5 Ordinary Americans Who Became Martyrs in Death

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Trayvon Martin’s death has prompted protests around the United States. The fact an unknown Florida teenager’s death could make him a household name overnight is due in part to the suspicious circumstances of the case, as well as the power of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle in spotlighting a story that might have been overlooked in past years. But Martin is not the first ordinary person whose death suddenly thrust them into the national consciousness. Here are five others whose deaths came to symbolize something important in American culture.


5. Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese's brutal murder in New York in 1964 made national news.

Kitty Genovese’s death in 1964 sparked outrage.

The details of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese’s murder were gruesome. In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, the Queens, New York, resident was stabbed near her apartment by an attacker who fled, then returned 10 minutes later to further assault and then kill her. That in itself is tragic enough, but when the New York Times reported that 38 people in her apartment complex had either heard or witnessed part of the attack, the incident became national news, raising troubling questions: Why didn’t someone intervene? Had people become so self-absorbed and heartless that a young woman could be stabbed to death and no one tried to prevent it? Although further investigation disproved many of the Times’ claims, Genovese’s death continues to be recounted in sociology and psychology textbooks to this day.


4. Cari Lightner

Cari Lightner came to symbolize the devastation caused by drunk drivers.

Cari Lightner, on the day of her death in 1980.

On the afternoon of May 3, 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner and a friend started walking to a carnival at a neighborhood church in Fair Oaks, California. They never made it. Along the way, a 47-year-old man driving home from a bar after a three-day drinking binge hit Cari, who died at the scene. Cari’s mother, Candace, was outraged when it turned out the driver already had three drunk driving convictions, and had recently posted bail after racking up a hit and run drunk driving charge. The day after her daughter’s funeral, Lightner announced her plans to form the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). As Lightner spoke before Congress and in the media pushing for tougher drunk driving laws, photos of Cari came to personify the harsh toll drunk drivers had taken on innocent victims. Tougher drunk driving laws were enacted across the U.S., saving untold thousands of lives in the years since.


3. Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre.

Crispus Attucks’ death made him a symbol of the American Revolution.

Crispus Attucks’ life before March 5, 1770, is a mystery. Born in the early 1720s to a black father and Native American mother, he went on to work as a sailor. But Attucks’ date with destiny arrived that day in 1770, when British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of colonists in an event that became known as the Boston Massacre. Attucks became the first casualty in the incident, making him a powerful symbol in the colonists’ fight for independence. Attucks’ role in history is honored to this day with schools and roads named in his honor.


2. Todd Beamer

Todd Beamer's famous words, Let's roll!, highlighted the resilience of Americans.

Todd Beamer and other Flight 93 passengers became heroes; Fair use.

Beamer, a passenger on the ill-fated Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was one of almost 3,000 victims in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Beamer and fellow passengers Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick and others fought back against the hijackers, becoming national heroes. As Beamer talked with an operator, he set the counterattack into motion with the immortal words: “Are you guys ready? OK, let’s roll!” That decisive statement during one of America’s darkest hours came to symbolize courage and resilience as the country mourned the national tragedy.


1. Emmett Till

Emmett Till's murder outraged black and white Americans alike.

Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955 helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement.

The American Civil Rights Movement had many key figures and important events. But years before Martin Luther King spoke in front of a quarter-million people in the March on Washington, before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, there was Emmett Till. The 14-year-old African-American was visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955 when he whistled at the young wife of a white storekeeper — a definite no-no in the segregated South. Several days later, the woman’s husband and another man abducted Till at gunpoint from his relative’s house, beat him, mutilated him and shot him to death, tossing his body in a nearby river. The case horrified the nation, as Till’s mother insisted her son’s mutilated body be displayed in an open casket. When the two men charged in the murder were acquitted, blacks and even many whites began clamoring for change. Till’s murder underscored the terrible state of race relations in the American South — and the U.S. as a whole — in the 1950s and is widely credited with inspiring the Civil Rights Movement.


One More: Mary Jo Kopechne

Mary Jo Kopechne's death ruined Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions.

Mary Jo Kopechne

Although she never became a martyr, Mary Jo Kopechne’s death in a mysterious 1969 car accident involving U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy raised questions about whether people in power were held to the same accountability and standards as ordinary people. A common theme throughout history, true, but the issue took on new relevance at a time when the counterculture urged youths to “question authority.” And more than 40 years later, Kopechne’s death still symbolizes the de facto end of the heyday of the Kennedy family dynasty in U.S. politics.

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