Celebrate Bilbo Baggins’ birthday (September 22) with this list of 6 unlikely heroes. From Oprah to the passengers of United 93, they inspired the world.
One of the greatest joys of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are that the true heroes are not the expected ones. Hobbits, diminutive creatures who would rather eat two breakfasts and smoke pipe weed than have adventures, end up not only carrying the One Ring into the depths of Mordor but literally carrying each other when the ring grows too heavy to bear. They are the most unlikely heroes.
There’s always been something about unlikely heroes that resonates with us all. Sure, the all-star sports hero with all the muscles who stops a bank robbery is great, but what’s even greater is when the grandmother in the corner of the room hits the robber over the head with her purse and saves the day.
In the spirit of unlikely heroes, I bring you a list of historical heroes — famous, infamous and lesser-known — who you might not have expected to rise to the challenge. But in the end they did, and that’s what makes these unlikely heroes the best heroes you could ask for.
1. Oprah Winfrey
Nowadays we all think of Oprah as a larger-than-life figure who uses her fame to get people to read, help rebuild houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, donate to charities, give away lavish gifts and sponsor scholarships. But Oprah wasn’t always at the top of the world, giving others a helping hand in their climb up. She had an extremely difficult youth, from being born into poverty on a farm, to moving all over the country, living amid urban decay and surviving multiple sexual assaults. Oprah has often attributed the major changes that came in her life and her status among unlikely heroes to being sent to live with her father, who was very strict and demanding but also full of love and support.
2. Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler cheated on his wife, engaged in public drunkenness and eventually became a full-fledged member of the Nazi Party. This unlikely hero also used his wealth and power to save 1,200 Jews from certain death in concentration camps. Considering how many otherwise good and honorable people in WWII Germany refused to help to save lives, it’s even more astounding that this complex and conflicted man used his entire fortune to bribe Nazi officers in order to save the Jewish workers in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. A Talmud quote is said to have been given, inscribed on a gold ring, to Schindler: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
3. The Passengers of United 93
Before that fateful day, it might have seemed like the plot to a thriller, not something that could happen on a sunny September morning — you’re aboard a plane when you see several masked men take the cockpit, then the pilot announces there’s a bomb on board. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, this was exactly what passengers on United Airlines flight 93 witnessed.
After speaking to several loved ones via cellphone, the passengers of the flight learned of the other hijacked flights and what had become of the World Trade Center. The unlikely heroes discussed what to do and reached the consensus that since it seemed they were going to die, they might as well do their best to keep the terror plot from reaching maximum fatalities.
It’s still under discussion whether the passengers crashed the plane or the terrorists in the cockpit crashed it when the revolting passengers were about to breach the cockpit themselves. But what is known is that the plane crashed in an open field rather than its intended target. While the terrorists and the heroic passengers all died, no other casualties resulted from the crash.
4. Jimmy Weekly
Jimmy Weekly just wanted to live out the rest of his life in Pigeonroost Hollow, West Virginia, where generations of his family had lived. Then Arch Coal Company moved in and began a mountaintop removal that Jimmy recounted to NPR. “The wife and I couldn’t sit on the porch for the dust,” he said. “And the noise — constant blasting, tearing my home to hell, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Jimmy joined the ranks of unlikely heroes and became an activist: a man in his 70s who just wanted to sit on his front porch ended up starting the first lawsuit against mountaintop removal. When his wife died, leaving him alone on the mountain, the last thing between Arch Coal and their profits, Jimmy thought about all the places he’d like to go — but he couldn’t give up Pigeonroost Hollow for the world.
Jimmy died in 2014, but the fight against mountaintop removal goes on.
5. Ron Kuby
If you’re a careful movie viewer, you might remember the moment in The Big Lebowski when The Dude name-dropped Ron Kuby as his ideal legal defense. Or you might know Kuby from Court TV, the Discovery Channel or MSNBC. But many know New York lawyer Ron Kuby as the protégé and former law partner of William Kunstler, the man who famously defended Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven against conspiracy charges in the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Kuby grew up in Cleveland and dropped out of ninth grade to move to Israel, where he became deeply concerned about the racism he found. He came back to the U.S. that same year and reentered and dropped out of school several more times before getting high honors at the University of Kansas and making himself indispensable as an intern in William Kunstler’s law office. Eventually the two became unofficial law partners and close friends, and Ron became an unlikely hero championing the wrongly incarcerated and political dissidents.
6. Cece McDonald
CeCe McDonald, like many transgender youth thrown out by families who don’t understand them, didn’t exactly lead an easy life. She began doing sex work and selling drugs at an early age, just to get by. In a Rolling Stone article, she stated what that life was like for her: “Honey, I think there’s not too much in this world that I haven’t heard or seen or done. And a lot of that is sad.”
In 2011 CeCe was walking down the street with friends to get groceries when she was verbally assaulted by several drunk bar-goers. One, hurling racial and anti-gay epithets at her, smashed his glass into the side of her face. CeCe fought back, mortally wounding the man who had attacked her.
In prison CeCe became an outspoken advocate for trans women, who face disproportionate violence. Many felt CeCe was being imprisoned for saving her own life. Since being released, CeCe has remained an advocate for trans women of color. Laverne Cox, who plays an incarcerated trans woman in the hit series Orange Is the New Black, has publicly stated that CeCe was her inspiration for the character.