In light of the stunning greed, racism, and cruelty of the Trump administration, many commentators have declared his presidency “unprecedented.” While Trump may be louder, coarser, and more explicitly racist, sexist, and nativist than recent presidents, his policies — from immigration to the environment, taxes to LGBTQ issues, criminal justice to foreign policy — share ugly continuities with his predecessors.
This Presidents Day, rather than mythologize past presidents as kinder and gentler than Trump, let’s remind students that this country has been at its best when people have organized to question and challenge presidents — opposing presidential support for slavery, war, invasion, segregation, and injustice of all kinds. Our students need stories of this resistance to inform and inspire their own activism now and in the years ahead.
Here are a few of the many resources available at the Zinn Education Project to critically teach the presidency. With your support, we can bring these lessons to classrooms everywhere.
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents. Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery.
Students need to rethink the Great Emancipator myth by examining Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the Emancipation Proclamation, his timid approach to ending slavery, and, by contrast, the heroism of the enslaved people themselves, and the abolitionists who sought their freedom.
What does it tell us about the Trump administration that Andrew Jackson’s portrait now hangs prominently in the Oval Office? As Howard Zinn explained, “Jackson was a land speculator, merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history.”
Reconstruction rarely gets more than a few days in most U.S. history classrooms. When it is taught, it’s too often presented as a top-down drama of presidents and Congress. Invite students to look at Reconstruction as a powerful social movement with the economic, education, and political goals of freedpeople at its center.
PBS NewsHour “Why we shouldn’t forget that U.S. presidents owned slaves” Poem by Clint Smith III | Feb. 02, 2017
“When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground my entire life.” This is how poet Clint Smith III begins his letter to past presidents who owned people. In honor of Black History Month, Smith offers his Brief But Spectacular take on the history of racial inequality in the United States.
Teaching Activity. Lesson by Bill Bigelow and student reading by Howard Zinn. 21 pages.
Interactive activity introduces students to the history and often untold story of the U.S.-Mexico War. Roles available in Spanish.
By Sudie Hofmann
At the time of George Washington’s death, the Washingtons enslaved 318 people of African descent at Mount Vernon, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. But you would not know it from the main tour, nor from the brochure. In fact, most visitors, including schoolchildren, can spend hours admiring the Mount Vernon mansion, fine furniture, and manicured lawns without considering that it was all paid for with forced labor.
Book – Non-fiction. Edited by Fred Branfman. 2013 (original edition, 1972).
Essays, drawings, and poems by Laotian villagers who survived almost 10 years of widespread, persistent, and devastating bombing during the Vietnam War in a covert operation in Laos.