This post first appeared at The Nation and is reprinted from Frances Fox Piven’s introduction to Some Truths Are Not Self-Evident: Howard Zinn’s Essays in The Nation on Civil Rights, Vietnam and the “War on Terror.”
The essays of Howard Zinn collected here remind me sharply of the living man, who was my friend for many decades. Each commentary is written much as he spoke: straight-forward and to the point, invariably penetrating and well-informed, never cluttered with needless complexity or intellectual pretension. What is most distinctive about Zinn’s writing is his moral passion and indignation at the corruptions and deceptions and bloodiness of the powerful; his deep empathy for the travails of ordinary people, especially people engaged in struggle. As Eric Foner comments in the final essay here, Zinn was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong.
Zinn and I became friends when I took a teaching job at Boston University in the early 1970s. I was assigned an office next to his in an out-of-the-way corner of a building on Bay State Road. Our corner was often crowded with undergraduates, many sitting on the floor, waiting for Zinn. It cheered me when he arrived, as soon as he had finished meeting with the students, buoyant and smiling, ready for our milkshake and BLT lunches. He was always eager to talk about the political dramas of the day, the dramas of the big world outside BU, and the endless dramas of BU itself, usually having to do with John Silber, our increasingly maniacal and right-wing president, who wanted to run the university as if he were the ruler of a banana republic.
Readers of this volume are likely familiar with Zinn’s opus, A People’s History of the United States. The essays in this volume are somewhat different. A People’s History documents the struggles of ordinary Americans for a measure of justice, but it does so at a remove of several decades, and even centuries, from the people and the events it describes. These Nation essays remind us that for nearly 50 years Zinn himself was deeply involved in the major 20th century struggles for social justice in the United States: the emancipatory movement of African-Americans for civil and political rights and the recurrent movements against America’s imperial wars, first in Vietnam and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. These essays are reports and reflections on those struggles, on the courage and imagination of the young people who were the main participants, and on the abuses on the part of the political authorities, including the Democratic presidents who tried to resist or evade movement demands. And while the issues of today’s protest movements are different, there are also remarkable continuities.
The civil rights movement’s most urgent demand was the right to vote, which had deep historical meaning for African-Americans, if only because deprivation of that right undergirded the Southern racial caste system. The movement scored remarkable victories with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But these kinds of victories are rarely for keeps, and voting rights are again in the cross-hairs. The Supreme Court has struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, and Republican majorities in state legislatures are passing laws to make voter registration and voting more expensive and more difficult in ways that will especially affect black voters. In response, a new protest movement may be emerging among African-Americans. In North Carolina, where one of the most draconian laws was passed, the Moral Monday protesters named voting rights as one of their chief issues.
Zinn was a leading figure in the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era, an experience that informs a number of his essays in The Nation and included in this book. His fervent opposition to that war reflected his anguish about his own role as a bombardier in World War II, when the bombs he released from 30,000 feet not only killed German soldiers but also visited mayhem and death on civilian bystanders. His resistance to war-making was also the result of his reasoned conclusion that wars are simply almost never justified. Whatever the arguments of presidents or dictators about national interests, the price in the lives and limbs of ordinary people is simply too overwhelming.
By the time A People’s History of the United States was published, I had left Boston University, but Zinn remained my friend and we talked frequently. For me, he provided a kind of moral compass; I always wanted to know what he thought before coming to my own political conclusions. So I read A People’s History eagerly. As readers probably know, the book tells part of the story of the American past as a series of spotlights on episodes of popular struggle. It remains an astonishing success, selling more than two million copies, used as a text in high school and undergraduate courses, and spawning a cottage industry of “people’s histories” from below. Not surprisingly, some school boards have objected. And a number of historians, including historians on the left, have also been sharply critical. In the main, the complaints are about what Zinn did not do. He told the story of common people in struggle, but he failed to tell the story of the elites who responded to them. Or he failed to explain how elites changed over the course of American history. Or by spotlighting moments of struggle, he failed to fill the promise of the title: to give us a coherent narrative history.
I do not share these complaints. I believe that Zinn’s ambition was not to enter the academic lists with a comprehensive history but to perform a much-needed political and historical service by shifting our focus from the top of American society to the bottom, by giving the common people their due in the story of the United States. Still, I had a criticism too. I took for granted that Zinn wanted to inspire his readers, to make them appreciate the activists of the past and to encourage them to join in struggles in our own time to remake the world. But his accounts of historical protests rarely end in victory. Or the victory is tainted by co-optation. Or it is so small as to mock the aspirations of those who fought for it. To inspire, I said, you have to talk about the victories.
I was not asking for bad or distorted history. Rather I thought the history of a densely complicated society is also complicated, and the consequences of popular struggles are therefore complex. But no matter, I was wrong. Howard Zinn’s writing, including A People’s History, and including the essays in Some Truths Are Not Self-Evident, do inspire people, not because they promise victories for popular struggles, but because they depict so vividly the purpose and even the joy of a political life.
Watch Bill’s interview with Howard Zinn on the Power of People in 2009.