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THE HEROES AROUND US


Howard Zinn

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 4000 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 grass roots 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.