Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs
American Dissenters
Abstract Flag
March 20, 2009

"Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." --Dwight D. Eisenhower

American dissent is older than the nation itself. Some of the first settlers were of course religious dissenters from England — referred to at the time with a capital "D". However, suppression of dissent has just as long a history — one need look no further than the mandatory church attendance laws put into practice by those very same early settlers. Below explore a few of dissenting voices that have wrought change in American history.

Revolutionary Thought: Tom Paine

"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." Tom Paine

Watch Video Harvey J. Kaye, the historian and author of THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA discusses the role of whom he calls "the greatest radical of a radical age."


"It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake." Frederick Douglass

The image to the left is a abolitionist song "Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle." It was performed throughout the north by the Hutchinson Family singers in the early 19th century. The Hutchinson family represents a part of the long American tradition of dissent through music.

  • Explore American protest music through STRANGE FRUIT, on INDEPENDENT LENS from PBS

    Twain and the Gilded Age

    "No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more." - Mark Twain, THE GILDED AGE

    Long a voice against the tide, Mark Twain defined the late 19th century as an age of greed and inequality. In 2004, Bill Moyers talked with actor Hal Holbrook about his stage portrayal of American writer Mark Twain. Also, check out The Legacy of Mark Twain and the Twain Trivia Quiz

    Steve Fraser, historian and author of WALL STREET: AMERICA'S DREAM PALACE, discusses the modern parallels and differences to the first Gilded Age, the big disparity between the rich and poor, and the increasing strain on working Americans. Watch Video

    The Populist Streak

    Watch Video "It sounds as if people who are throwing "populism" around are throwing it around as a dirty word. And if it is a dirty word, they don't know what they're talking about. I think they think it's a dirty word, because it pits Americans against each other, as if we would all be hand in hand if it weren't for populist agitators....They're probably talking in very veiled terms about class issues. Class is the dirty little secret in the United States." -Nell Painter

    pop·u·list: 1: a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people
    2: a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people

    Historian Nell Irvin Painter, an expert on Populism in the 19th century, examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America.

    Labor and Life: Eugene V. Debs

    "When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong." --Eugene V. Debs

    Labor and political leader Eugene V. Debs' personal turning point came during the famous Pullman Strike. The strike began May 11, 1894, with a walkout by Pullman Palace Car Company factory workers after negotiations over declining wages failed. These workers appealed for support to the American Railway Union (ARU) which called a strike after negotiations failed. The strike crippled train travel across the nation and the federal government intervened, issuing an injunction essentially forbidding all boycott activity, and then dispatched soldiers to strike hubs. The strike brought Eugene V. Debs to public notice and landed him in prison. In later life Debs wrote about the unequal fight:

    "Had the carpenter of Nazareth been in Chicago at the time He would have been on the side of the poor, the heavy-laden and sore at heart, and He would have denounced their oppressors and been sent to prison for contempt of court under President Cleveland's administration." DEBS: HIS LIFE, WRITINGS AND SPEECHES (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1908"

    Perpetual Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs polled 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 election — far better than Ralph Nader's 2.74 percent in 2000.

  • Learn more about American labor history.

    The Environment: Rachel Carson

    "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.... The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless.... No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves." - Rachel Carson

    Rachel Carson's impact goes far beyond government bureaucracy. Carson and her most famous book, SILENT SPRING, are credited with no less than inspiring the modern global environmental movement. In its collection of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century, TIME magazine said: "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book."

    Watch VideoBill Moyers Journal looks at the life and legacy of Rachel Carson through an extraordinary portrayal of her in a one-woman play performed by veteran stage actress Kaiulani Lee, whose play A Sense of Wonder has been the centerpiece of regional and national conferences on conservation, education, journalism, and the environment for more than ten years. The broadcast combines excerpts from the play, an interview with Lee and documentary reporting on Carson's life and work in a powerful look at this scientist, writer, and seeker of the truth.

    Civil Rights Poet: Nikki Giovanni

    "Sometimes we find we have nothing to give
    but love
    which is a poem
    which I give
    For the Black Revolution"
    - Nikki Giovanni, BLACK JUDGEMENT, 1968

    Watch Video

    In 2009, Bill Moyers talked with renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, whose 27 books have spanned the themes of race, politics, sex and violence. In 1968; after graduating from Fisk, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. She published her first book of poetry, BLACK FEELING BLACK TALK, in 1968, and within the next year published a second book, thus launching her career as a writer. Early in her career she was dubbed the "Princess of Black Poetry," and over the course of more than three decades of publishing and lecturing she has come to be called both a "National Treasure" and, most recently, one of Oprah Winfrey's twenty-five "Living Legends."

    Lifelong Activist: Grace Lee Boggs

    "What we tried to do is explain that a rebellion is righteous, because it's the protest by a people against injustice, because of unrighteous situation, but it's not enough. You have to go beyond rebellion. And it was amazing, a turning point in my life, because until that time, I had not made a distinction between a rebellion and revolution. And it forced us to begin thinking, what does a revolution mean? How does it relate to evolution?" - Grace Lee Boggs

    Watch Video Grace Lee Boggs has been a part of almost every major movement in the United States in the last 75 years, including: Labor, Civil Rights, Black Power, Women's Rights and Environmental Justice.

    Voice of Peace: William Sloane Coffin

    "Don't let money tell you who you are. Don't let power tell you who your are. Don't let enemies and — for God's sake — don't let your sins tell you who you are. Don't prove yourself. That's taken care of. All we have to do is express ourselves. It's difficult, but we're a lot more alive in pain than in complacency." - William Sloane Coffin

    William Sloane Coffin served as chaplain of Yale University from 1958-1976. He was senior minister of Riverside Church for over ten years. Throughout his years as chaplain and minister, Coffin has hosted such world leaders as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Rose Styren, Olaf Palmer among numerous others. Coffin initially became famous at Yale University in the 60's for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was jailed (the first of many times) as a civil rights "Freedom Rider," indicted by the government in the Benjamin Spock conspiracy trial, and is president emeritus of SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security. He fought in World War II, worked for the CIA for three years, and has been immortalized as Reverend Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip.
    Watch Video
    Bill Moyers talked with William Sloane Coffin in 2004.

    Citizen Advocate: Ralph Nader

    "The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door. That's the only difference." - Ralph Nader

    Before he became a famed third party presidential candidate, Ralph Nader spent decades as the premiere American consumer advocate — responsible not only for seatbelts in cars, but in a large way, for the consumer protection movement itself.

    Bill Moyers talked with Ralph Nader in 2004.Watch Video

    Radical Histories: Howard Zinn

    "Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership." - Howard Zinn, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

    Historian Howard Zinn takes a dissenting view of the traditionally taught American past in his classic A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. In 2002, Bill Moyers talked with Howard Zinn on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS. Watch Video

    Published March 20, 2009. Guest photos by Robin Holland

  • Also This Week:

    Bill Moyers sits down with socialist historian Mike Davis for his critique of the government's response to the economic crisis and how he thinks it compares to Roosevelt's New Deal. Mike Davis is a writer and historian, who currently teaches creative writing at University of California, Riverside.

    Dissident voices from Tom Paine to Ralph Nader.

    Bill Moyers talks with Marta Peláez, president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc., a domestic abuse shelter in San Antonio, TX, for perspective on the human face of the economic downturn and how it may be pushing more families over the edge.

    Tips and resources for safeguarding your community against domestic violence.

    Our posts and your comments
    For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

    © Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ