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

Teaching Activity. Essay by Howard Zinn and lesson by Bill Bigelow. 11 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.


Dolores Huerta

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

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. (Read how in the teaching activity by Bill Bigelow on the downloadable PDF that highlights unsung heroes such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Soldier, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, César Chávez, Sojourner Truth, Jeannette Rankin, Malcolm X, Elizabeth, Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carlos Bulosan, William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah and Angelina, Grimké, Emma Goldman, Elaine Brown, Marcus Garvey, Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Bessie Smith, Bernice Reagon, Queen Lili’uokalani, Nat Turner, Henry David Thoreau, Melba Pattillo Beals, Mickey Schwerner, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harvey Milk, Dolores Huerta, Fred Korematsu, Leonard Peltier, Mark Twain, Philip Berrigan, and Ella Baker.)

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

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?”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

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 on 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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