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...
5The African-American Ladies Who Made a Stand Before Rosa Parks
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.
4The Guys Who (Really) Took Down Al Capone
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.