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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > WESTSIDER DAVID HAWK
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Executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A.


During the final days of World War II, a captured resistance member sat alone in a black prison cell, tired, hungry, tortured, and convinced of approaching death. After weeks of torment, the prisoner was sure that there was no hope, that no one knew or cared. But in the middle of the night, the door of the cell opened, and the jailer, shouting abuse into the darkness, threw a loaf of bread onto the dirt floor. The prisoner, by this time ravenous, tore open the loaf.

Inside was a matchbox. Inside the matchbox were matches and a scrap of paper. The prisoner lit a match. On the paper was a single word: "Coraggio!" Courage. Take courage. Don't give up, don't give in. We are trying to help you. "Coraggio!"

The prisoner never did find out who wrote the one-word message, but the spark of hope it provided may well have saved his life. The story is told in Matchbox, the newspaper of Amnesty International U.S.A., one of the largest branches of the worldwide human rights organization that received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1977.

David Hawk, executive director of Amnesty international U.S.A., sits behind his desk on a weekday morning talking about how the group originated and what it has done to earn the prize.

"It was started in Britain in 1961 by a lawyer named Peter Benenson," says Hawk, whose name belies the fact that he has been involved in civil rights for nearly half of his 34 years. "It started over a trial that was going on in Portugal." Benenson launched a one-year campaign to call attention to the Portuguese prisoners.

Soon the idea became so popular that a permanent organization was created. Chapters sprang up in other countries, and members began to work toward freeing "prisoners of conscience" on every continent. In the past 17 years, Amnesty International — or "Amnesty" for short — has aided in securing the release of nearly 13,000 individuals who were imprisoned not for crimes, but for personal beliefs that went against their governments' official policies.

"We're a nuisance factor," says Hawk. "We organize letter-writing and publicity campaigns on behalf of individual victims of human rights violations. It's the letters and the publicity that are Amnesty's tools for securing their release or bettering their conditions while they're in. At first it sounds strange to think that people sitting in living rooms in the United States can help someone in a fortress prison on an island in Indonesia, or in Siberia. … You deluge certain people with so many letters that eventua............
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