More than 50 years apart, two young scientists—one now recently deceased, the other recently jailed—took courageous actions that resonated worldwide, as a pair of unrelated news reports recently showed.

A member of the group of African-American college buddies known to history as the Greensboro Four, Franklin McCain died on 9 January at the age of 73. When he was a freshman science major at the then all-black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now known as the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University) he became, The Washington Post reports, the "instigator" of a daring and risky experiment. On 1 February 1960, instead of donning lab coats and heading for class, McCain and his fellow students—David Richmond, Joseph McNeil (who studied engineering physics) and Ezell Blair, Jr. (a sociology major, later known as Jibreel Khazan)—put on dress shirts and ties and took seats at the whites-only lunch counter of the F. W. Woolworth Co. store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, waiting for service. On that day, it did not come.

What did come was worldwide attention—from the media, like-minded students, and segregationist hoodlums. Almost immediately, the foursome's futile sojourn at the lunch counter—which continued on subsequent days and was joined by other students and harassed by Ku Klux Klan members—became national news. Within days, the sit-in protests, a crucial element of the Civil Rights Movement, had spread to campuses and lunch counters across the segregated South. In July 1960, after months of demonstrations and negotiations, McCain and peers got served at Greensboro's Woolworth store.

McCain's civil rights activities did not prevent him from receiving his bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology in 1964. After that, he pursued a career in the chemical industry, mainly with the Celanese Corporation, the Post reports. He also served as a board member for the University of North Carolina system and his alma mater.

Omid Kokabee, 31, a citizen of Iran and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, is unable to pursue either a career or his studies. Instead he is, in the words of Amnesty International, "a prisoner of conscience, held solely for his refusal to work on military projects in Iran and as a result of spurious charges related to his legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran." Kokabee was a top student in physics and mechanical engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and did graduate work in Spain before studying in the United States

Unlike many young scientists, Kokabee has not lacked job opportunities; he received—and refused—repeated offers "to work as a scientist and technical manager for military and intelligence projects" in Iran, as he stated in an open letter quoted by Amnesty International. He was arrested at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport in 2011, as he waited to return to Texas after a trip home to visit his family. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for purported "connections with a hostile government" after a televised trial that, according to Amnesty International, violated his basic rights to presumption of innocence and legal representation.

The case against him consisted of "his well known and public affiliations with academic institutions in the USA," Amnesty International reports. These supposedly suspect ties "actually consisted of normal professional interactions with international scholars," states a letter of protest to the Iranian authorities from the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, the United States-based scholarly society. It was one of 22 protests about treatment of students and professors sent by the society in 2013 to a number of governments, according to Inside Higher Ed.

"Scientists around the world have been campaigning for Omid Kokabee's release as well, including in Spain, the UK, and the USA," states Amnesty International. The American Physical Society (APS) named him a winner of its 2014 Andrei Sakharov Prize in human rights "for his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure," according to the APS website. He has been unable to avail himself of an expense-paid trip to the APS meeting to accept his $10,000 award.

Worldwide publicity played a crucial role in helping McCain and his colleagues achieve their campaign's aims. Can continued pressure do the same for Kokabee? Here's hoping that, given enough pressure, he, like the Greensboro Four and their fellow civil rights activists, can also overcome.

 

Top image:  A statue of the Greensboro Four on the North Carolina A&T campus. CREDIT:  Cewatkin, Distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400016