5 Great American Rebels That We Must Not Forget
We’ve all seen and admired them. I’m talking about the rebels in our society who are not afraid to speak truth to power.
Those who burn with a white-hot passion for justice and stop at nothing to fight for their cause.
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Many rebels from our history have demonstrated bravery and determination to reject the evil opponents of their time.
Let us remember these great rebels and honor them. While we may not agree entirely with their cause, we can find inspiration from their spirit.
Emma Goldman (1869–1940)
Emma Goldman was a celebrated anarchist and an early advocate for many human liberties such as free speech, labor unions, women’s equality, birth control, and the eight-hour workday¹. She was constantly attacked and arrested, and her speeches were often shut down and banned.
In 1893, when there was mass unemployment in New York City, she encouraged hungry children to walk into stores and take all the food they needed. For this, she got arrested for ‘inciting a riot’ and served two years in prison.
‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful and radiant things.’
Regarding rising food prices following the 1898 Spanish-American War — which pertained to American involvement in Cuba — she said: ‘When we sobered up from our patriotic spree, it suddenly dawned on us that the cause of the war was the price of sugar… That the lives, blood, and money of the American people were used to protect the interests of American capitalists.’
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Goldman directly worked with the very first Free Speech League and was an inspiration for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She vehemently opposed conscription during World War I, which resulted in another two-year imprisonment. Goldman was subsequently deported in 1919 and was forced to live the remainder of her life in Canada.
Cesar Chavez (1927–93)
Cesar Chavez was born near Yuma, Arizona, and became a migrant farm worker after his father lost their homestead because of the Great Depression in the 1930s². He later served in the United States Navy and saw battle in the Pacific during the Second World War.
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After returning from military service, he organized a huge Hispanic migrant labor force in California. ‘You can’t change anything if you want to hold on to a good job, a good way of life and avoid sacrifice,’ he claimed when he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) during the early 1960s. NFWA membership was made up mostly of migrant vineyard workers.
‘You can’t change anything if you want to hold on to a good job, a good way of life and avoid sacrifice.’
Before long, the NFWA had merged with the United Farm Workers in 1966 and eventually affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Chavez fasted for 25 days in 1968 to reaffirm his union’s commitment to non-violence. And by 1975, some 17 million American citizens supported a boycott of wines made in California. At the time, Jerry Brown, who was Governor of California, passed a collective-bargaining law that grape growers had to support to stay in business.
Once again, in 1988, Chavez fasted for 36 days in protest of pesticide use that was poisoning grape workers and their children. When he died in 1993, some forty thousand people mourned at his funeral.
Rachel Carson (1907–64)
Rachel Carson’s early life was spent working in public service³. She was professionally trained as a zoologist and marine biologist. This background led her to become Editor-in-Chief for the United States Fish and Wildlife Publications Service.
When the Great Depression came, Carson supplemented her income by writing for the Atlantic Monthly. In 1952, after publishing The Sea Around Us, she left the government and devoted her life to writing full time.
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After Carson published Together with Silent Spring in 1962, she received enormous attention to the lethal impact of chemical pesticides. Her writing provided a direct challenge to the prevailing methods and was crucial to the environmental movement's birth.
She was constantly ridiculed and mocked as an ‘alarmist’ by government officials and the chemical industry. In 1963, her testimony before Congress led to legislation that now protects the environment and human health. A year later, she died from breast cancer.
Paul Robeson (1898–1976)
Paul Robeson⁴ was asked during the infamous McCarthy hearings why he hadn’t left the country; he frankly replied: ‘Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country.’
Robeson was an incredible athlete and a brilliant scholar who walked away from his New York law firm after a stenographer told him: ‘I never take dictation from a n***r.’
He went on to work with playwright Eugene O’Neill, where his wonderful singing voice was discovered in the musical Showboat. Robeson spent the 1930s traveling across the world in front of countless audiences. He witnessed racial injustices of every shape and variety.
‘Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country.’
It was in the Soviet Union that he experienced ‘full human dignity.’ This was when Robeson committed to Soviet communism. He urged black youths to never fight for the US if they ever waged war with the Soviet Union.
In 1950, authorities revoked his passport, and he got ‘blacklisted’ by concert managers. Finding himself unable to make a living any longer and refusing to change his political philosophy, he fell into a deep depression from losing human contact with friends and fans.
Robeson attempted suicide twice but later died of a stroke in 1976.
Mae West (1893–1980)
Mae West⁵ was originally known as ‘The Baby Vamp’ who grew up in Vaudeville. It was in 1926 when she wrote, directed, and produced the Broadway show Sex. This later led to her arrest for obscenity. A year later, her next play creation called Drag was outright banned as it openly dealt with homosexuality.
Because of the reputation she had forged, West created the fine art of using self-parody and innuendo. She went on to write the scripts for five out of nine of her Hollywood movies. It was said that the movie great George Raft, who she had hired to support her in Night After Night in 1932, later complained: ‘She stole everything but the cameras.’
‘I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it.’
West’s 1933 film entitled She Done Him Wrong has been credited with rescuing Paramount from imminent bankruptcy. Her popularity and brand had reached such peaks that even sailors were naming their inflatable life jackets after her.
West turned down the part of Norma Desmond for the movie Sunset Boulevard. ‘When I’m good, I’m very good,’ she later said, ‘but when I’m bad, I’m better.’
And who could forget her famous quip: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?’
: PBS.org. Emma Goldman (1869–1940). https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldman-1869-1940/.
: UFW.org. The Story of Cesar Chavez. https://ufw.org/research/history/story-cesar-chavez/.
: Debra Michals, PhD. (2015). Rachel Carson. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/rachel-carson.
: Gilbert King. (September 13, 2011). What Paul Robeson Said. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-paul-robeson-said-77742433/.
: Hadley Hall Meares. (June 16, 2020). “When I’m Bad, I’m Better”: Mae West’s Sensational Life, in Her Own Words. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/06/mae-west-autobiography-scandal.