Why aren't people such as Daniel Shays, John Ross, or Fannie Lou Hamer held up as role models?By Howard Zinn
A high school student recently confronted me: "I read in yourbook, A People's History of the United States, about the massacres of Indians, the long history of racism,the persistence of poverty in the richest country in the world,the senseless wars. How can I keep from being thoroughly alienatedand depressed?"
It's a question I've heard many times before. Another questionoften put to me by students is: Don't we need our national idols?You are taking down all our national heroes - the Founding Fathers,Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson,John F. Kennedy.
Granted, it is good to have historical figures we can admire andemulate. But why hold up as models the 55 rich white men who draftedthe Constitution as a way of establishing a government that wouldprotect the interests of their class - slaveholders, merchants,bondholders, land speculators?
Why not recall the humanitarianism of William Penn, an early colonistwho made peace with the Delaware Indians instead of warring onthem, as other colonial leaders were doing?
Why not John Woolman, who, in the years before the Revolution,refused to pay taxes to support the British wars, and who spokeout against slavery?
Why not Captain Daniel Shays, veteran of the Revolutionary War,who led a revolt of poor farmers in Western Massachusetts againstthe oppressive taxes levied by the rich who controlled the Massachusettslegislature?
Why go along with the hero worship, so universal in our historytextbooks, of Andrew Jackson, the slave owner, the killer of Indians?Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears, which resultedin the deaths of 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees who were kicked offtheir land in Georgia and sent into exile in Oklahoma.
Why not replace him as national icon with John Ross, a Cherokeechief who resisted the dispossession of his people, and whosewife died on the Trail of Tears? Or the Seminole leader Osceola,imprisoned and finally killed for leading a guerrilla campaignagainst the removal of the Indians?
And while we're at it, should not the Lincoln Memorial be joinedby a memorial to Frederick Douglass, who better represented thestruggle against slavery? It was that crusade of Black and whiteabolitionists, growing into a great national movement, that pusheda reluctant Lincoln into finally issuing a half-hearted EmancipationProclam-ation and persuaded Congress to pass the Thirteenth, Fourteenth,and Fifteenth amendments.
Take another Presidential hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who is alwaysnear the top of the tiresome lists of Our Greatest Presidents.There he is on Mount Rushmore, as a permanent reminder of ourhistorical amnesia about his racism, his militarism, and his loveof war.
Why not replace him as hero - granted, removing him from MountRushmore will take some doing - with Mark Twain? Roosevelt, remember,had congratulated an American general who in 1906 ordered themassacre of 600 men, women, and children on a Philippine island.As vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League, Twain denouncedthis and continued to point out the cruelties committed in thePhilippine war under the slogan "My country, right or wrong."
As for Woodrow Wilson, another honored figure in the pantheonof American liberalism, shouldn't we remind his admirers thathe insisted on racial segregation in federal buildings, that hebombarded the Mexican coast, sent an occupation army into Haitiand the Dominican Republic, brought our country into the hellof World War I, and put anti-war protesters in prison?
Should we not bring forward as a national hero Emma Goldman, oneof those whom Wilson sent to prison, or Helen Keller, who fearlesslyspoke out against the war?
And enough worship of John F. Kennedy, a Cold Warrior who beganthe covert war in Indochina, went along with the planned invasionof Cuba, and was slow to act against racial segregation in theSouth.
Should we not replace the portraits of our Presidents, which toooften take up all the space on our classroom walls, with the likenessesof grassroots heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper?Mrs. Hamer was evicted from her farm and tortured in prison aftershe joined the Civil Rights Movement, but she became an eloquentvoice for freedom. Or with Ella Baker, whose wise counsel andsupport guided the young Black people in the Student NonviolentCoordinating Committee, the militant edge of the civil rightsmovement in the Deep South?
In the year 1992, the quincentennial of the arrival of Columbusin this hemisphere, there were meetings all over the country tocelebrate him, but also, for the first time, to challenge thecustomary exaltation of the Great Discoverer. I was at a symposiumin New Jersey where I pointed to the terrible crimes against theindigenous people of Hispaniola committed by Columbus and hisfellow Spaniards. Afterward, the other man on the platform, whowas chairman of the New Jersey Columbus Day celebration, saidto me: "You don't understand - we Italian Americans need our heroes."Yes, I understood the desire for heroes, I said, but why choosea murderer and kidnapper for such an honor? Why not choose JoeDiMaggio, or Toscanini, or Fiorello LaGuardia, or Sacco and Vanzetti?(The man was not persuaded.)
The same misguided values that have made slaveholders, Indiankillers, and militarists the heroes of our history books stilloperate today. We have heard Senator John McCain, Republican ofArizona, repeatedly referred to as a war hero. Yes, we must sympathizewith McCain's ordeal as a war prisoner in Vietnam, where he enduredcruelties. But must we call someone a hero who participated inthe invasion of a far-off country and dropped bombs on men, women,and children?
I came across only one voice in the mainstream press daring todissent from the general admiration for McCain - that of the poet,novelist, and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll. Carroll contrastedthe heroism of McCain, the warrior, to that of Philip Berrigan,who has gone to prison dozens of times for protesting the warin Vietnam and the dangerous nuclear arsenal maintained by ourgovernment. Carroll wrote: "Berrigan, in jail, is the truly freeman, while McCain remains imprisoned in an unexamined sense ofmartial honor."
Our country is full of heroic people who are not Presidents ormilitary leaders or Wall Street wizards, but who are doing somethingto keep alive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war.
I think of Kathy Kelly and all those other people from Voicesin the Wilderness who, in defiance of federal law, have traveledto Iraq more than a dozen times to bring food and medicine topeople suffering under the U.S.-imposed sanctions.
I think also of the thousands of students on more than 100 collegecampuses across the country who are protesting their universities'connection with sweatshop-produced apparel.
I think of the four McDonald sisters in Minneapolis, all nuns,who have gone to jail repeatedly for protesting against the AlliantCorporation's production of land mines.
I think, too, of the thousands of people who have traveled toFort Benning, Georgia, to demand the closing of the murderousSchool of the Americas.
I think of the West Coast Long-shoremen who participated in aneight-hour work stoppage to protest the death sentence leviedagainst Mumia Abu-Jamal.
And so many more.
We all know individuals - most of them unsung, unrecognized -who have, often in the most modest ways, spoken out or acted ontheir beliefs for a more egalitarian, more just, peace-lovingsociety.
To ward off alienation and gloom, it is only necessary to rememberthe unremembered heroes of the past - and to look around us forthe unnoticed heroes of the present.
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