Unsung Heroes: Encouraging Students to Appreciate Those Who Fought for Social Justice

Teaching Activity. Essay by Howard Zinn and lesson by Bill Bigelow. 17 pages.
Students research and share stories about unsung heroes in U.S. history.

  • Time Periods: All US History | Themes: Civil Rights Movements, Organizing, Wars & Related Anti-War Movements, Women's History | Reading Levels: Grades 6-8, High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

Ella Baker, center. 1960.

Schools help teach students who “we” are. And as Howard Zinn points out in his essay “Unsung Heroes,” too often the curricular “we” are the great slaveholders, plunderers, imperialists, and captains of industry of yesteryear.

Huerta

Dolores Huerta

“You can no more win a war, than you can win an earthquake.” —Jeannette Rankin

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Thus when we teach about the genocide Columbus launched against the Taínos, or Washington’s scorched-earth war on the Iroquois, or even Abraham Lincoln’s promise in his first inaugural address to support a constitutional amendment making slavery permanent in Southern states, some students may experience this new information as a personal loss. In part, as Zinn suggests, this is because they’ve been denied a more honorable past with which to identify—one that acknowledges racism and exploitation, but also highlights courageous initiatives for social equality and justice.

Roles include are:
Susan B. Anthony
Black Panther Party for Self Defense Member
Elaine Brown
John Brown
Carlos Bulosan
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
César Chávez
Frederick Douglass
William Lloyd Garrison
Marcus Garvey
Emma Goldman
Sarah and Angelina Grimké
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Fannie Lou Hamer
Dolores Huerta
Fred Korematsu
Queen Lili’uokalani
Harvey Milk
Rosa Parks
Melba Pattillo Beals
Leonard Peltier
Jeannette Rankin
Bernice Reagon Johnson
Jackie Robinson
Mickey Schwerner, James Cheney, and Andrew Goodman
Bessie Smith
Soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment
Henry David Thoreau
Sojourner Truth
Harriet Tubman
Nat Turner
Malcolm X

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

From the opening of the “Unsung Heroes” essay by Howard Zinn

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 55 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?”

Continue reading this essay by Howard Zinn in the downloadable PDF.

 

This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2: Teaching For Equity and Justice. For more lessons like “Unsung Heroes: Encouraging Students to Appreciate Those Who Fought for Social Justice,” order Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 2 with a rich new collection of from-the-classroom articles, curriculum ideas, lesson plans, poetry, and resources–all grounded in the realities of school life, edited by Bill Bigelow, Brenda Harvey, and Stan Karp. See Table of Contents.

 

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There are 2 comments by other visitors:

  • Thank you for you enlightening work.

    Response shared by Diane Miner Hazel — February 17, 2015 @ 1:40 am

  • Thank you for adding truth to the study of our past… When humans hide the imperfections and demons among us, truth loses and the injustices and imperfections in our past keep their un-warranted power.

    Response shared by Diane Miner Hazel — February 17, 2015 @ 1:37 am

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