We've got good news and bad news. The good news is that if you're dedicated, hardworking and a little bit lucky, you can change the world. The bad news is that if you're un-white, a woman or if your name doesn't rhyme with anything cool, there's a strong chance no one will remember you.
So let's take a moment to remember those who got screwed out of history books in favor of some more famous or charismatic peers. Like...
Ask any not-stupid fourth-grader in the country, "Who got the got the American civil rights movement rolling?" and they'll give you one answer: Rosa Parks, durr. Everyone knows that Rosa Parks' refusal to acquiesce her bus seat to a white man was the spark that lit the desegregation fire. And for that one act, Parks was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, had her face plastered on a stamp and was named one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Not too shabby for a day's ride home.
The most any of us has ever gotten out of a bus ride is covered in pee.
Here's the thing, though. Parks was only one lady in a long line of black women who refused to give up their seats. And like Parks, those women were also arrested, scorned and harassed for their bravery. Over a hundred years before Rosa, Elizabeth Jennings Graham insisted on her right to ride a horse-drawn street car in New York City. In an age when black people could still be the property of white people, it took the conductor and a policeman to physically remove her from the car, and her suit against them was what desegregated New York public transit.
Anyone who says anything about Aunt Jemima is a racist.
Still, Graham was ancient history by the time Parks came around. Plus, New York City is no Montgomery, Alabama. But oh, wait -- 15-year-old Claudette Colvin totally lived in Montgomery, Alabama, took the exact same buses as Parks and was also arrested for giving up her seat nine months before Rosa. As was 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith six weeks before Parks' arrest. Same buses. Same city. Same story. What did Colvin and Smith get for their troubles? Not much more than a rap sheet.
So why have we never heard of them?
Because Colvin was a knocked-up teenager and Smith's dad was rumored to have a drinking problem. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, looked like a 19th-century school-marm:
Months before Parks refused to give up her seat, local members of the NAACP were looking for the right test case: someone who could be the face of the civil rights movement as they took their cause to court. Colvin didn't work because not only was she was an unwed, pregnant teenager, but the father of her baby was an older, married man. Plus, she was described as "mouthy" and "feisty," which didn't sit well with leaders who knew that whoever gained notoriety would be a target for every racist on Earth. Likewise, Smith didn't work because word on the street was that her dad was an alcoholic, an allegation she later said wasn't true at all. She didn't even find out she had been in contention for the role until a reporter let it slip in 1995.
Parks, on the other hand, was perfect. Colvin's own mother cited Parks', um, lighter skin color and likable personality as reasons why she should be the one.
It sounds cynical, but you can't argue with the results.
Picture this: Through one clever idea, thousands of hours of monotonous hard work and the willingness to collaborate with an equally dedicated partner, you and a team of crackerjack investigators lock up the biggest gangster of the century, Al Capone.
Now, imagine that everyone in the entire world thinks a fame-hungry co-worker was actually the guy who did the deed. Better yet, imagine a host of movies, books, TV shows and rap lyrics all giving credit to that co-worker FOR THE NEXT 80 YEARS.
Johnson was the old fogey in a suit, and Wilson was the old squarehead in a suit.
In 1929, the federal government decided they'd had it up to here with Al Capone's fat face and his thuggish tomfoolery, so they launched a two-pronged investigation. The first and more exciting prong was catching the OG selling hooch, which would be a violation of the Volstead Act. That team was headed by the now world-famous Eliot Ness and his incorruptible Untouchables. The second line of attack would be catching Big Al on tax evasion, because apparently even bootlegging outlaws are supposed to pay their taxes. That team was headed by Frank J. Wilson, who worked closely with prosecutor George E.Q. Johnson to build their case.
Of the two approaches, you'd think Ness had the easier job. All he had to do was catch a gangster who had an eighth grade education doing something illegal. Johnson and Wilson, on the other hand, had a steaming pile of nothing to work with. They had to prove Al Capone was a millionaire with zero documentation: no bank accounts, no endorsed checks, no mortgage payments or paycheck stubs. Nothing. It took three years of trailing mobster bookies and accountants while infiltrating the Capone inner circle with informants, one of whom was murdered, to get enough information for an indictment.
Ness, meanwhile, spent most of his time posing for glamor shots.
And when the case against Al Capone was finally made, Wilson and Johnson had only 22 charges of tax evasion, while Ness and his team brought up 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. Guess which charges stuck? If you said "the ones about taxes," you win. All those years of Ness' wiretapping and brewery raids equated to zip in the courtroom.
Just to make this clear: Literally nothing from Ness' part of the investigation was useful in putting Capone behind bars.
This is not the sort of behavior you want to encourage in your law enforcement officials.
So why have we never heard of them?
Because Eliot Ness was a crappy writer. Twenty-six years after Capone's trial, Ness decided it was time to put together a memoir. But he couldn't write worth shit, so he collaborated with a sports journalist, and that guy made Ness the central character in the takedown of Al Capone. Ness OK'd the script, then died months before its publication.
That little ghost-written memoir was The Untouchables, which spawned the TV show The Untouchables, the movie and a whole other TV show just for good measure. None of which featured George Johnson or Frank Wilson by name. The closest they came to acknowledging Johnson and Wilson was when the 1987 movie invented a number-crunching Untouchable who worked for Eliot Ness. And even then, the guy is nothing more than a side note in the Kevin Costner Show.
But to be fair, we're all side notes in the Kevin Costner show.
We have previously pointed out that Paul Revere's midnight ride became famous primarily because Revere's name was easy to rhyme in a poem. So it's worth pointing out at least one more impressive feat that got overlooked for rhyme's sake.
In April 1777, the American Revolution was under way, and Colonel Henry Ludington of the American army found himself in a jam. It was spring, so he and his men needed to take a break from the war to get their crops planted for fall (it's not like you got paid so much for being in the army that you could let your entire business fail while you were away). So his entire regiment dispersed to their respective Connecticut farms to get their agriculture game on.
Nothing breaks up the monotony of getting shot at like a few hours of grueling farm work.
This was a problem, because the British weren't following the same schedule as the American farmers. Their day planner had one entry in late April; BURN THE SHIT OUT OF CONNECTICUT. Which they fulfilled gladly. By the time Ludington found out, the town of Danbury was in flames and his troops were spread out across the county, presumably sexing their wives and/or cobbling shoes. What Ludington needed was a phone. Barring that, he used the next best thing: his 16-year-old daughter.
See? It isn't always terrible when the words "youth" and "heroin" show up in the same description.
Beginning at 9 p.m., Sybil Ludington rode side-saddle through 40 miles of rough terrain, ordering her father's men to muster at her house. By the time she returned home the next morning, 400 troops were assembled and ready to fight. While they were too late to save the town, they joined the Continental army the next day and successfully chased the British out of Connecticut. Sybil was treated as a hero, eventually even getting an "Atta girl!" from George Washington himself.
So why have we never heard of her?
Because we get bored if we hear the same story more than once. Just as we only have room in the cultural history for ONE inventor of the light bulb, despite hundreds of people being involved, we have room in our collective hearts for one midnight rider, and Paul Revere filled that spot.
Goddamn, that is a smooth shave.
Despite the fact that this girl rode more than twice as many miles as Revere, and that she was completely alone while Revere had 40 other riders keeping him company, and that Revere was caught and arrested during his ride, which he never actually finished, and that she was a freaking teenage girl -- despite all of that, it is Revere we remember. All because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow picked him to be the subject of his poem "Paul Revere's Ride" 86 years later. And who can blame him? Can you think of anything that rhymes with "Ludington?"
"She carried a... pudding gun..."