Political Courage and Those Who Affirmed or Denied Democratic Ideals

Standard 4.11: Political Courage and Those Who Affirmed or Denied Democratic Ideas

Examine the varied understandings of the role of elected representatives and discuss those who have demonstrated political courage or those whose actions have failed to live up to the ideals of the Constitution. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.11]

FOCUS QUESTION: When and How Have Politically Courageous Individuals and Groups Worked to Realize Democratic Ideals?

Copper sculpture Full Circle Profile of Courage

Copper sculpture "Full Circle: Profile of Courage" in the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, Massachusetts
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith from a Library of Congress collection

Political courage is the act of standing up for and affirming democratic ideals no matter how popular or unpopular those ideas may be at a given time in history. 

Women and men who show political courage are essential to a democracy, for as the 35th President John F. Kennedy wrote in the 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage: "The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right" (quoted from About the Book: Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).

United States history is filled with times when political figures and everyday people affirmed the ideals of democracy and the nation's Constitution. The INVESTIGATE and UNCOVER modules for this standard offer examples of individuals who had the political courage to affirm the ideals of freedom and justice for all during crucial times on the nation's past, including the Amistad Case, the Scopes Trial, and Delano Grape Strike and Boycott.

Sadly, and most recently duuring the January 6, 2021 attack on the nation's Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn the 2020 Presidential election (Rampage at the Capitol, The New York Times, January 7, 2021), our history also has many occasions where individuals, policymakers, and groups engaged in actions that contradicted and suppressed American ideals. So those unAmerican actions will not be forgotten, an ENGAGE module discusses the Reconstruction Era, the Indian Wars of the American West. McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the Lavender Scare.

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. 1.1. Joseph Cinque, John Qunicy Adams, and the Amistad Case
    1.2. The Scopes Trial and the Debate Over Darwin's Origin of the Species
    1.3. Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott
  2. UNCOVER: Claudette Colvin, the Browder v. Gayle case and the Struggle to Desegrgate Public Transportation
  3. 3.1. The January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol
    3.2. The 1898 Wilmington Massacre
    3.3. The Reconstruction Era
    3.4. The Indian Wars of the American West
    3.5. McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the Lavender Scare

1. INVESTIGATE: When American Ideals Were Affirmed

Political courage is illustrated by the actions of those who stand up for the ideals of liberty and justice in sharp contrast to those who do not.

United States history is filled with examples of courageous women and men who, facing discrimination, injustice, and hatred, worked ceaselessly to build a better, more equitable society. African American leaders Harriet TubmanW.E.B. Du Bois, and Shirley Chisholm; women activists Alice Paul and Helen Keller; labor organizer Mother Jones; socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs; and gay civil rights pioneers Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk are highlighted in other chapters of this book.

There are also several little-known individuals who exhibited great political courage throughout our history. Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit Nation member, led a campaign that led to the passage of the nation's first anti-discrimination law in Alaska in 1945. She was honored with a Google Doodle on December 30, 2020.

What other examples of hidden histories and untold stories of political courage can you find? Writing About Politically Courageous Elected Officials a video from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library provides an opportunity to learn more about courageous Americans. You can view the The Struggle for Justice, an exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery or read Teaching about Unsung Heroes: Encouraging Students to Appreciate Those Who Fought for Social Justice, a chapter in Bill Bigelow's A People's History for the Classroom(2008).

Here are three more examples of political courage where the actions of individuals affirmed American ideals:

1.1. Joseph Cinque, John Quincy Adams, and the Amistad Case

Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh) led a slave revolt aboard the ship Amistad in 1839 and was defended in court by the former President, John Quincy Adams.

A portrait of Cinque

A portrait of Cinque (Sengbe Pieh), the leader of the Mende revolt aboard the Amistad
 "Sengbe Pieh" by Nathaniel Jocelyn | Public Domain

There is more information at a resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page for Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinque), John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Case.

1.2. The Scopes Trial and the Debate Over Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species

In a famous court case, John Scopes, a public school science teacher, went to jail because he taught the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school in 1925.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Darrow during the Scopes Trial, July 20, 1925
 "Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial"

There is more information about the evolution controvesy at resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki pages for The Scopes Trial and the Debate Over Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species and Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution.

1.3. Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, and the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott

The five-year-long Delano Grape Strike and Boycott (1965-1970) was a transformative moment in the American Labor Movement. The strike began on September 8, 1965 when Filipino-American grape workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley went on strike against poor pay and deplorable working conditions. Initially led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, the strikers hoped for a 15 cents an hour raise. California celebrates Larry Itliong Day every year on October 25.

United Farm Workers Black Eagle Flag

United Farm Workers Black Eagle Flag Containing the Huelga Bird on a White Disc on a Red Field
Public Domain

Soon after, Mexican American labor activists Cesar Chavez (An American Hero: Biography of Cesar E. Chavez) and Dolores Huerta (Biography from Dolores Huerta.org) joined the strike. They organized Filipino and Mexican-American workers into the United Farm Workers union. Promoting nonviolent tactics in the face of violence from supporters of the grape producers, the Farm Workers Union began a national boycott and millions of Americans stopped eating grapes in support of the strikers. 

When the strike ended in 1970, farm workers everywhere were able to receive higher wages and better benefits. However the original Filipino strikers have been largely forgotten for their role in launching the strike. Learn more: The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott.

One outgrowth of the strike is a movement to create a Cesar Chavez National Holiday. Presently, Cesar Chavez is honored with a state holiday in California and an optional holiday in Colorado and Texas. Additionally, there are yearly celebrations in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska and New Mexico.

There is more information about the Cesar Chavez and the Grape Strike at a resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page for the Latino Civil Rights Movement.

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for the Delano Grape Strike and the United Farm Workers Union

2. UNCOVER: Claudette Colvin, the Browder v. Gayle case (1956), and the Struggle to Desegregate Public Transportation

Nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous protest, a fifteen-year-old high school student named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama city bus. She was dragged from the vehicle and arrested by white police officers becoming the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin, aged 13, in 1953
Public Domain

Claudette Colvin subsequently joined three other women—Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith—in the Browder v. Gayle court case challenging segregation on the city’s public buses.

A district court ruled that segregation on buses inside the state of Alabama was unconstitutional because it denied African Americans equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment. On December 17, 1956, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision. Three days later an order for integrated buses ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Browder v. Gayle The Women Before Rosa Parks).

Image preview of a YouTube video
Watch on YouTube https://edtechbooks.org/-djx

Others Who Refused to Give Up Their Seats

Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks were not the only African Americans who refused to give up their seats on streetcars, railroad cars, and buses as a form of protest against discrimination. As the website Teaching for Change has documented, the struggle for the racial desegregation of transportation has a long history of courageous individuals taking great risks for social and racial justice (Transportation Protests: 1841 to 1992).

And these are some of the stories of political courage, resistance and action by African Americans in response to discrimination in transportation.

Suggested Learning Activity

Construct a People's History or Interactive Timeline of Those Who Refused to Give Up Their Seats

Online Resources for Claudette Colvin and Browder v. Gayle

3. Engage: When and How Were American Ideals Denied?

United States history is filled with occasions when undemocratic and oppressive policies fueled by political and financial gain and racist and sexist attitudes negated the ideals of freedom, liberty, and social justice. Examples include the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the nation's Capitol, the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, White southerners responses to Reconstruction; the Indian Wars of the American West; and the 1950s McCarthy Era in American politics with its accompanying the Anti-Communist Red Scare and the Anti-Gay Lavender Scare.

3.1. The January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol

Shortly after noon on January 6, 2021 following a inciteful speech by President Donald Trump, a mob of thousands of White supremactists, Neo-Nazis, election conspiracy adherents, MAGA supporters and other far-right insurrectionists attacked the nation's Capitol as Congress was meeting to certify the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Their goal was to shut down and take over the government by preventing Congress from approving Joe Biden as the 46th President and Kamala Harris at the 49th Vice-President.

Pipe Bomb in DC
Pipe Bombs in DC | Public Domain

The ensuring riot resulted in people's death, destruction of property, and debasement of democratic norms. Members of Congress, their staffs, reporters and media people were forced into lockdown, fearing for their lives and safety. The event was carried live on television cable news networks and streamed on social media. Rioters carried Confederate and Trump flags, broke into Congressional offices, and for a time occupied the floor of the House of Representatives, one posed sitting in the seat of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Two bombs were found. Violent confrontations happened between rioters and police officers.

Alarming evidence of an organized assault rather than a spontaneous riot emerged almost immediately afterwards. There had been tours of the Capitol building the day before the attack despite pandemic restrictions on public access to the building. The President was apparently not rushed to a secure location, but remaining in the White House watching events on television. The acting Department of Defense secretary delayed sending in the National Guard to assist Capitol police as they were being overrun by the mob. Attackers had information of where to find different Congressional offices. Members of the mob were communicating and coordinating in real time on social media during the assault. While many rioters took selfies and videos, others carefully hid their faces from cameras and authorities to avoid recognition.

Reporting by The New York Times found connections between the Trump Campaign and the insurrectionists who attacked the capital, concluding that: “For 77 days between the election and the inauguration, President Donald J. Trump attempted to subvert American democracy with a lie about election fraud that he had been grooming for years.” Members of the campaign and the former President himself worked to organize not only a rally on January 6, but the march that led to the attack on the Capitol.

The Coup D’état Project at the Cline Center of the University of Illinois determined that the storming of the Capitol "was an attempted coup d’état: an organized, illegal attempt to intervene in the presidential transition by displacing the power of the Congress to certify the election.”

Further evidence of deliberate and planned intent to disrupt the election and the government was provided by FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2, 2021. Wray stated the Bureau had determined that there were three groups involved on January 6: 1) those who protested lawfully and without violence; 2) those who committed minor, non-violent offenses after getting caught up in the actions of the mob; and 3) those who arrived in paramilitary gear, carrying weapons, and planning to stop the certification of electoral college ballots by any means. He called these individuals domestic terrorists, adding that inside-the-United States White supremacist organizations are, along with ISIS, the country top national security threats.

In March 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report, Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Heightened Threat in 2020, warning of the ongoing threat from violent individuals and organized militia groups who are using social media platforms to spread hate, promote the superiority of the white race, and mobilize and radicalize members to commit violence against the local, state, and national government.

3.2. The 1898 Wilmington Massacre

The Insurrection at the Capitol echoed one of the darkest events in U.S. history, the 1898 Wilmington Massacre (also known as the Wilmington Insurrection) in which a heavily armed mob of 1500 white men attacked and killed Black citizens and took over the legally elected government of Wilmington, North Carolina (Zucchino, 2020). You can learn more about this event at Nov. 18, 1898: Wilmington Massacre from the Zinn Education Project website.

Both events were political coups intended to overturn duly elected governments, making them completely anti-democratic actions. In the aftermath of the events in Washington, D.C., members of the media struggled to label what had happened: Was it a ramage, a riot, a protest, an insurrection, a conspiracy, an assault, a siege? Were those involved rioters, insurrectionists, extremists, conspirators?

Historians concluded that mob actions and violence are a recurring pattern in American history, as Eric Foner noted: “In other ways, it is not unprecedented at all. It represents something deeply rooted in the American experience, which is actually hostility to democracy” (quoted in "Was the Assault on the Capitol Really 'UnPrecedented'? Historians Weigh In," National Geographic, January 8, 2021).

There was also the troubling differences in how law enforcement responded to these right-wing, largely White rioters as compared with Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors during the summer of 2020. BLM protestors were met with tear gas, flash bangs, low-flying helicopters, and many more arrests. Researcher Roudabeth Kishi examined recent marches and protests and found police more than twice as likely to attempt to break-up left-wing protests than those by right-wing groups, and using force more often (The Police's Tepid Response to the Capitol Breach Wasn't an Aberration, FiveThirtyEight, January 7, 2021).

You can find more information at 6 Ways to Help Students Make Sense of the Capitol Siege from Education Week.

3.3. The Reconstruction Era

Reconstruction, what historian Eric Foner (2014) has called “America’s unfinished revolution,” is an example of a time when American ideals were both affirmed or denied within the same historical event. Between the end of the Civil War and 1877, there was the creation of policies that affirmed and extended American ideals - the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; the election of Blacks to local, state, and national offices throughout the South (there had only been five African Americans elected officeholders in the entire country prior to 1877); the redistribution of land to freed Blacks by the Freedmen’s Bureau; the Civil Rights Act of 1866; and the establishment of Black schools and colleges across the South.

But the Reconstruction Era also saw actions that fundamentally negated America’s constitutional freedoms. The Klu Klux Klan emerged in Tennessee in 1866 before spreading to every state in the South. Along with other white supremacy organizations in southern states, the Klan engaged in murder, lynchings, church bombing, and other acts of domestic terror, including the Colfax Massacre on Easter Sunday 1873.

There was the passage of Black Codes that helped establish a system of agricultural sharecropping that left Black families in debt for life. To learn more about white supremacy, read Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (2019) (see the New York Times Book Review: In ‘Stony the Road,’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. Captures the History and Images of the Fraught Years After the Civil War) The sharp contrasts of the Reconstruction era sets the stage for exploring other times in our history when the actions of individuals and groups served to affirm or deny the ideals of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

You can learn more at a Jim Crow Era wiki page on the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki.

3.4. The Indian Wars of the American West

The Indian Wars of the American West were a series of armed conflicts between native peoples, settlers, and the U.S. Army that lasted from the end of the Civil War to about 1890 (Cozzens, 2016).

Photo of a marker at Bosque Redondo

Photo of a marker at Bosque Redondo, Fort Sumner, in New Mexico
" Bosque Redondo" by Phil Konstantin | Public Domain

These wars included some of the most lasting and complex stories and personalities in the history of the American West: The Little Bighorn or Greasy Grass Fight; the Transcontinental Railroad; African American Buffalo Soldiers; Gernonimo; Wounded Knee; the Dawes Act; and reservations for native tribes. Learn more from the Western Indian Wars page on the Museum of American History.

There is more information about another dramatic event at a resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page for The Navajo War and the Long Walk of the Navajos, 1848 to 1868.

3.5. McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the Lavender Scare

McCarthyism, an anti-Communist Red Scare, and the anti-Gay Lavender Scare happened in the early 1950s during a time of intensifying Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Example of AntiCommunist Literature in the 1950s

Example of AntiCommunist Literature in the 1950s
"Anticommunist Literature 1950s" | Public Domain


At the beginning of the 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was convinced that the American government was being taken over by members of the American Communist Party who were under the control of Soviet leaders. A fear-monger and demagogue, McCarthy launched a series of televised hearings that ruined many careers through threats, innuendos, and blacklists, although "no one McCarthy investigated was ever convicted of anything" (Menard, 2020, p. 73). McCarthyism did not end till 1954 when President Eisenhower told members of the government that they did not have to testify before McCarthy’s Senate committee. The resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki has primary sources and more historical information about McCarthyism and the Red Scare

McCarthy was an extraordinary, but not singular, example of an uniquely American strain of political demagoguery, notes biographer Larry Tye in his book Demogogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy (2020, p. 2). A demagogue is an politician who rises to power through lying, attacking opponents, and appealing to people's prejudices and fears, and in Tye's analysis, these are exactly the kind of activities that Donald Trump has used to gain and hold power.

The Red Scare

Historian Louis Menard, writing in the New Yorker (2020), notes that the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, a product of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, preceded McCarthy's hearings. Menard cites President Harry Truman as the figure who launched the Scare, first with the aggressive anti-communist Truman Doctrine and then with the establishment of the Employee Loyalty Program in which 4,765,705 federal employees had to forms that initated loyalty investigations (Menard, 2020, p. 73). Congress followed with hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the Red Scare also produced the censorship of artists, writers, and musicians known as The Hollywood Blacklist. Charlie Chaplin, Langston Hughes, Orson Wells, Lena Horne, Dalton Trumbo, Leonard Bernstein and Dorothy Parker were among the individuals who were denied work in the entertainment industry.

McCarthyism and the Red Scare has primary source materials including comic book covers, posters, audio recordings, and documents.

Anti-Gay Lavender Scare of the 1950s

The Lavender Scare was a campaign against federal employees who were suspected of being gay or lesbian. People’s civil rights and civil liberties were violated by surveillance, interrogations, and rumors. Thousands lost their jobs or resigned from the government. One historian noted that at the time “many politicians, journalists, and citizens thought that homosexuals posed more of a threat to national security than communists" (Johnson, 2004, p. 2).

It took decades, but in January 2017, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal apology to the LGBTQ+ community for decades of discrimination from the State Department (State Department Apologizes for the Lavender Scare). Still today, the Lavender Scare remains a little-taught history in many school curriculums.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • State Your View: For whom should a School be Named?
      • In Education Week, Corey Mitchell (2020) reported that as of June 2020, there were 174 schools in 16 states named for historical figures connected to the Confederay during the Civil War; most commonly, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Sidney Lanier. There are over 1,700 Confederate monuments still standing.
      • Activists have demanded, and many community leaders have agreed, that Confederate-themed school names deeply offend African Americans and inaccurately portray the history of slavery and the Civil War.
      • Whose heritage does the name of your school honor?
    • Should students, teachers, and community members go about renaming schools to honor individuals who stood for American ideals? 

Standard 4.11 Conclusion

Political courage is an essential quality in a democracy. INVESTIGATE profiled three examples of courageous individuals who affirmed American ideals through their actions: Joseph Cinque, John Quincy Adams, and the Amistad Case; John Scopes and the Scopes Evolution Trial; and Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and the Delano Grape Strike. UNCOVER reviewed the history of Claudette Colvin and the Browder V. Gayle case. ENGAGE asked what American ideals were denied during the Indian Wars of the American West, McCarthyism and the Anti-Communist Red Scare, and the Anti-Gay Lavender Scare of the 1950s.