The Heroes Around Us

Recently, meeting with a group of high school students, I was asked by one of them: “I read in your book, 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 alienated and depressed?”

That same question has been put to me many times, in different forms, one of them being: “How come you are not depressed?”

Who says I’m not? At least briefly. For a fraction of a second, such questions darken my mood, until I think: the person who asked that question is living proof of the existence everywhere of good people, who are deeply concerned about others. I think of how many times, when I am speaking somewhere in this country, someone in the audience asks, disconsolately: Where is the people’s movement today? And the audience surrounding the questioner, even in a small town in Arkansas or New Hampshire or California, consists of a thousand people!

Another question often put to me by students: You are taking down all our national heroes—the Founding Fathers, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy. Don’t we need our national idols?

Granted, it is good to have historical figures we can admire and emulate. But why hold up as models the fifty-five rich white men who drafted the Constitution as a way of establishing a government that would protect the interests of their class—slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, land speculators? Why not recall the humanitarianism of William Penn, an early colonist who made peace with the Delaware Indians instead of warring on them 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 spoke out against slavery. Why not Captain Daniel Shays, veteran of the Revolutionary War, who led a revolt of poor farmers in Western Massachusetts against the oppressive taxes levied by the rich who controlled the Massachusetts legislature? Why go along with the hero-worship, so universal in our history textbooks, of Andrew Jackson, the slave-owner, the killer of Indians? Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears, when 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees died in their forced removal from their land in Georgia to exile in Oklahoma? Why not replace him as national icon with John Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the removal of his people, whose wife died on the Trail of Tears? Or the Seminole leader Osceola, imprisoned and finally killed for leading a guerrilla campaign against removal? Should not the Lincoln memorial be joined by a memorial to Frederick Douglass, who better represented the struggle against slavery? It was that crusade, of black and white abolitionists, growing into a great national movement, which pushed a reluctant Lincoln into finally issuing a half-hearted Emancipation Proclamation, and persuaded Congress to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Take another presidential hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who is always near the top of the tiresome lists of “Our Greatest Presidents.” And there he is on Mount Rushmore, as a permanent reminder of our historical amnesia—forgetting his racism, his militarism, his love of war. Why not replace him as hero—granted, removing him from Mount Rushmore will take some doing—with Mark Twain? Roosevelt had congratulated an American general who, in 1906, ordered the massacre of 600 men, women, children on a Philippine island. And Twain denounced this, as he continued to point to the cruelties committed in the Philippine war under the slogan “My country, right or wrong.”

As for Woodrow Wilson, also occupying an important place in the pantheon of American liberalism, shouldn’t we remind his admirers that he insisted on racial segregation in federal buildings, that he bombarded the Mexican coast, sent an occupation army into Haiti and the Dominican Republic, brought our country into the hell of World War I, and put anti-war protesters in prison. Should we not bring forward as a national hero Emma Goldman, one of those Wilson sent to prison, or Helen Keller, who fearlessly spoke out against the war? And enough worship of John Kennedy, a cold warrior who began the covert war in Indochina, went along with the planned invasion of Cuba, and was slow to act against racial segregation in the South. It was not until black people in the South took to the streets, faced Southern sheriffs, endured beatings and killings, and aroused the conscience of the nation that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations finally were embarrassed into enacting the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Should we not replace the portraits of our presidents, which too often take up all the space on our classroom walls, with the likenesses of grassroots heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper? Mrs. Hamer was evicted from her farm and tortured in prison after she joined the Civil Rights Movement, but became an eloquent voice for freedom. Or Ella Baker, whose wise counsel and support guided the young black people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the militant edge of the Movement in the deep South?

In the year 1992, the quincentennial of the arrival of Columbus in this hemisphere, there were meetings all over the country to celebrate Columbus, but also, for the first time, to challenge the customary exaltation of the “Great Discoverer.” I was at a symposium in New Jersey where I pointed to the terrible crimes against the indigenous people of Hispaniola committed by Columbus and his fellow Spaniards. Afterward, the other man on the platform, who was chairman of the New Jersey Columbus Day celebration, said to me: “You don’t understand—we Italian-Americans need our heroes.” I replied that yes, I understood the desire for heroes, but why choose a murderer and kidnapper for such an honor? Why not Joe DiMaggio, or Toscanini, or Fiorello LaGuardia, or Sacco and Vanzetti? The man was not persuaded. Do not the same misguided values that have made slaveholders, Indian-killers, and militarists the heroes of our history books operate today? We have heard Senator John McCain, especially when he became a presidential candidate, constantly referred to as a “war hero.” Yes, we must sympathize with McCain’s ordeal as a war prisoner, enduring the cruelties that inevitably accompany imprisonment. But must we call someone a hero who participated in the invasion of a far-off country, and dropped bombs on men, women, and children whose crime was resisting the American invaders?

I came across only one voice in the mainstream press which dissented from the general admiration for McCain—that of the poet, novelist, and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll. Carroll contrasted the “heroism” of McCain, the warrior, to that of Philip Berrigan, who has gone to prison dozens of times for protesting, first, the war in which McCain dropped bombs, and then the dangerous nuclear arsenal maintained by our government. Jim Carroll wrote: “Berrigan, in jail, is the truly free man, while McCain remains imprisoned in an unexamined sense of martial honor….”

Our country is full of heroic people who are not presidents or military leaders or Wall Street wizards, but who are doing something to keep alive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war. I think of Kathy Kelly and all those other people of Voices in the Wilderness, who, in defiance of federal law, have traveled to Iraq over a dozen times to bring food and medicine to people suffering under the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

I think also of the thousands of students on over a hundred college campuses across the country who are protesting their universities’ connection with sweatshop produced apparel. At Wesleyan University recently, students sat in the president’s office for thirty hours until the administration agreed to all of their demands.

In Minneapolis, there are the four McDonald sisters, all nuns, who have gone to jail repeatedly for protesting against the Alliant Corporations’ production of land mines. I think too of the thousands of people who have traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, to demand the closing of the murderous School for the Americas. And the west coast longshoremen who participated in an eight-hour work stoppage to protest the death sentence levied against 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 out their belief in a more egalitarian, more just, peace-loving society. To ward off alienation and gloom, it is only necessary to remember the unremembered heroes of the past, and to look around us for the unnoticed heroes of the present.

Published by ZCommunications • May 7, 2000

 

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