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2010 / Howard Zinn

“Knowing history is less about understanding the past than changing the future.” Howard Zinn (1922–2010)

Born on August 24, 1922, to working-class, immigrant parents, Howard Zinn spent much of the beginning of his life in relative poverty. During the Great Depression his family moved frequently; he once quipped, “I lived in Brooklyn’s best slums.” After high school, Zinn worked as a pipe fitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard where he organized alongside his coworkers. During the Second World War, he enlisted as a bomber pilot in the Army’s Air Corps, an experience that helped to shape his opposition to war and passion for history. After the war, Zinn enrolled in New York University through the GI Bill, while he and his wife Roslyn Schecter lived in public housing, and went on to earn his PhD in history at Columbia University. Zinn then became chair of the history department at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college. Fired for his support of student protesters during the civil rights movements, he moved on to teach political science at Boston University until his retirement in 1988.

An inveterate activist, Zinn protested segregation and the Vietnam War; he warned of the perils of blind nationalism in the years after 9/11 and railed against U.S. intervention in the Middle East and around the globe. His scholarly and political work embodied his belief that “to be neutral and to be passive is to collaborate with whatever is going on.”

Zinn was the author of many books, including an autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the play Marx in Soho and his collection of essays, Passionate Declarations. His classic A People’s History of the United States, sold more than two million copies, and has “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation,” in the words of his friend Noam Chomsky. He received the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Nonfiction and the Eugene V. Debs award for his writing and political activism in 1998, and the Upton Sinclair Award for heroes of American education the following year.

“In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners,” Zinn wrote in the introduction to the book. “I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees…of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans… the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem.”

Even in his eighties, Zinn never lost his always ferocious optimism and hope for positive change in the world. In A People’s History, published in 1980, he cautioned readers about the perspective they would find in his book: “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.” Twenty-five years later he was invited back to Spelman College as the commencement speaker. Drawing hope from the 1950s victories of black people in the South protesting racial segregation, he told Spelman’s students, “Many people had said: The South will never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up. That’s when democracy came alive.”

In 2009, The History Channel aired the acclaimed documentary The People Speak, based on A People’s History and its companion volume, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Featuring Matt Damon, Kerry Washington, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover and others, The People Speak dramatized the voices of Zinn’s forgotten heroes and showed the rich history of dissent in our nation.

Howard Zinn is awarded The Ridenhour Courage Prize for his determination to showcase the hidden heroes of social movements throughout history, his refusal to accept the history of only the powerful and victorious, his steadfast belief in the potential for a better world, his unflinching moral stance on fighting whatever he perceived was wrong in society, his fight to inspire students to believe that together they could make democracy come alive, and, in the words of his former student Alice Walker, “his way with resistance.”

2010 Courage Prize Speech

On April 14, 2010, Jeff Zinn, on behalf of his father, Howard Zinn, accepted The Ridenhour Courage Prize from The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. You can watch his remarks in the video below.

Transcript of Jeff Zinn’s Speech

JEFF ZINN: Thank you very much to The Nation Institute and the Awards Committee for this wonderful honor, which I know my father was very excited to receive. I started reading The New York Times at a young age and made a habit of it. But my father always would say at various points, repeatedly during my adult life, “Are you getting The Nation?” And sometimes I would say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m getting it.” But inevitably, a week or so later, a copy would show up in my mailbox and he made sure that I was reading The Nation because that was the place where you’d really get the real goods.

My father was an icon and a hero to many. I want to tell you a little bit about him as a human being. He was an amazingly caring and loving father, husband, friend, grandfather. He was always very interested and really thought a lot about the intersection between the political and the personal and how it impacted his own life. He was consumed with politics and activism was his vocation from a very young age.

I have memories of him in Atlanta as a very young boy: the sound of typing, typing, typing, late into the night as I went to sleep. And in his plays, he wrote about this struggle and I think he solved it because he was no less committed to his family and his friends as he was to the movement. He enjoyed simple pleasures; he was hugely into food, tennis, baseball, especially the Red Sox, movies. Had a very active NetFlix subscription in later years.

He loved people. Whenever he spoke anywhere, he would be thronged by people. And he was always the last person to leave. You could never get him out of a room. He thrived on it. He was approached everywhere he went, and he enjoyed it and he never gave anyone the cold shoulder or the brush off. Others of us were tugging at his arm trying to get him out of there, but not him. And he was incredibly approachable on all levels. He had many correspondences with prisoners and just all kinds of people in all walks of life.

He was a terrible driver. He was never quite comfortable with mechanical objects. He couldn’t swim very well but he loved the water. He embraced technology, although he never quite mastered it. And I discovered in recent years that a really tangible way that I could express my love for him was to become his 24/7 personal tech support system. And I would get these calls, “Are you busy? A computer question.” We would go through it.

My dad had two essential messages that I think come through all of his work. One is that war is never the answer. And he was unequivocal about that. He felt that there were, you know, myths about good wars and that there really were no good wars.

And the other essential message was that people joining together can make a difference. The question today, one important question might be, is whether that force for change is coming from the left or the right. Are the Tea Party activists working from the Howard Zinn playbook? Or is it a phony movement manufactured and funded by the same institutions of corporate and political power that always seek to advance their own agendas? Either way, it is up to us to keep our movement moving.

Where did the energy go that was generated in the last election? My dad liked to remind us that Obama is just a politician and so we are going to be disappointed. We can’t let that disappointment become an excuse for disengagement. Howard’s message, again and again, was that electoral politics are a distraction from the real work of activism. We can’t expect Obama to do all the heavy lifting; it’s up to us.

I am going to finish with a wonderful poem, “The Low Road,” really part of a poem, it’s not the whole thing, from Marge Piercy, who was one of his favorite poets. And these words, I think, express that sentiment best.

Alone, you can fight,

you can refuse, you can

take what revenge you can

but they roll over you.

But two people fighting

back to back can cut through

a mob, a snake-dancing file

can break a cordon, an army

can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other

sane, can give support, conviction,

love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation,

a committee, a wedge. With four

you can play bridge and start

an organisation. With six

you can rent a whole house,

eat pie for dinner with no

seconds, and hold a fund raising party.

A dozen make a demonstration.

A hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;

ten thousand, power and your own paper;

a hundred thousand, your own media;

ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,

it starts when you care

to act, it starts when you do

it again after they said no,

it starts when you say We

and know who you mean, and each

day you mean one more.

Thank you.

Transcript of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s speech:

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m Bernice Johnson Reagon. And Howard Zinn was in Albany, Georgia, in December 1961, when I got out of jail. Ella Baker was also in Albany, Georgia. They were both at that time adult advisors to SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker’s job was, as we got out of jail, to check with us to see if anybody knew where we were, did we know where we were going, that day-to-day thing that holds a struggle together. Howard Zinn had come down for the Southern Regional Council to do a study and report on the arrest of over 700 American citizens inside of one week, which seemed to be a record for mass arrests of American citizens.

Howard Zinn was covered the Albany Movement at the end of ’61 and ’62. In ’63, he was in Selma on Freedom’s Day. And what was interesting about his description of this historic event was the way he talked about all of the elements. You actually saw the SNCC organizers committed to forming a local movement that would be a striking force against the system of segregation. And you also saw the local black people of Selma, who were not leaving their homes; who were glad the SNCC people were there, and who understood what a dangerous stance they were taking. Initially, they were very few in number. And then Zinn allowed us to witness the first Freedom Day in Selma and the largest number of black people who had ever gone down to register to vote, over 300 stood in line all day long…. Howard Zinn’s pen allowed us to feel the power of that day and a change that could not be turned back.

Freedom Day was not the first act in Selma. Organizing had been going on a while. Selma was a place where for the first time I saw black teachers in a line going to register to vote. Usually, it was impossible to get teachers to go to a mass meeting in the South if they couldn’t disguise themselves. And there they were, dressed properly, heels and stockings and suits as black teachers did during that time, demanding their right to register to vote. As a result they were dismissed from their jobs, and they were not allowed to register to vote. So this Freedom Day in ’63 was not the beginning. But these people stood all day long. The police had new cattle prods, which Howard Zinn witnessed used against SNCC organizer Carver Neblett. The police would not allow food to be delivered to people who stood all day long. Howard Zinn had a chance to talk and show us the federal government representation in action; because, in fact, there was a federal building and it was not empty. They were present.

And, of course, he wanted to know, where was the federal government? He inquired: “You know, these are citizens, they qualify. Why aren’t you intervening?” And he was told they couldn’t intervene, and the representatives of the federal government stood by witnessing this injustice and we know because Howard Zinn made it his business as an activist scholar to create a written record of what was an historic event. He was in Hattiesburg in ’64. And again, there was the largest number of people lined up to vote in the history of that town. But one of the things that happens when you get a lot of people coming to town is you have to put them up someplace. And Howard had no place to stay. And finally a couple said, he can come here. So somebody drove them someplace and he got there after dark. And the husband and wife pulled out a mattress and said, “You are welcome to sleep here.” The two men shared the mattress and it was the next morning moving around that they saw that this couple supporting the local movement and welcoming those who had come to stand with them, had pulled their mattress off their bed. Zinn began to understand what the depth of what this struggle was about. Because when people halfway believed that they had knowledgeable people risking everything to join them in organizing, some of them also stepped forward to support what they hoped would be a building movement to change the way they lived. And Howard Zinn, after Freedom, would leave Hattiesburg, but they did not, and everybody had their names.

Why am I talking about the work of Howard Zinn like this? I knew about it as it happened because with the Albany Movement I joined SNCC. But when I read SNCC The New Abolitionists, the organizing, the cost, the determined people, —it was there. That was a surprise to me for a history book. I was absolutely amazed to have in my hand accountable stories where not only did I recognize the struggle, I could feel it. And I liked that he called it The New Abolitionists because all of us had some sense of the people who moved against slavery in this country. And he took that leap to say that the people who are moving against segregation are addressing in this time what people who tried to destroy slavery were addressing in another time.

He did another leap. He said—for me it was a leap—that this country in its formation, in its DNA, has some progressive and evil concepts. And he was not talking about, “I forgot myself one day and I did a bad thing as a nation.” He is talking about in its construction; there are both positive and negative elements in the formation of this nation. Because we are talking about the root culture of the formation of the country, according to Zinn, every generation has to be willing to find a way to stand for that which needs to be nourished. And stand against that which needs to be resisted.

Zinn actually suggests that you can’t get anything done forever. And we are forever people. We absolutely want to take care of an issue and put a box around it, put tape on it and just say, “Done.” And then when it shows up again, not after we die, but shows up again in the next generation, and it’s time to say, “Let’s get started again,” we are shocked, and we cry, “We already did that! We already did that!”

Howard Zinn talked about the ongoingness of the work, that you were actually not going to fix it, not forever. We did effectively destroy legal segregation. But it is not a phenomenon that you go to sleep on, because I looked around and there were these white kids with their heads shaven called skinheads, studying Nazism. They were Americans and they were teenagers. And I’m going, “Where the hell did they come from?” And Howard Zinn would say, “You never—if it’s in the DNA, you never fix it forever.” You have to be willing, every day of your life, to be who you are and find not so much the courage, but find the ordinariness about what you stand for and act like you just ate some eggs or something. It’s no big thing. And if you get killed or arrested for it, that’s what the other side does when they can. And if you don’t die, you get up and you just continue.

It was a very unusual thing for me to find the chairman of a history department operating the way he did. I loved history, but I didn’t like textbooks of history. I could not stand reading history books that didn’t have people in them. I remember reading about the crusaders. I said, “This is not about the crusaders. What about the crusader soldiers? This man isn’t running off on a horse with a flag in front of him by himself. And where were they going, how did they act? This is really not about the crusaders.”

And I’ll never forget Latin American history, the textbook was by F-a-g-g. I told my professor, “There are no people in this book.” He said, “What?” I said, “There are no people in this book. Where are the people? How can you teach Latin American history and there are no people?” He brought me a book of short stories about mining in Peru and it was so intense, reading about the lives of the mining families, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know that much. That was the Howard Zinn you walked into. He really challenged the arrogance of intellectual scholarship as it operated.

There was a way people who were historians and anthropologists and ethnomusicologists and folklorists worked, that seemed to suggest, if you really wanted your work to be fine, you could not be of the work. You had to be separate so that you could be objective. Anybody who read the way they did the period of Reconstruction would know that there’s a problem with that notion. There was nothing objective about the history writing of Reconstruction from the major history departments of the nation.

Howard Zinn dared to suggest that right along with any documentary evidence, you must hear from most of the people who are impacted by the subject you are studying. And they must share your paper. They must share the pages. And in fact, when I read his work, especially about the Civil Rights Movement, I recognized so many of the elements. But it wasn’t just that movement; I liked what he did with the Ludlow massacre. First, there were these accounts that said how many of the people got killed in that strike in Colorado. And when Zinn finished, he took you to the thousands of mining families who moved out of their village into a tent colony, and the union organizers were all over the place. It was dangerous work. Then he positioned you so that from the tent colony, you could look up the hill and see the gathering army put together to finish it. And the machine gun fire that came from that hill down on tents with women, children, not just the miners. He took you into the mine and it was called practicing history. It was called practicing history.

And for me, it allowed me to understand that I actually could go back to school and be trained as a historian and formulate my own remedy and structure for telling the story of the evolution of African-American culture. And I could go to my people as the source for what that experience was about. And objectivity had nothing to do with it. So, any time somebody tells me they are objective, I get suspicious. And I owe that perspective to Howard Zinn.