The Real Heroes (July 5, 2009)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:21 PM by Neal Jones

        Two hundred thirty-three years ago, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.  In addition to announcing to the world our independence from Great Britain, the Declaration proclaimed a set of ideals that still inspires Americans and people around the world:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  You hear these same ideals proclaimed among our Unitarian Universalist principles:  “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”  High ideals indeed; so high that they were unattainable by the Constitution, which instituted the actual form of government that united the thirteen colonies into one nation.  During the first decades of the new republic, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote.  Worse still, the Constitution permitted slavery and counted African Americans as three fifths of a European American in determining representation in Congress.  The Native Americans who had survived the near genocide of European settlement in the new world did not figure at all in these equations. 

        When considering ideals, especially ideals that seem unattainable, I am reminded of what Carl Schurz said:  Ideals are like stars: you will not succeed in touching them with your hands … You choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.”  The democratic process instituted by the Constitution did allow some of the distortions of our democratic principles to be rectified and allow us as a nation to move a bit closer to our destiny as a free people.  The history books focus on the warriors and the ruling class, as if all change comes from people in power.  But the truth is that most leaders are politically expedient.  They typically follow public opinion instead of shaping it.  The truth is that much of what we love about America has been created by ordinary citizens who more often than not encountered resistance from those in power.  The truth is that the real heroes of American history are those extraordinary ordinary Americans whose struggles have brought us closer to our ideals so that we can be who we say we are.

        Instead of idealizing those fifty-five rich white men who drafted the Constitution as a way of establishing a government that would protect the interests of their class – the slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, and land speculators – why not honor the humanitarianism of William Penn, an early colonist who made peace with the Delaware Indians instead of trying to exterminate them, as other colonial leaders were doing?  Or how about John Woolman, who, in the years before the Revolution, refused to pay taxes to support the British wars and who spoke out against slavery long before there was an abolition movement?  Why not honor Captain Daniel Shay, a 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 legislature?

        Our history books love to engage in the hero-worship of Andrew Jackson, but Old Hickory was also a slave-owner and a hunter of Indians.  As General of the US Army, he led troops against peaceful Indian encampments and on all occasions preserved the scalps of his victims.  He personally supervised the mutilation of 800 Creek Indians, cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins.  I’m not making this up, though I wish I were.  As President, Jackson ordered the forced relocation of the Cherokee nation from the Southeast to Oklahoma in what has become known as the Trail of Tears.  Seventeen thousand men, women, and children were driven through areas known to be infected with cholera; they were fed spoiled flour and rancid meat; they were forced to march through freezing rain and cold.  By the time it was over, nearly half had died.  Jackson said that Indians are “savage dogs that ought to be scourged.”  Why not replace him as a national icon with John Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the dispossession of his people and whose wife died on the Trail of Tears?  Or the Seminole leader Osceola, imprisoned and finally killed for leading a guerilla campaign against the removal of the Indians?

        While we’re at it, should not the Lincoln Memorial be joined by a memorial to Frederick Douglas, an escaped slave who taught himself to read when it was illegal for slaves to read and who much better represented the struggle against slavery than Abraham Lincoln?  We tend to forget that when Lincoln ran for President, he did not oppose slavery but merely the spread of slavery to the new territories.  We tend to forget that abolitionists, like Douglas, had to push a reluctant Lincoln into finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order freeing the slaves in the Confederate states over which the Union had no power.  We tend to forget that Lincoln said in his debates with Stephen Douglas:

        I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing               about in any way the social and political equality of the white and            black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of       making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to                       hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in                addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the                white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two                 races living together on terms of social and political equality.  And                in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain    together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much      as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position      assigned to the white race.

        Our history books venerate another Presidential hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who is always near the top of our lists of the greatest Presidents and whose face is alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, a permanent reminder of our historical amnesia about his racism, militarism, imperialism, and love of war.  Concerning Native Americans, we tend to forget that Teddy had this to say:

        The extermination of the Indians and the expropriation of their         land is as ultimately beneficial as it is inevitable.  Such conquests      are sure to come when a masterful people, still in its raw barbarian     prime, finds itself face to face with the weaker and         wholly alien      race which holds a coveted prize within its feeble grasp.

And this:

        I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead       Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to     inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.

It may take some doing, but I wish we could replace TR on Mt. Rushmore with one of his contemporaries, Mark Twain, who was vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League and who denounced Roosevelt for congratulating an American general for ordering the massacre of 600 men, women, and children in the Philippines. 

        President Woodrow Wilson is usually honored in the pantheon of American liberalism, but we tend to forget that he instituted racial segregation in federal buildings, that he bombarded the Mexican coast, sent an occupation army into Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and threw anti-war protesters in prison.  Wouldn’t it better to honor instead  Emma Goldman, one of those Wilson sent to prison for speaking out against the draft and the war and who, after her release from prison, was deported to Russia?

        Here in Columbia, our Statehouse grounds are crowded with statues and monuments to South Carolina’s heroes.  One of them stands, appropriately enough, next to the Confederate flag.  Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman was a governor and U.S. senator of our state.  He was also one of the most virulent racists ever spawned by the South.  A former slave owner, Tillman spent his political career depriving African Americans of their most basic civil rights.  He is the one who called for the state constitutional convention in 1895 that disenfranchised most black citizens of South Carolina and instituted Jim Crow laws.  Tillman bragged:

        We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]... we   have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the     last one of them.  We stuffed ballot boxes.  We shot them.  We are    not ashamed of it.

While our Senator in Washington, Tillman was censured by the Senate for assaulting a fellow Senator.  He opposed the annexation of the Philippines because he feared an influx of non-white immigrants would result in undermining white racial purity.  As South Carolina’s Senator, he became one of the most outspoken and unapologetic advocates of white supremacy ever to serve in Congress.  He once declared from the Senate floor:

            We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to     govern white men, and we never will.  We have never believed him    to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his     gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.

This is whom we honor with a statue on our Statehouse grounds.

        Instead of having a monument to a white supremacist, why not erect a monument to state heroes who sacrificed their livelihoods for racial equality.  We would have to go no further than neighboring Clarendon County, where in 1948 the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a black principal of a black school, asked the local school board for one bus to transport black children to school.  In addition to attending separate and very inferior schools, black children had to walk to school, sometimes many miles, while the white children were provided with buses.  The white superintendent of the school, also a minister, told DeLaine that black citizens didn’t pay enough taxes to justify a bus and that asking white taxpayers to do so was unfair.  So Rev. DeLaine found a parent who was brave enough to bring a lawsuit against the school board.  The case caught the attention of the NAACP, who brought in a young attorney from New York, Thurgood Marshall, who expanded the case beyond a request for a bus to a demand for overall equal educational opportunities. 

        Rev. DeLaine recruited twenty black parents to sign the legal petition.  The first two names on the petition became the name of the case.  Harry Briggs was a service station attendant, and his wife Eliza Briggs worked as a maid.  Both of the Briggs were fired from their jobs because they signed the petition.  Harry had to move to Florida to find work to support his family.  He remained there for ten years, only seeing his family on occasional weekends.  Rev. DeLaine was fired from his job as a school principal, his church was burned, and after surviving a drive-by shooting, he moved to New York City, never to return to South Carolina.  Every parent who signed the petition lost his or her job.  Briggs v. Elliot was eventually combined with other desegregation cases in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case heard by the Supreme Court in 1954.  Desegregation did come to Clarendon County and to the rest of the country but at great costs.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged to each other their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”  The signers of the Briggs v. Elliot petition did so as well.  They were ordinary people who simply wanted their children to have a better life, and their love for their children compelled them to act heroically.  It is they, not “Pitchfork” Tillman, who deserve a monument at our Statehouse.

        Ordinary men and women are the real heroes of the American story.  So on this day of our nation’s birth, let us honor them for their courage, their persistence, and their willingness to transcend self-interest and sacrifice themselves for the common good.

        To the waves of immigrants from all parts of the world who have struggled to find acceptance and self-acceptance in this new world.

        To the escaped slaves and their allies, particularly the Quakers and freedom-loving secularists, who built the Underground Railroad and helped countless people to freedom.

        To the abolitionists, women and men, black and white, many of whom were Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Parker, who built popular support in a racist society for the emancipation of the slaves.

        To African Americans and their white allies who went to prison, lost their livelihoods, and were savagely beaten in the struggle for equal rights.

        To the working people who championed the eight-hour work day, the minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and the right to organize, often at great personal costs.

        To the women who risked family, job security, and their own constructed identities to raise our awareness of the effects of patriarchy and transformed our consciousness about men and women.

        To all those who have risked scorn and violence in the struggle against homophobia and for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

        To those who have worked for equal access for people with disabilities.

        To those who have advocated for sensitivity to animals and to the earth itself so that we might recognize that our well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the planet.

        To the artists and innovators who have brought more beauty and usefulness into our lives.

        To the peacemakers who have fought against war and for a more just peace.

        Let us celebrate today the hard won struggles by ordinary people to overcome the persistent obstacles of fear, prejudice, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness.  And let us remember that these struggles continue today.  Just recently, the specter of racism reared its ugly head again in our state when a former election director compared Michelle Obama’s ancestors to an escaped gorilla.  Then, just a few days later, a political consultant joked about President Obama taxing aspirin because “it’s white and it works.”  These struggles continue.  Homophobia reared its ugly head in our state and in several states across the country during the 2006 elections when referenda were passed banning same-sex marriage, thereby incorporating within our state constitution second-class citizenship for gay and lesbian South Carolinians.  And more recently, a bill requiring school districts to provide information about abusive teen relationships passed the South Carolina House only when it was stripped of all references to homosexual relationships.  These struggles continue, and they require faith – faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, faith in the democratic process, faith in humanity itself, which is much more difficult than having faith in a god. 

        These struggles continue, and they require a healthy maladjustment.  And I am delighted to be a Unitarian Universalist because I have never known a more maladjusted group.  The heroes of the American story have always understood that there are some things in our society to which we should never be well adjusted.  We must never adjust ourselves to bigotry, racism, or homophobia.  We must never accommodate ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.  We must never accept war and violence as the status quo.  Heroes for equality, for justice, and for peace must remain maladjusted in the sense that Bobby Kennedy was maladjusted when he said, “Some people see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not.”