Teaching Unsung Heroes

How might a teacher encourage students to appreciate those who fought for social justice?

By Bill Bigelow

Schools are identity factories. They 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.

Thus when we teach about the genocide Columbus launched against the Ta’nos, 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.

The best and most diverse collection of writing I received last year from my sophomore U.S. history students was generated from a project aimed to get students to appreciate those “other Americans.” From time to time over the years, I’ve had students do research on people in history who worked for justice. But these were often tedious exercises and, despite my coaxing and pleading, student writing ended up sounding eerily encyclopedia-like.

An idea to revise this assignment came to me while reading Stephen O’Connor’s curricular memoir, Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, about his experiences teaching writing to junior-high-school students in New York City. O’Connor was captivated by August Wilson’s monologues in his play Fences. He read some of these aloud to his students and offered them a wide-open prompt: “Write a monologue in which a parent tells his or her life story to a child.”

It struck me that I might get much more passionate, imaginative writing about the lives of social justice activists if I offered students a similar assignment. Instead of asking them to stand outside their research subjects and write in the third person,I invited them to attempt to become those individuals at the end of their lives. Students could construct their papers as meditations about their individuals’ accomplishments and possibly their regrets. They might narrate parts of their lives to a child, a younger colleague, or even to a reporter.

Last year I decided to launch this project out of a unit I do that looks at the sometimes tense relationship between the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement in the years before and right after the Civil War. I framed it as the “Racial and Gender Justice Project: People Who Made Change.” Because this would likely be the only time during the year that I would structure an entire research project around the lives of individual social justice activists, I wanted to give students an opportunity to learn about people throughout U.S. history, not simply during the decades between the 1830s and 1860s. I was aware that this presented something of a problem, as students wouldn’t yet have the historical context to fully appreciate the work of, say, Dolores Huerta or Emma Goldman. But their reading would alert them to themes and events that we would cover later, and I could fill in some of the blank spots in their knowledge as they completed their research.

I remember one year writing up and assigning a choice-list of activists for students to research. I reviewed them in class one by one, talking briefly about their work and accomplishments. Can you spell b-o-r-i-n-g? This time I decided to write up short first-person roles for students to “try on” in class and to meet each other in character. I wasn’t very scientific in the choices of activists that I offered students – in fact, some, like Bessie Smith, fell a bit awkwardly into the “activist” category. I tried for racial and gender diversity; I also tried to mix the famous with the not-so famous, mostly concentrating on people who worked in social movements. (If the activists were too “unsung,” students would have difficulty finding out enough about them to complete the writing. See box with complete list on p. 24.) My list was unavoidably idiosyncratic and missed lots of worthy individuals. However, in the end, if none of the people I included excited students, they could propose alternatives.

I wanted the roles I wrote up to be short and provocative. The point was not to do the assignment for students but to lure them into the activists’ lives. Because my students are mostly white – and with this group (my only U.S. History class), overwhelmingly male – I wanted to make sure that at least several of the social justice activists were white men. It was important that the young white men in class know that people who look like they do have not only been the slaveowners and land-grabbers, they have also been part of a rainbow of resistance in U.S. history. Here are a couple of typical roles (click here for the entire list):

  • 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, Va. 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.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer: I was the youngest of 20 children. After I married, I was a sharecropper in Mississippi for 18 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?”

In class, I briefly described the project and distributed a card with one role description to each student. I gave them a few minutes to trade cards if they felt like it, but I emphasized that ultimately they weren’t stuck researching the person on the card they drew; they would be able to choose someone else if they liked. I wanted students-as-historical-activists to meet each other and learn a bit about each other’s life work. Once they’d settled on an individual, I distributed “Hello, My Name Is …” stickers and had them write down and wear their names prominently, so other students would be able to easily see who was who. Finally, I gave each of them a “Racial and Gender Justice Hunt” sheet. The assignment gave students tasks like, “Find someone in the group who has spent time in jail for their activities or beliefs (or would have if they’d been caught). What happened?” I required them to use a different person in their answers to each question, so they needed to keep circulating among other class members to complete the assignment. This was a delightful activity, filled with laughter and energy.

The following day we circled-up to review some of the questions and talk over what they had learned about the different individuals. Before we headed for the library to begin research, I gave the students an assignment sheet: “Choose an individual who stood up for racial or gender justice. Perhaps this individual worked to end slavery, for women’s right to own property or to vote, for farmworkers’ rights, or to integrate schools in the South. You needn’t agree with everything this person stood for or agree with how he or she went about working for change. The only requirements are that the person tried to make this a better place to live and also significantly affected society. You may choose an individual (or group) who attended the ‘getting to know you’ gathering we did in class or come up with one of your own. If you choose one on your own, check with me first.”

I told them that they were going to be writing about their individual in the first person, but I didn’t want to describe the full assignment until they had read and collected stories.

For their library and outside-of-class research, I gave students written research guidelines: “Find out as much about your individual as you can. Try to answer the following questions – and be sure to look for specific stories from their lives:

1. What significant events in this person’s life shaped their social commitment? What happened in their life to make them willing to take the risks they took?

2. What did the person want to accomplish or change?

3. What did they accomplish?

4. What methods did this person use to try to effect change?

5. What, if anything, about their life reminds you of something in your life? Is there anything in their life that you relate to, or that is similar to feelings or experiences you’ve had?

6. What meaning does this person’s life have for today?

7. Find at least three quotes from the individual that you agree with or think are somehow significant.”

I told them that they would need to turn in full answers to these questions with their final write-up.

Not surprisingly, some students had an easier time than others.The student doing Elaine Brown, onetime leader of the Black Panther Party, had trouble finding anything on her life and, unfortunately, didn’t have the energy to read the entirety of Brown’s excellent book, A Taste of Power, so moved on to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But by and large students were able to discover lots about their activists.

I’ve found that it’s always better to show students what I’m looking for, rather than just tell them. So I save student papers from year to year to use as examples. My student, Wakisha Weekly, virtually became Sojourner Truth in a paper she had written for me in a previous year. I read it to the class to demonstrate the kind of intimacy, detail, and voice that I hoped students would strive for. She structured it as a conversation between a dying Sojourner Truth and her granddaughter. It opened:

“Grandma T., how are you?”

“Oh, I am fine, baby doll. As fine as you can be in a hospital bed with all of these tubes.”

“Are you going to die, Grandma?”

“I’m not going to die, honey. I’m going home like a shooting star.”

“Can you tell me a story, Grandma?”

Wakisha’s “Grandma T.” tells her granddaughter about life as a slave, being sold when her master died and of life with successive owners. She talks of her escape and her conversion:

“Later in my life is when I felt a powerful force. It was God all around me. God gave me the name Sojourner and told me to move to New York and to speak to people. I called it preaching. I often put people in tears. The better educated didn’t like me because I was so good at what I did, and I loved speaking out to people. I can’t read a book, but I can read the people.”

“You don’t know how to read, Grandma?”

“No, I was never taught. Slaves didn’t go to school or to college to be educated. The masters thought you were there just to work for them.”

“But Grandma, I love to read, and I am really good at it.”

“That’s good, baby. And part of the reason you can read and go to school is because women didn’t like to be put down by the men and wanted to work, earn money, and even go to school. So we stood up for ourselves.”

“Who is we, Grandma T?”

Wakisha used the granddaughter’s questions to pull her narrative along. In response to questions and comments, Grandma T. continued to tell the history, weaving her personal story with movement history – both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

After hearing Wakisha’s piece, students and I talked about what they liked about it and what made the writing both interesting and informative. We followed by brainstorming ways that we could write about the lives of our racial and gender justice activists. They came up with excellent ideas, including: students going to a nursing home to interview someone for a class project; a letter to a loved one, saying what you never got to say during your life; two life-long friends walking and talking about the activities they participated in together.

I didn’t want students to run simply with the first thing that came into their heads, so for homework I asked them to write two different introductions to their piece. We began these in class and the next day they brought them in and read them to one another in pairs. I asked people to nominate exemplary openings that they heard so that these could be shared with the entire class and broaden our sampling of possible approaches.

What students ultimately produced sounded nothing like an encyclopedia. Andy wrote a story about “Nicholas,” a former member of the Massachusetts 54th, the first regiment of Black soldiers in American history. Drawing largely on letters in the book A Grand Army of Black Men (edited by Edwin S. Redkey), Andy set his piece in a facility for seniors, many years after the Civil War. Nicholas is sitting with his regular breakfast companion, Susan, who asks him at long last about the part of his ear that is missing. “To know about my ear, I would have to tell you a story,” and launches into a richly detailed tale about his decision to volunteer for the 54th and his experiences fighting in South Carolina.

Tyler’s Marcus Garvey lies on his death bed wondering whether or not he did enough for racial equality. He flashes back to his impoverished Jamaican childhood: “Though we had close to no money, we had heart, and each other.”

Jennifer patterned her story about Rosa Parks on Wakisha’s Grandma T. In an interior monologue, Jeff’s Malcolm X reflected on how he changed, and what he feared and hoped for, while sitting in a hotel room the day before his final speech at the Audubon Ballroom. Jonathan wrote an unusual and complex piece that began on the day Leonard Peltier was released from prison – a day that is still in the future. His daughter tells the story of how she became an activist for Native-American rights after listening to her father narrate a videotape-letter to her about why he can’t be with her as she grows up.

Gina wrote an utterly authentic-feeling story about two young children who visit Cesar Chavez for a class project. In her story, Chavez narrates episodes from La Causa:

“The fight was not over. In 1968, I fasted – that means I didn’t eat anything – for 25 days. A different time I fasted for 24 days, and again I fasted, this time for 36 days. You know how hungry you can get when you miss breakfast or lunch – but imagine missing 36 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.”

“But Mr. Chavez, didn’t you ever fight? Like punch them or anything?” Richard asked.

“No, no! Violence isn’t right. Everything can be done without hurting somebody else. You can always show people your side with words or pictures or actions. Hurting somebody to make your point is wrong, and it never needs to be done. We never punched anyone, even if they punched us first. We just stayed at our place and showed them that they couldn’t stop us.”

“That’s really neat, Mr. Chavez! I’m gonna do that,” Linda said determinedly.


In a myth-shattering history curriculum where heroes are regularly yanked from their pedestals, it’s vital that we alert students to currents of generosity, solidarity, democracy, anti-racism, and social equality in the nation’s past – and present. We don’t need to make these up. They are there. Yes, we need to carefully analyze movements for change and acknowledge their shortcomings, the times they manifested those very characteristics that they sought to oppose in the larger society. And yes, we need to engage students in thinking about the relationship between strategies and aims, because not all activism is equally effective, and some can actually be counterproductive. But the curriculum that demands perfection will be filled with blank pages. As Howard Zinn emphasizes, there are countless individuals who have worked “to keep alive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war.” Let’s work concretely toward a curriculum of hope. Let’s give students the opportunity to conclude: “I’m gonna do that.”

Bill Bigelow (Contact Me) is Classroom Editor of Rethinking Schools and is on leave from Franklin High School in Portland, Ore.