— Howard Zinn
Even from beyond the grave, Howard Zinn is managing to raise the hackles of at least one conservative lawmaker. On March 2, Kim Hendren, a state legislator from Arkansas, introduced a bill which would prohibit public schools from teaching any material written by the famed radical historian.
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells the story of the nation through voices left out or minimized in most conventional histories — women, minorities, the working classes — is no stranger to controversy. It’s been banned before but it also spent weeks on The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list and inspired a television special produced by actor Matt Damon.
Boston Magazine reports that more than 500 Arkansas teachers have requested copies of the book. In homage to their former professor, Boston University alumni are contributing to the Zinn Education Project’s campaign to send copies of the book to Arkansas schools.
In this video you can view a 2009 conversation between Bill Moyers and Zinn about the television production and his ordinary people-centered vision of history.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a long tradition in America of people power, and no one has done more to document it than the historian, Howard Zinn. Listen to this paragraph from his most famous book. Quote: “If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come, if history were any guide, from the top. It would come through citizen’s movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.” This son of a working class family got a job in the Brooklyn shipyards and then flew as a bombardier during World War II. He went to NYU on the G.I. Bill, taught history at Spellman College in Atlanta, where he was first active in the Civil Rights movement, and then became a professor of political science at Boston University.
There, he and his students sought a more down-to-earth way of looking at American history. And when no book could provide it, Zinn decided to write one. Since his publication in 1980, A People’s History of the United States has sold more than 2 million copies. This Sunday night, the History Channel will premiere a 90-minute special, The People Speak based on Howard Zinn’s book. It was produced by Zinn along with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Chris Moore and Anthony Arnove.
[VIGGO MORTENSEN as PLOUGH JOGGER]: Let them say what they will.
BILL MOYERS: Actors and musicians bring to life voices of protests from America’s past —
[DARRYL MCDANIELS as DAVID WALKER]: All men are created equal.
BILL MOYERS: — performing words and music that have given us, as Howard Zinn himself says, “whatever liberty or democracy we have.” Welcome to the Journal.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: So, history and Hollywood. Is this the beginning of a new career for you?
HOWARD ZINN: I hope not. No, but I am happy it is a way of reaching a larger audience with the ideas that were in the book. The — well, the ideas that you just spoke about. The idea of people involved in history, people actively making history, people agitating and demonstrating, and pushing the leaders of the country into change in a way that leaders themselves are not likely to initiate.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think these characters from the past that we will see on the screen, what do they have to say to us today?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I think what they have to say to us today is think for yourself. Don’t believe what the people up there tell you. Live your own life. Think your own ideas. And don’t depend on saviors. Don’t depend on the Founding Fathers, on Andrew Jackson, on Theodore Roosevelt, on Lyndon Johnson, on Obama. Don’t depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done.
Because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it’s done so only because it’s been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing, by, you know, Lincoln pushed by the anti-slavery movement. You know, Johnson and Kennedy pushed by the Southern black movement. And maybe hopefully Obama today, maybe he will be pushed by people today who have such high hopes in him, and who want to see him fulfill those hopes.
You know, traditional history creates passivity because it gives you the people at the top and it makes you think that all you have to do is go to the polls every four years and elect somebody who’s going to do the trick for you. And no. We want people to understand that that’s not going to happen. People have to do it themselves. And so that’s what we hope these readings will inspire.
BILL MOYERS: One of my favorite sequences is in here, is when we meet Genora Dollinger. Tell me about her.
HOWARD ZINN: She was a woman who got involved in sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Those very dramatic moments when workers occupied the factories of General Motors and wouldn’t leave, and therefore left the corporations helpless. But this was a time when strikes all over the country galvanized people and pushed the New Deal into the reforms that we finally got from the New Deal. And Genora Dollinger represents the women who are very often overlooked in these struggles, women so instrumental in supporting the workers, their men, their sweethearts. And Genora Dollinger just inspires people with her words.
BILL MOYERS: She was only 23 when she organized.
HOWARD ZINN: Amazing. Yes.
[MARISSA TOMEI as GENORA DOLLINGER]: Workers overturned police cars to make barricades. They ran to pick up the fire bombs thrown at them and hurl them back at the police. The men wanted to me to get out of the way. You know the old “protect the women and children” business. I told them, “Get away from me.” The lights went on in my head. I thought I have never used a loud speaker to address a large crowd of people but I’ve got to tell them there are women down here. I called to them, “Cowards! Cowards! Shooting into the bellies of unarmed men and firing at the mothers of children.” And then everything became quiet. I thought, “The women can break this up.” So I appealed to the women in the crowd, “Break through those police lines and come down here and stand beside your husbands and your brothers and your uncles and your sweethearts.” I could barely see one woman struggling to come forward. A cop had grabbed her by the back of her coat. She just pulled out of that coat and she started walking down to the battle zone. As soon as that happened there were other women and men who followed. That was the end of the battle. When those spectators came into the center of the battle and the police retreated, there was a big roar of victory.
BILL MOYERS: That’s Marisa Tomei as Genora Dollinger. What do you think when you hear those words?
HOWARD ZINN: First, I must say this, Bill. When my daughter saw this she heard Marisa Tomei shout to the police, “Cowards, cowards.” My daughter said a chill, a chill went through her. She was so moved. And so, when I see this, and I’ve seen this so many times, and each time I am moved because what it tells me is that just ordinary people, you know, people who are not famous, if they get together, if they persist, if they defy the authorities, they can defeat the largest corporation in the world.
BILL MOYERS: When I was last at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I was struck all over again by how the portraits there were all of wealthy people who could afford to hire an artist. It’s like when you go to Egypt, and you see the pyramids and the tombs, you realize that it was only the wealthy people who could afford to consider their legacy and have the leisure time to do what they want to. We know almost nothing about the ordinary people of Egypt, right?
HOWARD ZINN: Exactly. I remember when I was going to, you know, high school and learning, it was such a thrilling story to read about the Transcontinental Railroad. You know, and the meeting of the two Union Pacific — you know, the golden spike and all of that. But I wasn’t told that this railroad was built by Chinese and Irish workers who worked by the thousands — long hours, some — many of them died in sickness, and overwork, and so on. I wasn’t told about these working people. And so, that’s what we’re trying to do in this documentary. That’s what I tried to do in the People’s History of the United States. To bring back into the forefront the people who created what was called the economical miracle of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: One of your producers of this film is Matt Damon. And I understand that when Matt Damon was in the fifth grade, he took a copy of this book into his teacher on Columbus Day and said, “What is this? We’re here to celebrate this great event, but two years after Columbus discovered America, 100,000 Indians were dead according to Howard Zinn. He said, what’s going on?” Is that a true story?
HOWARD ZINN: It’s true. Not all stories are true. But this — it’s true. Matt Damon, when he was 10 years old, was given a copy of my book by his mother. They were next-door neighbors of ours.
BILL MOYERS: Oh. I didn’t know that. Where?
HOWARD ZINN: In the Boston area, in Newton. And Matt would say that he and his brother Kyle would — they’d wake up sometime in the middle of the night and see the light on in my study, where I was writing this book. So, they were in on it from the beginning. So, yeah, Matt knew the book early.
BILL MOYERS: Even today, people are inspired by celebrities, TV performers, athletes, famous politicians. Are there people doing today what Genora Dollinger and others did in the past?
HOWARD ZINN: I think there are people like that today. But very often, they’re ignored in the media. You know, or they appear for a day, you know, on the pages of The Times or The Post. They — and then they disappear. But, well, you know, there are those people recently who sat in Chicago in this plant that was going to be closed by the Bank of America and these people sat in and refused to leave. I mean, that was a modern-day incarnation of what the sit-down strike is- in the 1930s. But there are people — there are people today who are fighting evictions, fighting foreclosures. And, you know, very often, there’s a superficial understanding of a passive citizenry today, which is not true. There are people all over the country who are really conscience-stricken about what’s going on. But the media are not covering them very well.
BILL MOYERS: So, help us get a handle on the word and the tradition of populism. What was populism, in essence?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, populi — the word populism came into being in the late 1800s, 1880, 1890, when great corporations dominated the country, the railroads, and the banks, and these farmers were victims of them. And these farmers got together and they organized north and south, and they formed the populist movement. It was a great people’s movement. And they sent orators around the country, and they published thousands of pamphlets. And it was — I would say a high moment for American democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Well, if populism is thriving today, it seems to be thriving on the right. I mean, Sarah Palin, for example. And the tea parties. Some — one conservative writer recently in The Weekly Standard even said that Sarah Palin could be the William Jennings Bryan of this new conservative era because she is giving voice to millions of people who feel angry at what the government is doing, who feel that they’re being cheated out of a prosperous way of life by forces beyond their control. What do you think about that idea?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I guess William Jennings Bryan would turn over in his grave if he heard. William Jennings Bryan was antiwar, and she is not antiwar, she is very militaristic and so on. But it’s true that she represents a certain angry part of the population. And I think it’s true that when people are — feel beleaguered and people feel that they are being overlooked, they will turn to whoever seems to represent them. Some of them will turn to her. And some of them will turn to the right-wingers, and you might say that’s how fascism develops in countries, because they play upon the anger and the frustration of people. But on the other hand, that anger, that frustration can also lead to people’s movements that are progressive. You can go the way traditionally of the populists, of the labor movement of the ’30s, of the civil rights movement, of the women’s movement to bring about change in this country.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned the women’s movement, and there’s another remarkable moment in your film of Susan B. Anthony, when she’s on trial for trying to vote when she and other women didn’t have the right.
[JOSH BROLIN as JUDGE HUNT]: The sentence of the court is that you pay a fine of $100 and the costs of the prosecution.
[CHRISTINA KIRK as SUSAN B. ANTHONY]: May it please your honor, I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a debt of $10,000, incurred by publishing my paper The Revolution, the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, which tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while denying them the right of representation in the government; and I will work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
HOWARD ZINN: Christina Kirk, a wonderful actress and she brings Susan B. Anthony alive. And I think what that says to people today is you must stick up for your principles, even if it means breaking the law. Civil disobedience, it’s what Thoreau urged, it’s what Martin Luther King Jr. urged. It’s what was done during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. If you think you’re right, then — Susan B. Anthony thought it was right for her to try to register to vote. And yeah, people should defy the rules if they think they’re doing the right thing.
BILL MOYERS: You have said elsewhere that if President Obama were listening to Martin Luther King Jr., he’d be making some different decisions. What do you mean by that?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, first of all, he’d be taking our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’d be saying we are no longer going to be a war-making country. We’re not going to be a military country. We’re going to take our immense resources, our wealth, we’re going to use it for the benefit of people. Remember, Martin Luther King started a poor people’s campaign just before he was assassinated. And if Obama paid attention to the working people of this country, then he would be doing much, much more than he is doing now.
BILL MOYERS: I remember — all of us remember who were around then that 1967 speech that Martin Luther King gave here in New York at the Riverside Church, a year before his assassination. And he said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, a structure, which produces beggars, needs restructuring.” I mean, that’s pretty fundamental, right? Change the system?
HOWARD ZINN: King had a much more fundamental critique of our economic system. And certainly more fundamental than Obama has because a fundamental critique of our economic system would not simply give hundreds of billions of dollars to the bankers and so on, and give a little bit to the people below. A fundamental change in our system would really create a greater equalization of wealth, would I think give us free medical care. Not the kind of half-baked health reforms that are being now debated in Congress.
BILL MOYERS: This is one reason you are seen as a threat to other people. People at the top, because your message, like King’s message, goes to a fundamental allocation of power in America, right?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, that is very troublesome for people at the top. They’re willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don’t want people to think that we could actually transform this country into a peaceful country, that we no longer have to be a super military power. They don’t want to think that way because it’s profitable for certain interests in this country to carry on war, to have military bases in 100 countries, to have a $600 billion military budget. That makes a lot of money for certain people. But it leaves the rest of the country behind.
BILL MOYERS: Take a look at this.
[VIGGO MORTENSEN as IWW MEMBER]: If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in the hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This war is a businessman’s war and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.
HOWARD ZINN: Viggo Mortensen. And he’s reading the words of a labor person, I.W.W. man —
BILL MOYERS: I.W.W., International Workers of the World? (Editor’s Note — Correction: IWW is Industrial Workers of the World)
HOWARD ZINN: That’s right. And they refused to go along with World War I, and he’s explaining why they won’t. And he — basically, he’s speaking to poor people in all wars. Your — he’s saying, “It’s a businessman’s war.” And war is a businessman’s war. It always is. And so, the people — the ordinary guys were like — and Viggo Mortensen portrays here — ordinary guys have nothing to gain from this war.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you explain the absence of protest in the streets today? The abs — the passivity in response to the fact that we will — we have now doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan that George W. Bush had. How do explain the apathy?
HOWARD ZINN: Let’s put it this way — I don’t think people are apathetic about it. I believe most people in this country do not want us to be in Afghanistan. But they’re not doing anything about it, you’re right. We’re not seeing protests in the street. And I think one of those reasons is that the media- the major media, television and newspapers — they have not played their role in educating the public about what is going on.
BILL MOYERS: There was a poll late this week showing that a bare majority of Americans do support sending more troops to Afghanistan. How do you read that?
HOWARD ZINN: You have to remember this — it is not easy for people to oppose sending troops to Afghanistan, especially once they have been sent and once the decision has been made. It’s not easy for people to oppose what the president is saying, and what the media are saying, what both major parties are working for. And so, the very fact that even close to a majority of the people are opposed to sending troops to Afghanistan tells me that many more people are opposed. So I have a fundamental faith in the basic decency, and even, yes, the wisdom of people, once they make their way through the deceptions that are thrown at them. And we’ve seen this historically. People learn.
BILL MOYERS: I was struck in your special by what the labor leader, Cesar Chavez, had to say about organizing his fellow farm workers.
[MARTIN ESPADA as CESAR CHAVEZ]: I’m not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life. My motivation comes from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up; from what we experienced as migrant farm workers in California. It grew from anger and rage — emotions I felt 40 years ago when people of my color were denied the right to see a movie or eat at a restaurant in many parts of California. It grew from the frustration and humiliation I felt as a boy who couldn’t understand how the growers could abuse and exploit farm workers when there were so many of us and so few of them.
I began to realize what other minority people had discovered: That the only answer — the only hope — was in organizing.
Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians do the right thing by our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism. That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade. But it will come.
BILL MOYERS: It will come. Martin Espada as Cesar Chavez.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, a great poet.
BILL MOYERS: Do you believe that it will come?
HOWARD ZINN: I do. I can’t give you a date.
BILL MOYERS: Gee.
HOWARD ZINN: But I have confidence in the future. You know why? You know, you have to be patient. Farm workers were at one point in as helpless a position as the labor movement is today. But as Cesar Chavez said, we learned that you have to organize. And it takes time, it takes patience, it takes persistence. I mean, think of how long black people in the South waited —
BILL MOYERS: Three hundred years.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: A long — and then 100 years after the Civil War, which was fought for freedom.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, I don’t think we’ll have to wait 100 years.
BILL MOYERS: So, populism isn’t really — and people’s power, isn’t really a left or right issue, is it? It’s more us versus them, bottom versus top?
HOWARD ZINN: It’s democracy. You know, democracy doesn’t come from the top. It comes from the bottom. Democracy is not what governments do. It’s what people do. Too often, we go to junior high school and they sort of teach us democracy is three branches of government. You know, it’s not the three branches of government.
BILL MOYERS: I’d like to end with a woman who showed us the power of a single voice, speaking for democracy. Born into slavery, largely uneducated, she spoke out for the rights of all people who didn’t have any. I mean she was an unforgettable truth teller, you know. And here is Kerry Washington as Sojourner Truth.
[KERRY WASHINGTON as SOJOURNER TRUTH]: That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as any man — when I could get it — and I could bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? That man in the back there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Well, where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? He came from God and a woman! Man didn’t have nothing to do with it. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, well these women here together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And they asking to do it, the men better let them.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you include that one?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, we included that one because it’s so empowering. And, I mean, because here is this woman who was a slave and, you know, oppressed on all sides, and she’s defiant. And so, she represents the voice of people who’ve been overlooked. And she represents a voice which is rebellious and, yeah, troublesome to the powers that be.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I will be watching the History Channel Sunday evening with your book in my lap. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. Thank you for being with me.
HOWARD ZINN: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the Journal. Go to our website at pbs.org and click on Bill Moyers Journal. You will find out more about historian Howard Zinn and read a selection of his writings. There’s also a web exclusive essay on land mines and Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize. That’s all at pbs.org. I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.