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Harry Hay, Pauli Murray and Medgar Evers.
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James R. Gaines is the former managing editor of TIME and the author of several books, most recently The Fifties: An Underground History available on Feb. 8 from Simon & Schuster.

A popular theory of social progress holds that it starts not by winning the hearts and minds of the people but by changing the law, after which hearts and minds will follow. The top-down theory, however, misses an earlier step in the path to change: the moment when a singular individual, troubled by some intimately personal conflict with their society and with themselves, is stubborn and brave enough to confront rather than evade it. Alone at first, sometimes for many years, their commitment to a solution eventually inspires others, until in time their collective determination manages to change the hearts and minds—and the political self-interests—of those who make the laws.

For a model of social progress in American history, the last place to look would be the postwar period, 1946-1963, sometimes known as the “long Fifties.” After 15 years of Depression and war—and then a nuclear-armed standoff that passed for peace—the retreat into a fearful conformity ruled, and progressive initiatives took on the character of subversion. It was a time when, as Norman Mailer put, “a stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage we have been witness to is the courage of isolated people.”

A half-century later, those “isolated people” are some of the most consequential figures in American history. In a time of nearly universal homophobia, racism, sex discrimination and thoughtless assaults on the natural world, a few brave, stubborn, de-centered people fought against all odds for gay rights, feminism, civil rights and protection of the natural world. They were heroes in their time and present us today with a challenging model of how change actually begins.

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Harry Hay is a vivid case in point. Like millions of other gay men in the postwar period, he was living a double life. Unlike most, he was married to a woman who knew of his “homophilia” but was convinced she could cure him of it. He considered her his best friend, and they had adopted two young daughters, whom he loved as deeply as any father could. He was also a dedicated, longtime member of the U.S. Communist Party, which cast out gays as perverts and psychopaths.

Harry Hay was an American gay rights activist, communist and labor advocate. (Alamy)
Harry Hay was an American gay rights activist, communist and labor advocate.

By the late 1940s, however, he had for years felt increasingly torn about living what he saw as a fundamentally dishonest life, and at some point he entered what he called his “period of terror.” His sleep was troubled by dreams of falling down mountainsides, crashing in his car, losing his children in the wild, even hurting them and his wife, and his waking life became nightmarish as well. Pictures of him in the family album from that period show a man who was plainly distraught. Finally, in 1948, he was driven to the preposterously untimely idea of forming a movement to assert the rights of homosexuals and their rightful place in society. After that, as he knew would happen, he had to move out of the family home. He also lost his membership and comrades in the Party and virtually every friend he had. And for all that, he could not find anyone to join him in the cause for almost two years. Finally, one by one, he did, and in May 1953, at the first convention of his “Mattachine Society,” he had the pleasure of looking out over an auditorium full of gay men ready to claim their identities and their rightful place as American citizens.

Read more: What It Was Like to Be an LGBTQ Activist Before Stonewall

That was his last and best moment of triumph. On the final day of the convention, he was forced out of the organization he started in fear that, at the height of McCarthyism, the movement and its members could become victims of his Communist past. Devastated, of course, he could only watch and, in time, take satisfaction from the fact that his Mattachine Society was the first sustained advocacy group for gay rights in U.S. history. Without his unaccountable courage and sheer stubbornness, there might never have been a gay liberation movement, or the freedom to marry the person you love, or the ability of millions of Americans just to live openly as the people they were born to be. It may be that all would have happened without him, but progress is always a figment until it is not, which is why the people who make it make history.

Like Harry Hay, Pauli Murray was an outcast. From her first years in school, as the child of a light-skinned Black family in the South, she was teased, shunned, and otherwise dislocated by her “in-between” race. Later, and far more painfully, she felt estranged from society and from her own body by an “in-between” sense of gender. Convinced that it had to be a physical disorder, she wrote to doctors and, in heartrending precision, appealed to them for diagnosis and treatment, which of course they could not provide. Because she was attracted almost exclusively to heterosexual women, she also endured a series of breakups from people who had become her closest friends.

Pauli Murray was a leader in the struggle against racial discrimination. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Pauli Murray was a leader in the struggle against racial discrimination.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Fortunately, she was also brilliant and, like Hay, relentless. After graduating from a women’s college, she was given a full scholarship to Howard University School of Law. There, as the only woman in her class in 1941, she recognized for the first time the sting of discrimination by sex as well as by race. She was laughed at behind her back, rarely called on in class, and refused membership in a legal fraternity, a step justified by the dean who had given her a full scholarship—and all that at the school where civil rights arguments were routinely devised and rehearsed. The name she coined for that multiple discrimination by race and gender was “Jane Crow,” but making that point in law school then would have been unthinkable. Her final thesis—a far-sighted attack on Plessy v. Ferguson whose boldness her classmates found laughable—later helped Thurgood Marshall make his case in Brown v. Board of Education.

Finally, driven in part by the way male leaders of the civil rights movement slighted even the women who were its most accomplished and well-known activists, Murray co-authored a landmark law-review article, “Jane Crow and the Law.” After that, in and out of court, she proceeded to fight in and out of court for a new, more inclusive feminism, one that recognized multiple, mutually reinforcing sources of discrimination, later to be known as intersectionality. In 1971, her argument in “Jane Crow” became the basis for the winning brief in Reed v. Reed, the first time the Supreme Court declared sex discrimination to be unconstitutional. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who wrote that brief, acknowledged Murray’s contribution by naming her co-author. More than 40 years later, Murray is finally getting rightful credit for all she gave to feminism and to civil rights law.

Read more:Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shares How Pauli Murray Shaped Her Work on Sex Discrimination

Circa 1955: Studio portrait of American civil rights activist Medgar W. Evers. (Hulton Archive—Getty Images)
Circa 1955: Studio portrait of American civil rights activist Medgar W. Evers.
Hulton Archive—Getty Images

One of the best examples of the ways one person can contribute to change is Medgar Evers, a Black veteran of World War II who served from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge. After long and distinguished service for his country, he was repaid by a distinctly unwelcome homecoming. Still in uniform, with his honorable discharge in hand and a chestful of medals, he was made to sit at the back of the bus that brought him home—and refused service at a restaurant along the way, forced to wait on the bus while the other passengers ate inside. Understandably furious and in this respect one among many Black veterans, he was briefly moved to amass arms for a shooting war against racism in America. Instead, Evers became a civil rights activist, and in 1954, named the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. Among his many gifts to the movement was bringing national attention to Emmet Till’s gruesome murder. He was also the most reliable source of moral and other support for James Meredith, the first Black student admitted to Ole Miss. Three months before Meredith’s graduation, Evers was assassinated in his driveway as he came home from another string of very long and exhausting days. Thanks to his wartime service, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, finally recognized for the hero he was.

The list of causes awaiting heroes like Medgar Evers, Pauli Murray and Harry Hay today is long and discouraging, but after taking relentless, effective action against the most intractable problems, these and other champions of change, in the 1950s and throughout American history, leave behind a model of all that a single citizen can do and what it takes—how much it can take—to make change and resist the urge to conform.

“You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than the one to which you wake up every morning,” as American philosopher Richard Rorty put it. “Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.”

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