by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, June 2000
A high school student recently confronted me: "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?"
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 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
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 who 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 slaveowner, the killer of Indians?
Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears, which resulted
in the deaths of 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees who were kicked off
their land in Georgia and sent into exile in Oklahoma.
Why not replace him as national icon with John Ross, a Cherokee
chief who resisted the dispossession of his people, and whose
wife died on the Trail of Tears? Or the Seminole leader Osceola,
imprisoned and finally killed for leading a guerrilla campaign
against the removal of the Indians?
And while we're at it, 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, that
pushed a reluctant Lincoln into finally issuing a half-hearted
Emancipation Proclamation, and persuaded Congress to pass the
Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.
Take another Presidential hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who is
always near the top of the tiresome lists of Our Greatest Presidents.
There he is on Mount Rushmore, as a permanent reminder of our
historical amnesia about his racism, his militarism, his love
Why not replace him as hero-granted, removing him from Mount
Rushmore will take some doing- with MarkTwain? Roosevelt, remember,
had congratulated an American general who in 1906 ordered the
massacre of 600 men, women, and children on a Philippine island.
As vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, Twain denounced
this and continued to point out the cruelties committed in the
Philippine war under the slogan "My country, right or wrong."
As for Woodrow Wilson, another honored figure 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 F. 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.
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 she
became an eloquent voice for freedom. Or with Ella Baker, whose
wise counsel and support guided the young black people in the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the militant edge of
the civil rights 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 him, 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." Yes, I understood the desire for heroes, I said,
but why choose a murderer and kidnapper for such an honor? Why
not choose Joe DiMaggio, or Toscanini, or Fiorello LaGuardia,
or Sacco and Vanzetti? (The man was not persuaded.)
The same misguided values that have made slaveholders, Indian-killers,
and militarists the heroes of our history books still operate
today. We have heard Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona,
repeatedly referred to as a war hero. Yes, we must sympathize
with McCain's ordeal as a war prisoner in Vietnam, where he endured
cruelties. But must we call someone a hero who participated in
the invasion of a far-off country and dropped bombs on men, women,
I came across only one voice in the mainstream press daring
to dissent 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
the war in Vietnam and the dangerous nuclear arsenal maintained
by our government. 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
I think of Kathy Kelly and all those other people from Voices
in the Wilderness who, in defiance of federal law, have traveled
to Iraq more than 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 more than 100
college campuses 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 Alliant
Corporation's 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 of the Americas.
I think of 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 on their
beliefs for 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.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.
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