“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives…If we remember those times and places…where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn’s name is very familiar to some of you and will be a complete cipher to others. I’ll say this much right now with a lot more to follow. Zinn was a historian and activist perhaps best known for A People’s History of the United States, a book that’s used by many teachers who, like me, were relieved to find an alternative to the traditional textbooks that trumpet American exceptionalism and limit their perspectives to that of men, whites, the rich and the powerful.
He’s on my mind right now for several reasons, First, our friend Liz Feldman shared the quote above with our Jewish group one Saturday morning and then invited us to watch together the following evening a documentary about Zinn called “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.” Second, as it happens, Zinn’s 99th birthday is approaching at the end of this month. Although he died in 2010, he has left a powerful legacy and deserves to be celebrated. Third, the horrific images of January 6th continue to reverberate in my head in sharp contrast to the many shots of demonstrations in the documentary – union organizing demonstrations, anti-war rallies – and the time seems right to be reminded of the distinctions between people’s movements and populist uprisings, one rooted in bringing people together in support of causes that lift everyone up and the other in actions devoted to sow division and discord intended to protect and enhance the power of a particular group
Although Zinn, born in 1922, was almost a generation older than me, his story resonated and intersected with mine in ways that made his heroism recognizable and approachable. His parents were immigrants with little education, as were mine. He grew up in Brooklyn in small crowded apartments pretty much devoid of books (always a surprise for people who are proud so often to be called “the people of the book.”) That was my experience as well. He worked in the shipyards for three years before the war drew him into enlisting in the Air Force. It is here that our trajectories separate. Although I worked in the women’s clothing factory that employed my father one summer, I was (as I had always been) college bound. And by the time I was of drafting age, the time of “good wars” was over, so I was shaped more forcefully by my desire not to serve. As it turns out, Zinn learned the bitter lesson that no wars are truly good when he discovered in his research after the war that he had been responsible for the deaths of many people in a French village he bombed who were simply waiting out the last days of the war.
Zinn’s first job after graduate school was at Spelman, a Historically Black College in Atlanta, where he taught for eight years. He was present during the ferment of the sit-in and Freedom Rider years and became an advisor to SNCC – the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His relentless pursuit of justice led him to encourage his students to challenge the segregation and degradation that marked the lives of Black people in Atlanta and throughout the South. This was too much for Spelman’s first Black president who feared the extent to which Zinn was radicalizing his student body. After the students left for summer break, he fired Zinn, avoiding the protests that would inevitably have erupted on campus when the deed was done.
His departure from Atlanta is what made possible our only direct encounter with Zinn, one that was consequential for our futures. Zinn’s reputation as a historian and prolific writer earned him a position at Boston University. That placed him close to where we were living as I finished my doctoral dissertation and as we pondered our next steps. One of our options was teaching in an HBCU. My wife had been the recipient of a graduate fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (Yes, history, in the form of revelations of Wilson’s racist history has finally caught up with them; they’ve discarded this name.) We were considering signing on with a program the Foundation sponsored which placed former “fellows” in HBCUs where their job was to set up undergraduate honors programs.
Someone suggested that we ask Zinn for advice about whether we should follow in his footsteps. Somehow, we succeeded in making contact with him. I have an image of him sitting at our kitchen table in Brookline Village, not far from Cambridge. The wounds from his battles with the Spelman administration were still raw. What children we must have seemed in his eyes, completely unprepared for the difficult and potentially dangerous work in the South, but he was never condescending. As a historian he knew we would be choosing to become part of a great historical moment, but he also knew the disillusionments ahead, such as the conservatism of the Spelman administration, something we were later to experience on our own Mississippi campus. In any case, whatever he told us supported our decision to go. Those three years in Mississippi shaped and influenced everything we’ve done in our lives. It introduced us, as Zinn knew it would, to the ways in which racism is woven into the very fabric of American society. It may have been closer to the surface in Mississippi, but we have found its muddy footprints everywhere, just as Zinn did in his people’s history, in his anti-war activity and in every other cause to which he devoted himself right up to the end of his life.
There are many single-cause heroes who have devoted themselves to one issue close to their hearts. They deserve our respect, but I am particularly awed by people like Howard Zinn and Myles Horton (more about him another time) who are dedicated to the eradication of injustice wherever it arises. Dr. King, known as a warrior for civil rights, was equally passionate about opposing war and fighting for the eradication of poverty. It’s these men and women against which I measure myself and find myself lacking. Although our work in Mississippi was not heroic, I’m proud of the fact that we showed up and bore witness. We didn’t do nothing. Although we have supported many other causes in the years since, it hasn’t been with the same whole-hearted commitment and willingness to make sacrifices. We simply have not done enough. These are elevated standards against which to measure ourselves but they are the antidote against becoming smug or self-satisfied. That train in the movie’s title keeps moving forward and we’ve got to move with it.
PS. Zinn’s legacy continues in the form of the Zinn Education Project, a program which produce teaching materials that are inspired by the People’s History. Given the events of the past week, the people at The Project must be busy turning out materials aimed at helping teachers and students make sense of a senseless insurrection. One of the major sponsors of The Zinn Education Project is Rethinking Schools, hands down my favorite publication for educators. If you’re not familiar with it, you need to subscribe right now!