6 Badass Acts of Resistance Erased From History
This article was originally published by Everyday Feminism. It had been edited for YES! Magazine.
The United States is no stranger to bigotry, discrimination, and oppression.
That means it’s also no stranger to civil disobedience, willful defiance, and outright badassery done by marginalized people trying to find liberation.
The Boston Tea Party, the raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Stonewall riots—these are all momentous, rebellious occasions in our nation’s history. But even then, these acts of defiance are often removed from their cultural and historical contexts and taught as if they have no relevance today.
Need I remind you of the atrocious cis—and white—washing of Stonewall?
Meanwhile, other actions are completely erased from U.S. history textbooks.
Entire generations of freedom fighters, environmental protectors, and anti-imperialist activists are deliberately not discussed.
When we’re not taught about these acts of resistance, we’re deprived of revolutionary moments in history, elders to aid us in today’s struggles, and important lessons about liberation.
This is by no means a comprehensive list.
But below you’ll find six acts of defiance against prejudice and neglect, and why they’re so vital to the work facing us today.
1. The Children’s Crusade
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, was a hotbed of activity for the civil rights movement.
By spring, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had organized massive actions against anti-Black violence. Many organizers, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were arrested. The general public scorned these protests. Time magazine described them as “poorly timed.”
Many didn’t want to continue these marches because “adults feared losing jobs or mortgages if they joined in the protests.”
An SCLC organizer, James Bevel, came up with an idea to reinvigorate the protests: have the youth march.
Young people were eager to protest. The SCLC held secret workshops to prepare them in non-violent actions.
On May 2, hundreds of young people left school and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Together, they marched towards City Hall, kicking off weeklong protests. Altogether, thousands of young people marched.
It wasn’t all peaceful.
Led by Bull Connor, the Birmingham police attacked these young people and arrested hundreds of children, holding them in cells overnight. One of the youngest protesters, Audrey Faye Hendricks, was 9 years old.
Once released, many of the young people went back to the streets to do it all over again.
The media broadcasted nationwide coverage of the marches. The increased attention spurred President John F. Kennedy to publicly support the Civil Rights Movement.
What Can We Learn From This?
The erasure of the Children’s Crusade is a problem because it dismisses the relentless courage and power of young people.
It creates adultist beliefs that only adults can be at the forefront of change. So many young people are leading school walkouts, die-ins, and other forms of disobedience today.
When we don’t teach the youth that they’re part of a long legacy of young movement-builders, we’re depriving them of a rich, defiant history.
2. The SFSU Third World Liberation Front
If you’ve ever taken an ethnic studies class, you owe it to the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).
TWLF was a coalition of organizations by students of color at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Known as the longest student strike in U.S. history, TWLF protested a number of issues.
By 1968, many students were angry at the Eurocentric curriculum, lack of faculty of color, low admission of students of color, and the ongoing Vietnam War. And when SFSU suspended George Murray—teaching assistant and the Black Panther’s Minister of Education—the students began to strike.
Led by the Black Student Union and TWLF, organizers released a list of demands. It included reinstating Murray and other professors, admitting more students of color, and creating ethnic studies departments. They refused to negotiate.
The administration called the police—campus was even shut down for a week. By December, members of the Federation of Teachers began a picket line in support. By February, over 300 students had been arrested on campus.
The governor, Ronald Reagan, called TWLF “a dissident faction of outright lawbreakers and anarchists.”
The strike finally ended in March, when the SFSU administration agreed to many of the demands. Around the same time, a second TWLF coalition formed at University of California, Berkeley, and also fought for ethnic studies classes and diverse faculty members.
What Can We Learn From This?
There’s been a recent trend of calling college students “too PC” and “too sensitive.”
But for marginalized students, current demands often reflect protests of the past.
TWLF’s actions and other student-led protests show that student voices are important. They have the power to sway administration and demand better for themselves and others after them.
3. The Trail of Broken Treaties
In 1972, one of the largest gatherings of Native activists descended on Washington, D.C.
The Trail of Broken Treaties, put together by a coalition of Native American organizations, was a cross-country protest. The organizations, including the American Indian Movement, developed a Twenty-Point Position paper as a list of demands for the federal government.
Altogether, this protest was created to bring nationwide attention to Native issues including treaty rights, standards of living, and state violence. The name mimicked the wording of the Trail of Tears.
This event came after other historical Native acts of resistance in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the occupation of Alcatraz and the uprising at Wounded Knee.
Native historian Vine Deloria Jr. outlined the movement in context in Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties.
The coalition met a week before Election Day and drove cross-country to Washington, D.C. President Richard Nixon refused to meet with organizers, and reportedly said, “Get those goddamn Indians out of town.”
The coalition then occupied the Department of the Interior. Some destroyed government records in protest and refused to leave until the administration negotiated with them.
The occupation lasted a week, with the Nixon administration promising to address the Twenty Points. Deloria points out that once they did, however, “it was obvious that little attention had been paid to the document.”
What Can We Learn From This?
Like many Native activists have talked about, Native history is often relegated to “Thanksgiving happened, and then they ‘disappeared.’”
When we aren’t taught anything beyond that, the ongoing struggles and triumph of Native Americans is erased.
Centuries of resistance is erased, leaving out vital parts of U.S. history and the battle for Native and environmental rights. We need to know these histories to understand present issues, such as the work of the water protectors at Standing Rock.
4. The ‘Landings’ of Kahoʻolawe
In 1893, the U.S. overthrew Hawaiʻi’s constitutional monarchy. By 1900, despite Hawaiian resistance, Hawaiʻi was officially part of the U.S.
As Noenoe Silva outlines in Aloha Betrayed, native Hawaiians have always resisted this colonization, which has included cultural, religious, and environmental violence.
One example of resistance was the “landings” of Kahoʻolawe.
During World War II, the U.S. declared martial law throughout the Hawaiian islands. Kahoʻolawe was used as a training ground and bombing range for American military. During “Operation Sailor Hat” in the 1960s, the military’s experiments caused massive ecological damage.
In 1976, Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana filed a lawsuit to force the military to comply with environmental protection laws.
This helped to inspire Native Hawaiians to reclaim Kahoʻolawe.
Native leader Charles Maxwell and others planned actions to re-occupy Kahoʻolawe. On January 5, 1976, over fifty activists gathered on Maui in order to “land” on Kahoʻolawe.
Although most of the group was intercepted by the military, a small group known as the Kaho‘olawe Nine made it to land.
By 1993, the efforts of these protectors were recognized by state law. The Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve was established. Kaho‘olawe and the surrounding water can only be used by and for Native Hawaiians.
What Can We Learn From This?
Today, many mainland Americans have no idea about the violence against Hawaiians. To many of us, Hawaiʻi is simply a vacationer’s paradise, and Hawaiian culture is relegated to aesthetics with no substance.
These acts are also extremely important in the fight against settler-colonization. They show activists today that it’s possible to reclaim the land from militarism and modern-day colonization.
5. The San Francisco HEW Sit-In
Though disabled U.S. activists have always been pushing for civil rights, very few institutional reforms to address systemic ableism went in effect before the mid-1900s.
Even then, many of these laws were written by non-disabled people and didn’t fully support liberatory changes.
One such law was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Essentially, it “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs” receiving funds from or sponsored by federal agencies.
Section 504 of the act was key in prohibiting ableism. It banned any institution that received federal funds – like hospitals, schools, post offices, and so on – from discriminating against disabled people.
However, three consecutive presidential administrations stalled implementing these changes.
Furthermore, Joseph Califano, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) refused to sign the act.
So the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities ( ACCD) called for a nationwide protest.
On April 4, 1977, disabled activists picketed and occupied HEW regional offices nationwide.
The San Francisco HEW occupation lasted 25 days—the longest occupation of a US federal building ever.
Disabled activists Judy Heumann and Kitty Cone were the lead organizers. They worked closely with other organizations to supply medication, hot food, mattresses, and other necessities.
Activists worked together to make the HEW office livable, as well as bringing media attention to issues facing disabled people, both on institutional and personal levels.
On April 28, Secretary Califano signed Section 504 without changing anything.
Many of the activists involved were also instrumental in creating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
What Can We Learn From This?
Because these histories have been erased, there is a huge issue today of activists leaving out disability rights and organizers. And unfortunately, many intersectional issues—such as the fact that many Black people killed by police are also disabled—are not even discussed.
Without these histories, there’s also an underlying idea that disabled people can’t be change-makers. When in fact, many prominent activists are disabled.
As Kitty Cone said, “We showed…that we the shut-ins or the shut-outs, that we the hidden, supposedly the frail and the weak, that we could wage a struggle…and win!”
6. The ‘Ashes Action’
The first official report of HIV/AIDS occurred in June 1981.
Since then, folks living with HIV/AIDS have experienced systemic stigmatization. They’re denied health care, housing, and even going to school, often facing extreme racism and homophobia from society at large.
The federal government did little in the wake of this epidemic.
So in March 1987, Larry Kramer, Vito Russo, and Didier Lestrade created the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP is self-described as a “a non-partisan group united in anger and committed to non-violent direct action to end the AIDS crisis.”
In their long history, ACT UP has a long-standing history of civil disobedience, protesting the vast number of institutions that have caused violence against people living with AIDS.
One of their largest actions happened in October 1992. It was called the “Ashes Action.” ACT UP organized a funeral march in Washington, D.C., which ended in scattering the ashes of loved ones who had died of HIV/AIDS onto the White House lawn.
For many, this was both a direct condemnation of the government and a healing process. One of the organizers, Shane Butler, said, “I remember when the ashes went over the fence of the White House. I just don’t remember convulsive grief like the grief I felt in that moment.”
There was a second “Ashes Action” in October 1996, when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was spread out across the National Mall. This occurred after President Bill Clinton “blocked a national needle exchange program” and other promised health initiatives.
Within the law few years, the U.S. government has been praised for “fighting” the AIDS epidemic globally—even though people living with HIV/AIDS are still stigmatized and criminalized.
Yet, we rarely hear about the activists who fought our government for decades.
What Can We Learn From This?
When groups like ACT UP are erased, so is the vital fact that the government doesn’t help marginalized people on its own. It’s the power of the people who force the government to legalize our rights.
Because so many activists living with HIV/AIDS also died from lack of treatment options, erasing this history also leaves us without knowing the thousands of people who paved the way.
As Bruce Ward has said, “History fades if we are not relentless in bearing witness.” Thankfully, oral histories and films exist to make sure that we never forget them.
When we are out organizing, it can sometimes feel daunting.
It can feel like we’re the only ones doing the work, and as if we’re facing endless struggles.
But the truth is we’re not the first ones—nor will we be the last.
There are endless amounts of activists, protectors, and ancestors in the struggle who we can look back to for inspiration, hope, and ideas in how to continue on in our work.
It’s up to us to learn more about them and do the work in their names—hopefully, so future generations will grow up learning all about our diverse and defiant pasts.