rn: The Heroes Around Us: Howard Zinn


Jan Slakov


        By 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.