The dreams they dream in the douars or in the villages are not
those of money or of getting through their exams . . . but dreams
of identification with some rebel or another, the story of whose
heroic death still moves them to tears.
Frantz Fanon
It has become a truism that activists on the left, particularly when on
trial, seek heroic martyrdom.1 Critics have suggested that the defense
campaigns organized to save individuals from Joe Hill to Huey Newton
were personality cults halfway to totalitarianism in their effort to deny the
complexity of their heroes. Such critics might fear that these campaigns
are practicing the kind of blind “loyalty to the leader” that Hannah Ar-
endt argues is so central to totalitarian movements.2 And in suggesting
that people “seek martyrdom” for self-aggrandizing or cultish purposes,
such critics argue that the left promotes the notion that individuals are
superfluous, as they are in totalitarian states.3 In such a worried scenario,
every defense campaign—indeed, every leftist movement—is fascism in
However, the actual history of the defense campaign, one of the most
popular elements of leftist politics, suggests otherwise. Since 1887, when
Lucy Parsons toured the country trying to save the life of her husband,
Albert, who had been condemned to death in Chicago along with seven
other revolutionary labor leaders, radical socialists, anarchists, and union
activists have campaigned to prevent the martyrdom of their comrades.
As they have done so, they have created a new popular counter-history
of the United States as a state of class war and have given the left its own
canon of heroic martyrs who refused to be superfluous. Shortly after Lucy
Parsons took to the podium, telling stories of justice outraged in Chicago,
the Memphis journalist Ida B. Wells began what would become both
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