Republican Leaders Join In Honoring New Rotunda Statue Of Radical Socialist Woman

[ Posted Wednesday, October 7th, 2009 – 13:38 UTC ]

There are sins of commission in the way we're taught American history as children -- such as the fable about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree (which never actually happened). Then there are the much more prevalent sins of omission -- which conveniently gloss over the parts of American history which we have to "protect the children" from learning about. The reason I preface this column with such an observation is because a woman -- whose name we all know -- was honored today by the unveiling of her statue in the United States Capitol's Rotunda. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was on hand for this ceremony, as was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the astonishing thing (to me) was that Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner were also on hand, as well as the Republican governor of the very red state from whence this woman came. This state has honored the woman before, when it selected her to be their representation on their own state quarter. But the truly astonishing thing is that this woman not only helped found the A.C.L.U., but also was a radical and revolutionary Socialist, a fan of the Soviet Union and Lenin, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the "I.W.W.", or the "Wobblies"), and an ardent foe and critic of capitalism. Not the type of woman usually honored by Republicans, you might think. But, in a glaring sin of omission committed by history teachers across this great land (and repeated by politicians even now), the only story we all know about her is of the daunting odds she overcame in her childhood. We're all familiar with this shared story, but it abruptly ends when she becomes an adult. All the parts about the raging Socialist she later became are conveniently swept under the rug.

Think I'm overstating that bit about being a "raging Socialist" or a "radical"? Judge for yourself. In her own words, from 1929, on the death of Lenin:

The Russian Revolution did not originate with Lenin. It had hovered for centuries in the dreams of Russian mystics and patriots, but when the body of Lenin was laid in simple state in the Kremlin, all Russia trembled and wept. The mouths of hungry enemies fed on new hopes, but the spirit of Lenin descended upon the weeping multitude as with cloven tongues of fire, and they spoke one to another and were not afraid. "Let us not follow him with cowering hearts," they said, "let us rather gird ourselves for the task he has left us. Where our dull eyes see only ruin, his clearer sight discovers the road by which we shall gain our liberty. Revolution he sees, yea, and even disintegration which symbolizes disorder is in truth the working of God's undeviating order; and the manner of our government shall be no less wonderful than the manner of our deliverance. If we are steadfast, the world will be quickened to courage by our deeds."

Men vanish from earth leaving behind them the furrows they have ploughed. I see the furrow Lenin left sown with the unshatterable seed of a new life for mankind, and cast deep below the rolling tides of storm and lightning, mighty crops for the ages to reap.

Earlier, when she first became publicly known as a Socialist (which caused a media frenzy at the time, since her childhood story was already famous), she wrote "How I Became A Socialist," for the New York Call.

Even notoriety may be turned to beneficent uses, and I rejoice if the disposition of the newspapers to record my activities results in bringing more often into their columns the word Socialism. In the future I hope to write about socialism, and to justify in some measure the great amount of publicity which has been accorded to me and my opinions.

. . .

I am no worshiper of cloth of any color, but I love the red flag and what it symbolizes to me and other Socialists. I have a red flag hanging in my study, and if I could I should gladly march with it past the office of the [New York] Times and let all the reporters and photographers make the most of the spectacle. According to the inclusive condemnation of the Times I have forfeited all right to respect and sympathy, and I am to be regarded with suspicion. Yet the editor of the Times wants me to write him an article! How can he trust me to write for him if I am a suspicious character? I hope you will enjoy as much as I do the bad ethics, bad logic, bad manners that a capitalist editor falls into when he tries to condemn the movement which is aimed at this plutocratic interests. We are not entitled to sympathy, yet some of us can write articles that will help his paper to make money. Probably our opinions have the same sort of value to him that he would find in the confession of a famous murderer. We are not nice, but we are interesting.

I like newspapermen. I have known many, and two or three editors have been among my most intimate friends. Moreover, the newspapers have been of great assistance in the work which we have been trying to do.... It costs them nothing to give their aid to work for ... superficial charities. But socialism -- ah, that is a different matter! That goes to the root of all poverty and all charity. The money power behind the newspapers is against socialism, and the editors, obedient to the hand that feeds them, will go to any length to put down socialism and undermine the influence of socialists.

Pretty radical stuff, I think you'll agree. In an interview she later gave (where, in the first sentence, she is described as an "uncompromising radical") to the New York Tribune, she gets downright revolutionary:

"It is my nature to fight as soon as I see wrongs to be made right. So after I read [H.G.] Wells and Marx and learned what I did, I joined a Socialist branch. I made up my mind to do something. And the best thing seemed to join a fighting party and help their propaganda. That was four years ago. I have been an industrialist since."

"An industrialist?" I asked, surprised out of composure. "You don't mean an I.W.W. -- a syndicalist?"

"I became an I.W.W. because I found out that the Socialist party was too slow. It is sinking in the political bog. It is almost, if not quite, impossible for the party to keep its revolutionary character so long as it occupies a place under the government and seeks office under it. The government does not stand for interests the Socialist party is supposed to represent."

Socialism, however, is a step in the right direction, she conceded to her dissenting hearers.

"The true task is to unite and organize all workers on an economic basis, and it is the workers themselves who must secure freedom for themselves, who must grow strong." [she] continued. "Nothing can be gained by political action. That is why I became an I.W.W."

. . .

"What are you committed to -- education or revolution?"

"Revolution." She answered decisively. "We can't have education without revolution. We have tried peace education for 1,900 years and it has failed. Let us try revolution and see what it will do now.

"I am not for peace at all hazards. I regret this war, but I have never regretted the blood of the thousands spilled during the French Revolution. And the workers are learning how to stand alone. They are learning a lesson they will apply to their own good out in the trenches. Generals testify to the splendid initiative the workers in the trenches take. if they can do that for their masters you can be sure they will do that for themselves when they have taken matters into their own hands."

. . .

"I don't give a damn about semi-radicals!"

Pretty strong stuff, even by today's standards. And extremely strong stuff back when she spoke. These articles, I should mention, are most easily found on the web at a site called "".

And yet, this woman was honored today by having a statue unveiled -- to honor her home state of Alabama -- in the United States Capitol. Furthermore, her remains lie in the National Cathedral in Washington. Because all we remember about her is the story of overcoming handicaps in childhood. Not allegorical or metaphorical handicaps either, but real ones. Because the woman honored today was named Helen Keller.

I first became aware of (as Paul Harvey was wont to say) "the rest of the story" when reading a book by James W. Loewen, titled Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (with a title like that, how could I pass it up?). He uses Keller's story as the first example in the first chapter of the book to point out how boring American history is, when taught to classrooms full of children -- when the actual reality is much more human, much more inconsistent, and (hence) much more interesting.

Loewen writes:

The notion that opportunity might be unequal in America, that not everyone has "the power to rise in the world," is anathema to textbook authors, and to many teachers as well. Educators would much rather present Keller as a bland source of encouragement and inspiration to our young -- if she can do it, you can do it! So they leave out her adult life and make her entire existence over into a vague "up by the bootstraps" operation. In the process, they make this passionate fighter for the poor into something she never was in life: boring.

From Nancy Pelosi's remarks today:

"What a great day this is for America in the Capitol of the United States as we honor Helen Keller.

"Most people know about Helen Keller as a child -- full of curiosity and wonder at the world that was opened to her. Today we recognize her as that child, but also as the woman she became: civic-minded, politically active, and a standard bearer for the great causes of her age and of ours.

"As Helen Keller said: ‘My sympathies are with all who struggle for justice.’ In her lifetime, Helen Keller worked for opportunity for people with disabilities, for racial equality, and for the rights of women.

"In demonstrating that passion that she had, Helen Keller, in this statue in the Capitol, will always remind us that people must be respected for what they can do, rather than judged for what they cannot.

. . .

"Helen Keller’s life is an example of determination and strength. Here, in this temple of our democracy, year after year, day after day, Helen Keller’s statue will stand as a testament to her strength and to the American ideal of equality, which she promoted."

Well, I guess that's progress of a sort, even if what Keller was actually promoting was the Soviet ideal of equality. And you'll excuse me if I still find it amusing that Alabama (of all places) just honored a woman with a statue in the Capitol Rotunda who donated $100 to the N.A.A.C.P. (which, to put it mildly, was not exactly "honored" among white people in Alabama at the time). Even more irony is to be found in the color red, which is now used in "Red State America" proudly, but back then was a capitalized noun, meant to be used as a slur akin to "traitor." But even then, Helen Keller was a proud Red, a committed Socialist, and an unapologetic Wobbly.

And now she's not only buried in the National Cathedral, she's got her own statue in the Capitol. Her own words are the perfect ending to this story. These are from the articles excerpted above, the first talking about a newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle.

Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! What an ungallant bird it is! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent. The Eagle is willing to help us prevent misery provided, always provided, that we do not attack the industrial tyranny which supports it and stops its ears and clouds its vision. The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper. If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.


"I feel like Joan of Arc at times. My whole becomes uplifted. I, too, hear the voices that say 'Come,' and I will follow, no matter what the cost, no matter what the trials I am placed under. Jail, poverty, calumny -- they matter not. Truly He has said, 'Woe unto you that permits the least of mine to suffer.'"


[Notes: I did not provide links in the article to the quoted passages, mostly because it would have let the cat out of the bag and I was too busy employing a cheap journalistic trick (thanks again, Paul Harvey). Now that we know who I'm talking about, I encourage you to read the articles themselves: "The Spirit Of Lenin" from 1929, "How I Became A Socialist" from 1912, and the interview "Why I Became An I.W.W." with Barbara Bindley in 1916. I found the texts of all these at the Helen Keller Reference Archive at, which I point out not as an endorsement of the site, but rather in appreciation of their source material archive. I received no compensation of any type (not even a copy of the book) for my hearty endorsement of James W. Lowen's excellent book, which I do encourage everyone to read. You can see Alabama's quarter at the U.S. Mint site. Helen Keller's final resting place at the National Cathedral is marked with a metal plaque. Because it is shiny metal, it is hard to photograph. But what looks at first like glare from a flash (towards the bottom of the plaque) is actually the most finger-worn inscription in Braille I have ever seen.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Republican Leaders Join In Honoring New Rotunda Statue Of Radical Socialist Woman”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    While reading thru this riveting commentary, I can't help but be reminded of a quote I once heard.

    "Is a person better than the worst thing they have ever done?"


  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I hope that school children will now learn the rest of the story about Helen Keller. And that this might lead them and others to wonder what other stories have been subjected to the sin of omission.

    Good post Chris,

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    That is actually a very useful all-around quote. Do you know who said it?

    Stan -

    Thanks for the kind words!



  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    That is actually a very useful all-around quote. Do you know who said it?

    I hesitate to admit it, as it will only fuel the "Oh, Michale lives in a fantasy world" accusations... :D

    But I heard it on an episode of JAG. Mac was defending a marine on death row for the brutal murder of his CO and a couple fellow marines he gunned down at PT.

    The episode was inspired by a real-life incident. In 1995, US Army Sergeant William Kreutzer opened fire on a group of soldiers at Fort Bragg while they were doing calisthenics. He killed one person and injured 18 others, including one man who was left paralyzed from the waist down. Like the marine (Cpl Farmer) in the episode, Kreutzer claimed that fellow soldiers had harassed him and that he had been denied adequate mental health treatment before the shooting. Kreutzer was sentenced to death but his sentence was later changed to life imprisonment.

    Anyways, in the episode, Farmer was trying to convince Mac to help him avoid the Death Penalty. He told her, "A man is more than just the worst thing he's ever done."

    The quote stuck with me. I am sure we all have done things in our pasts that we are not proud of. Necessary things that had to be done, but still not anything to crow on. I know I have.. Which is probably why the quote stuck with me. :D

    I tried to GOOGLE variations of the quote to see if it had been said by someone famous, but couldn't find anything.

    So I guess we just attribute it to a very good Hollywood writer. In this case, Catherine Stribling.

    However, if you want, you can attribute my variation to me... :D


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