

posted by dancestoblue at 10:15 PM on July 31, 2012

You may want to do a web search for whistle-blowers. I'm thinking of a recent story in SF Chronicle about a teacher who reported a colleague's misappropriation of funds and then basically got his walking papers for rocking the boat. Kind of depressing to see people get penalized for doing the right thing but there you go.
posted by quadog at 10:53 PM on July 31, 2012

Stanley Adams who blew the whistle on Roche's prize fixing of vitamins in Africa. He lost pretty much everything for it, shopped by the then EEC he was held in solitary confinement for three months, and his wife committed suicide. A shocking story, even forty years later.
posted by Augenblick at 4:43 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power is an excellent, albeit disturbing, book about whistleblowing in general, and also has specific examples of people (who you probably haven't heard of ) who did it and what happened. Kind of a depressing read, but extremely interesting; I highly recommend it.
posted by littlecatfeet at 6:04 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a book called The Hare with Amber Eyes that tells the story of a collection of Japanese netsuke. They belonged to a wealthy Jewish family who fled Vienna at the start of WWII. One of their Gentile servants was forced by the Nazis to help carry off all the valuables in their home; she couldn't save any of the jewels or art but she tucked a couple of netsuke in her pocket every day. She took them home and hid them in her mattress, and returned the entire collection to the family after the war was over.
posted by nonasuch at 6:17 AM on August 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

From Kitterman, David H: Those Who Said "No!": Germans Who Refused to Execute Civilians during World War II

On July 24, 1942, Wehrmacht First Lieutenant Battel convinced his superior, Ortskommado Major Liedtke, that they should take all Jews working for the Wehrmacht, feed, house them, and place them under military protection. He also closed the bridges to the SS and SD to prevent them from rounding up Jewish civilians. Protests by the SS led to Himmler transfering Battel to a front line combat unit, with the intent of having him arrested and thrown out from the Party after the war.

Oberleutnant Dr. jur. Nikolaus Ernst Franz Hornig, commanding a platoon in Russia, was ordered to shoot 780 Russian prisoners of war who had been separated out of Stalag 325. He refused as a jurist, a Catholic, and an army officer. For his refusal, he was tried for refusing to obey orders and 'seeking to undermine the fighting spirit of his troops'. He was held in the Bunchenwald concentration camp for three years, though not as an ordinary prisoner; he kept his rank and officer's pay.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:54 AM on August 1, 2012

Peter Norman
posted by deadchia at 8:17 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

James Hansen, who is one of the most well renowned climate scientist, and head of NASA Goddard Institute, has been trying to raise awareness about climate science for several decades. When conventional research hasn't been enough, he has resorted to very unconventional means (for a scientist) such as participating in public protests. He was censored by the Bush administration and he has also been arrested. A personal hero of mine.
posted by jacobwallstrom at 11:11 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

A fairly recent one:

McDonald's has denied workers compensation benefits to minimum wage employee Nigel Haskett, who was shot when he ejected a customer who had been beating a woman inside the Little Rock, AK restaurant where he worked.

McDonald's told the press that "we have denied this claim in its entirety as it is our opinion that Mr. Haskett's injuries did not arise out of or within the course and scope of his employment."

Video here.
posted by magstheaxe at 3:22 PM on August 1, 2012

Should add that Haskett spent a month in the hospital, and has medical bills in excess of $300,000.
posted by magstheaxe at 3:23 PM on August 1, 2012

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Bradley Manning. He did what he believed was right for his country, and will likely be tried for some form of treason eventually.
posted by spiderskull at 6:33 PM on August 1, 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
posted by dracomarca at 11:03 AM on August 6, 2012

Many thanks for all of your answers, everyone, they were exactly what I was hoping for. Fantastic thread.
posted by cairdeas at 6:35 PM on August 6, 2012

Joe Darby.
posted by Unioncat at 7:45 PM on August 7, 2012

Also among the Righteous Among Nations is Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Lithuania from 1939-1940. He issued approximately 6000 travel visas to Jews to travel through Japan, in direct violation of orders and saving thousands of lives.

The image of him tossing blank visas with just the seal and his signature out the train as he was being forced to leave just makes me sob. Like, seriously, I'm trying not to cry right now.

I have a personal friend whose family escaped Poland on Sugihara visas; they came to the US through Asia.
posted by endless_forms at 1:39 PM on August 9, 2012

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