Does activism always need a martyr? — Impact-Driven Conversation

Karthiga Ratnam
3 min readApr 2, 2021


“It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

Today is Good Friday. It’s a day to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Before I begin, I would like to state that this post is not intended to question, belittle or sully any religious belief or leader.

I am merely looking to see if there is a connection between activist movements and martyrs.

Source- Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Do all successful activist movements need martyrs? For the movement to have longevity does the face of it need to be a martyr?

Here are a few examples.

  1. Jesus Christ. Stood upto the Pharisees of the time. He moved amongst the commoners and spoke out against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He was extremely popular. The powers that be in Rome at the time were scared that Jesus would lead an insurrection. He was tortured and crucified. Today Christianity is one of the greatest movements in the world. And Jesus Christ is the divine leader.
  2. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against racial inequality and the Vietnam War. Led the civil rights movement in the 50s. Popular with both black and white people. He was assassinated. His death fast-tracked the Fair Housing Act. Today Martin Luther King Jr is synonymous with the civil rights movement.
  3. Mahatma Gandhi. Stood up to the British. Started the non-violent political protest movement. Was instrumental in securing independence for India and neighboring countries. Was assassinated by an extremist. He is the face of civil disobedience and non-violent political protest.

These are just three examples. There are countless. Journalists, poets, activists have died for the cause and inspired a movement. Let's examine what martyr means:

Source — Google

It's basically someone who stands up for what they believe in and loses their life in the process. When our beliefs are so powerful that we make the ultimate sacrifice, it inspires humanity. Those who previously may have been ambivalent or non-believers are suddenly activated.

Whether the original cause was just or not, when the face of that cause is silenced, it adds momentum to the movement. It makes others pick up the mantel. That activism becomes a movement that stands the test of time.

The impact these activists have on humanity is nothing short of miraculous.

Nelson Mandela was also a martyr. A peaceful anti-apartheid activist. Spent 27 years of his life in jail. He too was a peaceful protester that inspired a movement. Upon his release from prison, he was key to ending the apartheid in South Africa. He later went on to become President. His story is different because his long-term impact was caused by life, not death.

Movements, activism require extra-ordinary individuals who are willing to sacrifice for their convictions. That sacrifice inspires the collective to take and demand action. It brings out the humanity in each of us. As Nelson Mandela said, it’s our ability to rise above our fears.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” — Nelson Mandela, Source —

The current climate crisis we face is a collective extinction-level event. The difference here is, we cannot wait for an extraordinary individual to come forward and unite us. We each need to find the courage to conquer our fears and do what’s best for the collective. We need to be the movement we choose to see in the world. We the people need to be the face of the cause.

As to the premise of this article — does activism always need a martyr? It certainly seems to require a group of individuals willing to sacrifice for the greater good.



Karthiga Ratnam

Impact-Driven Category Designer | Working group member Wicked 7