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Unsung Heroes1

Unsung Heroes1

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Published by Fred Wilder

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Published by: Fred Wilder on Nov 27, 2011
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Unsung Heroes—Zinn Education Project 
11
A
high
 
school
 
student
 
recently con-fronted me: “I read in your book
A People’s History of the United States 
about the massacresof Indians, the long history of racism, the per-sistence of poverty in the richest country in theworld, the senseless wars. How can I keep frombeing thoroughly alienated and depressed?”It’s a question I’ve heard many times before.Another question often put to me by students is:Don’t we need our national idols? You are tak-ing down all our national heroes—the Found-ing Fathers, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln,Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F.Kennedy.Granted, it is good tohave historical figures we canadmire and emulate. But why hold up as models the 55 richwhite men who drafted theConstitution as a way of estab-lishing a government thatwould protect the interestsof their class—slaveholders,merchants, bondholders, landspeculators?Why not recall thehumanitarianism of WilliamPenn, an early colonist whomade peace with the DelawareIndians instead of warring onthem, as other colonial leaderswere doing?Why not John Woolman,who in the years before the Revolution refusedto pay taxes to support the British wars, andwho spoke out against slavery?Why not Capt. Daniel Shays, veteran of theRevolutionary War, who led a revolt of poorfarmers in Western Massachusetts against theoppressive taxes levied by the rich who con-trolled the Massachusetts Legislature?Why go along with the hero-worship, souniversal in our history textbooks, of AndrewJackson, the slave owner, the killer of Indians?Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears,which resulted in the deaths of 4,000 of 16,000Cherokees who were kicked off their land inGeorgia and sent into exile in Oklahoma.Why not replace him as national icon withJohn Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the dispossessionof his people, and whose wifedied on the Trail of Tears? Orthe Seminole leader Osceola,imprisoned and finally killedfor leading a guerrilla cam-paign against the removal of the Indians?And while we’re at it,should not the LincolnMemorial be joined by amemorial to Frederick Dou-glass, who better representedthe struggle against slavery? Itwas that crusade of black andwhite abolitionists, growinginto a great national move-ment, that pushed a reluctantLincoln into finally issuing ahalfhearted Emancipation Proclamation, andpersuaded Congress to pass the 13th, 14th, and15th amendments.
Unsung Heroes
oward 
inn 
Osceola, Seminole leader, led a successful resistance of Native Americans and escaped African slaves against U.S. troops.
 
Unsung Heroes—Zinn Education Project 
2
Take another presidential hero, TheodoreRoosevelt, who is always near the top of the tire-some lists of Our Greatest Presidents. There he ison Mount Rushmore, as a permanent reminder of our historical amnesia about his racism, his mili-tarism, his love of war.Why not replace him as hero—granted,removing him from Mount Rushmore will takesome doing—with Mark Twain? Roosevelt,remember, had congratulated an American gen-eral who in 1906 ordered the massacre of 600men, women, and children on a Philippine island.As vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League,Twain denounced this and continued to pointout the cruelties committed in the Philippine warunder the slogan, “My country, right or wrong.”As for Woodrow Wilson, another honoredfigure in the pantheon of American liberalism,shouldn’t we remind his admirers that he insistedon racial segregation in federal buildings, that hebombarded the Mexican coast, sent an occupa-tion army into Haiti and the Dominican Republic,brought our country into the hell of World War I,and put antiwar protesters in prison?Should we not bring forward as a nationalhero Emma Goldman, one of those Wilson sent toprison, or Helen Keller, who fearlessly spoke outagainst the war?And enough worship of John F. Kennedy, aCold Warrior who began the covert war in Indo-china, went along with the planned invasion of Cuba, and was slow to act against racial segrega-tion in the South.Should we not replace the portraits of ourpresidents, which too often take up all the spaceon our classroom walls, with the likenesses of grassroots heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, theMississippi sharecropper? Mrs. Hamer wasevicted from her farm and tortured in prisonafter she joined the Civil Rights Movement, butshe became an eloquent voice for freedom. Orwith Ella Baker, whose wise counsel and supportguided the young Black people who joined theStudent Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,the militant edge of the Civil Rights Movementin the Deep South?In the year 1992, the quincentennial of thearrival of Columbus in this hemisphere, therewere meetings all over the country to celebratehim, but also, for the first time, to challenge thecustomary exaltation of the Great Discoverer.I was at a symposium in New Jersey where I
Helen Keller was a socialist and advocate for workers’ rights. “Why in this land of great wealth is there such great poverty?” she wrote in 1912.
   A   P   I  m  a  g  e  s
 
Unsung Heroes—Zinn Education Project 
3
pointed to the terrible crimes against the indige-nous people of Hispaniola committed by Colum-bus and his fellow explorers. Afterward, the otherman on the platform, who was chairman of theNew Jersey Columbus Day celebration, said tome: “You don’t understand—we Italian Ameri-cans need our heroes.” Yes, I understood thedesire for heroes, I said, but why choose a mur-derer and kidnapper for such an honor? Why notchoose Joe DiMaggio, or Toscanini, or FiorelloLaGuardia, or Sacco and Vanzetti? (The man wasnot persuaded.)The same misguided values that have madeslaveholders, Indian-killers, and militarists theheroes of our history booksstill operate today. We haveheard Sen. John McCain,Republican of Arizona, repeat-edly referred to as a war hero.Yes, we must sympathize withMcCain’s ordeal as a war pris-oner in Vietnam, where heendured cruelties. But mustwe call someone a hero whoparticipated in the invasion of a far-off country and droppedbombs on men, women, andchildren?I have come across only one voice in the mainstream press daring to dissentfrom the general admiration for McCain—that of the poet, novelist, and
Boston Globe 
columnistJames Carroll. Carroll contrasted the heroism of McCain, the warrior, to that of Philip Berrigan,who has gone to prison dozens of times for pro-testing the war in Vietnam and the dangerousnuclear arsenal maintained by the U.S. govern-ment. Carroll wrote: “Berrigan, in jail, is the truly free man, while McCain remains imprisoned in anunexamined sense of martial honor.”Our country is full of heroic people who arenot presidents or military leaders or Wall Streetwizards, but who are doing something to keepalive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war.I think of Kathy Kelly and all those other peo-ple from Voices in the Wilderness who, in defianceof federal law, traveled to Iraq more than a dozentimes to bring food and medicine to people suffer-ing under the U.S.-imposed sanctions.I think also of the thousands of students onmore than 100 college campuses across the coun-try who are protesting their universities’ connec-tion with sweatshop-produced apparel.I think of the four McDonald sisters inMinneapolis, all nuns, who have gone to jailrepeatedly for protesting against the Alliant Cor-poration’s production of land mines.I think, too, of the thousands of people whohave traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., to demand theclosing of the murderous School of the Americas.I think of the West Coast longshoremenwho participated in an eight-hour work stoppage to protestthe death sentence levied againstMumia Abu-Jamal.And so many more.We all know individuals—most of them unsung, unrecog-nized—who have, often in themost modest ways, spoken out oracted on their beliefs for a moreegalitarian, more just, peace-lov-ing society.To ward off alienation andgloom, it is only necessary toremember the unrememberedheroes of the past, and to look around us for theunnoticed heroes of the present.
n 
Howard Zinn
is author of
A People’s History of the United States 
.
 Reprinted by permission from
The Progressive
,409 E Main St, Madison, WI 53703. www.progressive.org 
Should we not bring  forward as a national hero Emma Goldman,one of those Wilsonsent to prison, or Helen Keller, who fearlessly spoke out against the war? 

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