Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, died Friday in Oxford, England at the age of 83.
It is a story of the sort that warms my heart because it is the story of one person fearlessly taking action against great injustices: In 1961, on reading of two students who had been jailed in Portugal for drinking a toast to liberty, Benenson wrote an essay for the Observer (London) suggesting that ordinary people turn their outrage over prisoners of conscience worldwide into action by writing letters of protest to the governments that were imprisoning, torturing, and executing people for their beliefs. What began as a one-year campaign turned into a global movement that evolved into the world's largest and most respected human rights organization.
Not only did Benenson demonstrate by his own actions the power of one person to change the world, he did it with humility. Consider this from the AI tribute to him:
Inordinately modest and self-effacing, the one-time lawyer who launched Amnesty International in 1961 would never claim credit for the sea-change of the last 40 years. He was offered knighthoods by almost every successive British Prime Minister but he never accepted.
Each Prime Minister who wrote to him received a personal response from Benenson--who typed his own letters until late in life--in which he would cite the current human rights violations Amnesty was confronting in the UK. He would suggest, without mincing his words, that if the government wished to take account of his work for human rights, what mattered was to redress those abuses.