(The following roles supplement the assignment explained in the article, “Teaching Unsung Heroes,” in Rethinking Schools, Vol 15, #1.)
Frederick Douglass: I was born a slave. When I was about 16 years old, I was rented out to an overseer in Maryland by my “master”. He beat me, but when he tried to do it again, I beat him and he never tried again. Later, I escaped slavery, wrote a book on my life as a slave, and became a well-known organizer against slavery. During the Civil War, I helped convince President Lincoln to allow Blacks to join the military and fight to preserve the Union. Some people believe that I was the most significant Black American in the 19th century.
Harriet Tubman: I was born a slave, but escaped. I’m most well-known for being a “conductor” on what was called the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not underground and it was not a railroad; it was the secret system of getting escaped slaves to freedom. And no one made more trips than I did. I traveled South 19 times to free over 300 souls, and never lost a “passenger.” During the Civil War, I led missions behind enemy lines to free slaves and burn down plantations.
John Brown: People have called me crazy because I, a white man, gave up my life in the cause to free Black slaves. I fought in what was called “bloody Kansas” to make sure that Kansas did not enter the United States as a slave state. And it’s true, I killed people there. But it was a just cause, and I took no pleasure in killing. I’m most famous for leading the attack on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. In one sense my mission failed, because we were captured and I was executed. But I am convinced that my actions hastened the day of freedom for Black slaves.
Elaine Brown: I’m not a famous figure like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. But I did my part. I was the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. We were the most militant of the Black organizations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Contrary to the stereotype, we did not advocate violence. We pushed for free breakfast programs for poor children, and free clinics for all who needed them. I was (and am) a Black revolutionary. Our slogan was “Power to the People ” and we meant it. Check out my book, A Taste of Power.
Soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment: I am one of the Black men who volunteered to join the US army during the Civil War to go South and free our people. Yes, I know that Lincoln said it wasn’t a war to free the slaves. But that’s why we fought. And in the end the war did free the slaves, despite what Lincoln said. Many of us died, but we died heroes. No one drafted us. We didn’t have to go like lots of white people. We chose to risk our lives for the freedom of others.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: In 1912, I was one of the leaders of the strike of mostly women workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who were fighting for more pay and dignity. They said it couldn’t be done, but we united workers from dozens of countries to successfully defeat the bosses. Joe Hill wrote his great song “The Rebel Girl” about me. And I was a rebel. I helped found the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. I was also the first woman to lead the U.S. Communist Party.
César Chávez: I was the son of farm workers, some of the most mistreated people in the United States. I organized the United Farm workers of America to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers, many of them from Mexico. My union led boycotts of grapes and lettuce in an effort to force growers to negotiate with the union. I also fought against the use of so many pesticides in the fields, something that was bad for workers and for consumers.
Sojourner Truth: I was born a slave but ran to freedom. I recognized early on that I was oppressed as both a Black person and as a woman, and I was going to preach for the rights of both groups. I became the leading black woman speaker in the country. After the Civil War, I helped resettle freed slaves.
Jeannette Rankin: Not a lot of people have heard of me, but I have the distinction of being the only person in the United States Congress to vote against US involvement in World War I and World War II. I was the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives. I worked for women’s rights and against war. In the 1960s, I was in my 80s, but I still had the energy to work for peace in Vietnam.
Malcolm X: I was born Malcolm Little and spent time in prison, from 1946 to 1952, where I converted to Islam and also became political. People say that I was one of the most articulate spokespeople for Black rights in the United States. I was not a pacifist, no indeed. I believed that Black people needed to work for our rights “by any means necessary.” I was an “internationalist,” who believed that poor and oppressed people everywhere needed to unite. And in 1964, I organized the Organization for Afro-American Unity, and began to preach not for racial separation but for “overthrowing the system of exploitation.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Early in my career I worked against slavery. Soon I came to see that white women in America were, themselves, treated like slaves. And I began to work for their rights, as well. With Lucretia Mott, I organized the Seneca Falls Conference, the first gathering of women in the United States to demand rights for women. We produced the Declaration of Sentiments expressing our grievances as women and urging needed social changes. I advocated women’s right to vote, that women should control their own property and have an easier time getting a divorce if they wanted one.
Susan B. Anthony: In my early years, I worked for the freedom of Black slaves, but soon saw that white women, too, were treated much like slaves. In 1866 I helped found the American Equal Rights Association. I’m perhaps best known for advocating that women should have the right to vote, which at the time was considered very radical. In 1872, I was arrested for attempting to vote. From 1892 to 1900 I was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. But in my lifetime, I never did see women have the right to vote in every state in the union.
Carlos Bulosan: I was born in the Philippines and came to Seattle when I was sixteen. I was a migrant farmworker and dishwasher, and became involved in labor organizing and writing for union newspapers. Throughout World War II, my books and stories were widely read.I talked about the need for poor and working people of all races and cultures to come together and realize who their real friends were, and who their enemies were. My pen was my weapon for justice.
William Lloyd Garrison: I was the most prominent crusader against slavery in the United States. I published the first issue of my journal, The Liberator, in 1831 and it became a passionate voice against unjust power of all kinds. In 1833, I chaired the meeting that formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, which became the most important organization for freedom in the United States. I lost some support as I became more vocal in favor of women’s rights. Throughout the Civil War, I worked for total freedom of the slaves, which is not what Lincoln wanted. And after the war I insisted on black equality and the creation of aid programs to help freed slaves in the old slave states.
Sarah and Angelina Grimké: We’re sisters, born on a slave-holding plantation in South Carolina. But we were rebels. Everywhere we could, we spoke out against slavery. And when we were criticized for speaking to audiences of both men and women, we began speaking out in favor of women’s rights too. Our writings were probably the first ones published in the United States in which women spoke about their rights as women.
Emma Goldman: I was the most well known American anarchist. People think that anarchy means chaos; far from it. It means being in favor of a totally free society and opposing any kind of oppressive authority whatsoever: bosses over workers; husbands over wives; the government over the people; American-born over foreign-born. The Constitution is supposed to give everyone free speech, but they put me in jail many times for speaking my mind, and in 1917 jailed me again for speaking against World War I and the draft. Then in 1919 they deported me back to Russia, where I was born. But I became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, which I didn’t believe was true communism, and so I left.
Marcus Garvey: I organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was dedicated to uniting all Black people for our return back to Mother Africa. I was a magnetic speaker, and attracted huge crowds, especially in Harlem. By 1921, I had one million supporters, and was raising money for my Black Star Line steamship company. I was thrown in jail for mail fraud, but later they let me out and deported me back to my original home, Jamaica. They were afraid of my power.
Black Panther Party for Self Defense Member: While some organizations preached non-violence, we organized for self defense. We didn’t want violence, but we were not going to allow the police to terrorize black communities. We were founded in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The authorities called us violent, but we opened free clinics and breakfast programs for children. We said, “Black Power to Black People.” The police and FBI constantly attacked us, and kept us from helping our people. They murdered some of our leaders, including Fred Hampton. Watch the Eyes on the Prize videos for proof.
Jackie Robinson: I was the first African American to play baseball on a major league team. I joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Sure, I had a good first year, being named Rookie of the Year. But I was subjected to a tremendous amount of racism. Some people on my own team didn’t want to play if I was on the team. I put up with incredible abuse in order to break the color barrier in professional sports in this country. (Watch the segments on me in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on baseball.)
Rosa Parks: Some people call me the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, I was sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Black section. When the white section filled up, they ordered me to move. I refused, was arrested, and it led to a bus boycott that lasted 381 days. Some people say, “Oh, Mrs. Parks didn’t want to move because she was tired.” What I was tired of was all the injustice my people suffered from. I had been involved in civil rights issues with the NAACP, so these laws had long outraged me. The boycott was the first time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became involved in organizing for justice. After we won, I couldn’t get a job, and had to move to Detroit.
Bessie Smith: Some people consider me the greatest blues singer in history. I don’t know about the greatest, but I was certainly the most well-known of the 1920s. One writer called me “hearty, forthright, and totally uninhibited in her performance as well as in her life. “I’d say that’s about right. I combined rural blues, spirituals and jazz, and let me tell you, that’s a powerful mix.
Bernice Reagon: I started off singing in Black churches in Albany, Georgia, then became active in the Civil Rights Movement. I sang with the Freedom Singers, and later formed the group that I still sing with called Sweet Honey in the Rock. We sing songs about civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, the environment, and peace. But I’m not just a singer, I also have a PhD., and work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington on projects to preserve Black culture.
Queen Liliuokalani (pronounced lee-lee-oo’-oh-kah-lahn’-ee): I was the last reigning monarch of Hawai’i. I was deposed by a revolt led by wealthy US-born sugar planters, and was replaced by men like Sanford Dole — ever hear of Dole Pineapple? — who in 1898 finally got the United States to annex (take over) my country. I was also a songwriter and wrote many songs, including “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”.)
Nat Turner: I was just over thirty years old when I led the bloodiest slave revolt in the history of the United States. I believed that I was doing God’s will. It was August of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, and about 70 of us killed every white person we saw. In all we got 57 of them. Afterwards, whites went on a rampage, killing people who had nothing to do with my insurrection. It’s true I used violence, but wasn’t violence necessary to end the most violent system the world had ever known, slavery?
Henry David Thoreau: I wrote about nature and simplicity. But I was not a simple man. I hated slavery, and spent time in jail rather than pay taxes to support the Mexican War (1846-48) which was launched to expand slavery in the United States. My essay, “Civil Disobedience, “was my explanation for why I think it is moral to break laws for a higher good. Throughout my life I was a “naturalist” and believed that nature should be more important than the material things of life. Much of my writing grew out of my love for the earth.
Melba Patillo Beals: I was one of the Little Rock Nine — the high school students who volunteered to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In 1954, the Supreme Court said that school segregation was illegal. But many white people were not that quick to give in. It was not an easy year. I was cursed by white students, spat on, and once was tripped and pushed onto some broken glass. I still have the scars. One of the nine was expelled for pouring chili on the head of a white boy who refused to leave her alone, and behaved just like an annoying little dog, nipping at your heels. Throughout the ordeal, I maintained my dignity.
Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman: They made the film Mississippi Burning about our murder in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The movie-makers made the FBI out to be the good guys. What a joke. The real heroes of this story are the Black and white people who worked together in the summer of 1964 in Mississippi to try to bring racial justice to the place. (Schwerner and Goodman were white, Chaney was Black.) Some of us gave our lives, but all of us risked a great deal. Many of the white students who came south for the summer returned to college in the north as changed people. They would become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white, never got to go home.
Fannie Lou Hamer: I was the youngest of twenty children. After I married, I was a sharecropper in Mississippi for eighteen years. I risked my life when I registered to vote in 1962. I’d had enough of poverty. I’d had enough of racism. I began to organize for our rights, by working with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In the summer of 1964, I traveled to the Democratic National Convention, where I was a representative of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which we’d created because the regular Democratic Party wouldn’t allow Blacks to participate. I sang “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and asked the now-famous words: “Is this America?”
Harvey Milk: I suppose that I was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. I was part of the gay rights movement in San Francisco in the 1970s and was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors. But I wasn’t a one-issue candidate. I was for workers’ rights and supported civil rights for people of color; and I supported the women’s movement. I was white, but I was elected by a true rainbow coalition. Some people called me the “Mayor of Castro,” referring to the mostly gay neighborhood in San Francisco. While in office, I was assassinated with Mayor George Moscone by a conservative city Supervisor, Dan White. If you want to know more about my life, watch the powerful film, The Times of Harvey Milk.
Dolores Huerta: I am a tireless organizer for farmworker rights in the United States, a leader in the United Farmworkers of America. My father was a farmworker and my mother a waitress. I became a skilled union organizer and, people tell me, a fantastic speaker. I became especially active in working against the use of pesticides in the fields that were poisoning workers and our children. The governor of California even refused to sign a bill that would have required growers to post warning signs about pesticides. In a 1988 San Francisco rally, I was beaten so severely by police that I had to have emergency surgery.
Fred Korematsu: During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered all Japanese and Japanese Americans to be rounded up and put in “relocation camps” even if they were born in the United States; even if there was not a shred of evidence that they’d done anything wrong. I was born in Oakland, California. But because I came from Japanese ancestry, I was fired from my job at the shipyard when war broke out. When the government ordered me to go to an internment camp, I refused. I was arrested, but I vowed to fight for my rights as a citizen. And I did.
Leonard Peltier: The movie Thunderheart was based on my story. If you want to see the real story, see the movie Incident at Oglala. Today, I’m sitting in a federal prison for a crime I did not commit. Amnesty International considers me a political prisoner, and I am. The government needed to convict someone for the killing of two FBI agents on the reservation. They needed it to be a member of the American Indian Movement. And that’s why I’m in prison. I never killed anybody. The only crime I committed was trying to help Indian people survive on the reservation. Learn about my case. Help get me out of prison.