Howard Zinn

It would be comical for me to pretend to what is generally understood as “objectivity” in discussing the work of Howard Zinn. Howard was one of my closest friends. My copy of the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of A People’s History of the United States is inscribed: “For Staughton and Alice, good, good friends, with admiration and love. Howie.”

Howard Zinn recruited me for the history department of Spelman College, a college in Atlanta for African American women, in December 1960. Our two families spent time together in New Hampshire during the summer of 1961. One day Howard, his children Myla and Jeff, and I climbed a mountain together. (Historical note: He says in his autobiography that it was Mt. Monadnock. It was Mt. Chocorua.) Howard comments on the fact that I “came from a background completely different” than his own. Yet as our mountain-climbing conversation that day “went back and forth on every political issue under the sun—race, class, war, violence, nationalism, justice, fascism, capitalism, socialism, and more—it was clear that our social philosophies, our values, were extraordinarily similar.”

But I would protest an assertion that because we were close friends, and looked at the world in similar ways, I am therefore disqualified from offering incisive commentary about Howard’s work. Any such argument would make the error of assuming that in order to be unbiased a historian must not have taken part in the events described, or that the greater the historian’s distance from the object of study the more valuable his commentary is likely to be. This logic would hold that Thucydides should not have analyzed the wars of Athens, or Trotsky the history of the Russian Revolution. It should be obvious that while familiarity heightens the danger of bias it also makes possible knowledge of facts which the detached academic has no way of knowing.

The Ex-Bombadier

The Howard Zinn who chronicled SNCC’s striving to overcome racism, who then wrote A People’s History and shepherded it through later editions, was a steadfast advocate for an unchanging point of view.

But one aspect of Howard’s life exhibited an equally dramatic reversal of perspectives. During World War II, Howard was so eager to get into combat that he gave up a shipyard job that would have kept him safe for the duration, and arranged with his draft board to “volunteer for induction,” even obtaining permission to mail his induction notice to himself. During flight training he was similarly anxious to get to Europe, and twice “traded with other bombardiers to get on the short list for overseas.”

The eager bombardier of World War II became a passionate opponent of all conceivable modern wars and the governments that lie about them. How did this change happen? What does it mean? And is it possible that Howard Zinn will be remembered most of all as an opponent of war?

Howard tells us in his autobiography how and why his outlook began to change during World War II.

Howard had made friends with a gunner in another crew, who, like himself, read books and was interested in politics. One day his friend said, “You know, this is not a war against fascism. It’s an imperialist war.” Startled, Howard responded, “Then why are you here?” and his friend replied, “To talk to guys like you.” Two weeks later his friend’s plane was shot down and the whole crew killed.

Then when the war was almost over, the briefing officer said that they were going to bomb a French town named Royan. A few thousand German soldiers had retreated to Royan. They weren’t fighting, just waiting for the war to end. The planes in Howard’s squadron were not going to carry their usual load but, instead, thirty one-hundred-pound canisters of “jellied gasoline.” The town of Royan was decimated, the many victims French as well as German. Only long after the war did Howard recognize that this was an early use of napalm.

At the time of his discharge, Howard spontaneously wrote on the folder in which he kept papers concerning his military service, “Never again.” But exactly what this meant for him evolved over the years.

At the time I came to know Howard in Atlanta in the early 1960s, he was extremely fond of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. Therein Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier (as Howard had been), says, “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” In Fall 1962, when the Mayor of Atlanta wired President Kennedy that Atlantans supported as one man the President’s threat to go to war over missiles in Cuba, Howard, along with the staff of the nearby SNCC headquarters and a number of teachers, myself included, picketed in protest.

And it is too often forgotten today that SNCC took a position in support of men who refused service in Vietnam a year before SDS did so.

Howard’s opinions on war and nonviolence are scattered in short essays through a number of books. Annoyingly, in some of these books the essays are not dated and it is difficult to follow the development of Howard’s ideas. I have selected a few of these short writings that I believe to be representative, first of Howard’s attitude toward pacifism, then of his increasing commitment to nonviolence.

“The Force of Nonviolence” was written in 1962 and published in The Nation. Therein Howard heaped praise on the possibilities of nonviolence but rejected the “absolutism” of pacifists. Within SNCC, that part of the civil rights movement with which Howard most identified, the attitude toward violence varied from person to person, and overall, was conflicted and ambivalent. As Howard puts it in this early essay, the theories of those who engaged in the desegregation struggle were “less developed than their actions.” Indeed, he wrote, the theory of “the nonviolence people” was “muddy.”

It seemed to Howard at that time that “people know, deep inside, even if they can’t articulate the reasons, that there are times when violence is justified.” Nonviolence “seen as absolute pacifism” is only one of two linked values that “humanitarian people share—peace and social justice.”

The nonviolent absolutist, in all logic, may have to forego social change, putting himself in the contradictory position of maintaining a status quo that tolerates violence like capital punishment and police brutality against Negroes. On the other hand, people who are prepared to pursue any course of action leading to social change may find themselves in the contradictory position of using such violent and uncontrollable means that there is no society left to enjoy the benefits of the changes they seek.

Accordingly, one must “weigh, weigh, weigh” one set of desirable values against another. On the whole, “nonviolent techniques . . . seem the only sensible answer to a world sitting in a mine field and yet needing to move.”

In an undated essay on “Pacifism and War,” Howard remarked again: “I have never used the word ‘pacifist’ to describe myself, because it suggests something absolute, and I am suspicious of absolutes.”

Thus Howard’s early perspective concerning violence and nonviolence expressed great support for nonviolence but made room for particular circumstances when violence might be unavoidable. Action was more important than words. Howard quoted Albert Einstein: “Wars will stop when men refuse to fight.” Yet his overall position was like that of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who condemned “institutional violence,” “terrorism,” and violence disproportionate to the aggression prompting its use, but said that there were some situations when violence was legitimate.

One early influence to which Howard referred repeatedly was a book entitled Johnny Got His Gun by an author named Dalton Trumbo. Howard called it “perhaps the most disturbing anti-war novel ever written.” It tells of a young man who became a soldier and lost not only his four limbs, but became a slab of flesh with “no face, blind, deaf, unable to speak,” yet still alive. During my last telephone call with Howard he commented bitterly on the fact that after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the United States (and perhaps Trumbo himself) prevented the re-issuance of this novel lest it detract from the war effort in which the Soviet Union was involved.

Howard Zinn’s last public speech was entitled “Three Holy Wars.” It was delivered at Boston University on November 11 (the day that in my childhood we called “Armistice Day”), 2009. The three “holy wars” were the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II.

Howard asked whether the American Revolution was necessary. “How about Canada? . . . They are independent of England. They did not fight a bloody war. It took longer. Sometimes it takes longer if you don’t want to kill.”

A kind of electric shock went through me as I read those words. I recalled how in the 1960s Howard had been so careful to distinguish his views from the “absolutism” of pacifists. He seemed to be espousing in the last weeks of his life a sort of de facto pacifism, a position that amounted to pacifism even if you used different words.

Proceeding to the Civil War, Howard asked essentially the same thing. Yes, slavery had been abolished, but did that require the deaths of 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers? (Since Howard’s death, a new survey counted the number of “missing males” in census data and raised the estimated number of Civil War fatalities to 750,000.) Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Howard insisted, slavery had been abolished without a bloody civil war.

He went on to his own war, World War II. Howard’s essential message was that when you bomb from thirty thousand feet, this is modern warfare, you do things from a distance, it’s very impersonal. You just press a button and somebody dies. You don’t see them. . . . I didn’t see any human beings. I didn’t see what was happening below. I didn’t see children screaming, I didn’t see arms about ripped off people. No. You just drop bombs. You see little flashes of light down below as the bombs hit. That’s it. And you don’t think.

Was this history? Repentance? Prophetic denunciation? All of the foregoing? Howard’s history of saturation bombing by Allied bombers, from within the event, is indeed history from below (as well as from high above). Perhaps he exemplified thereby something just as powerful and memorable as anything he could write about persons he had never known, like Christopher Columbus.

Howard Zinn was an early prototype of today’s typical conscientious objector: a man or woman who volunteers for military service, finds it impossible to take part in conduct perceived to be “war crimes,” yet remains uncertain how he or she would respond if the United States were attacked. It is hypocritical that the United States government recognizes as conscientious objectors only members of fringe Protestant sects (like the Quakers, to which I belong) who oppose “war in any form” on the basis of “religious training and belief.” After World War II the United States executed certain German and Japanese defendants who, a tribunal concluded, had committed war crimes in that particular war, World War II. Must we then not recognize as bona fide conscientious objectors soldiers who refuse to continue criminal conduct in a particular war, or who, having taken part in such conduct, like Howard Zinn declare “Never again”?

Overcoming Racism

Howard Zinn and I were colleagues at Spelman College in the academic years 1961-62 and 1962-63. Our families lived on campus, around the corner from each other in the same building.

It strikes me as strange that so-called “whiteness theory,” while no doubt a form of history from the bottom up, seems wholly preoccupied with why some white workers become racists and devotes almost no attention to how racism can be overcome. It was otherwise in Atlanta in the early 1960s.  During those years the inevitable subject of conversation was how a society so saturated with racism as the southern United States might free itself from that miasma. The Spelman College campus was roiled by conflict arising when the young ladies enrolled there went downtown to picket local restaurants and department stores, to sit in the “whites only” gallery at the state legislature, or to attempt to use segregated public libraries.

In a typical incident illustrative of the crisis atmosphere, I was awakened one night by a phone call to the effect that a friend who taught at Atlanta University, his wife, and their two young daughters, had all been arrested while peacefully picketing. Morris and Fannie were in the city jail downtown. Would I go to the juvenile detention facility on the city outskirts and bail out the two girls? (This is only the beginning of the story.)

Howard explored the American dilemma of racism in a book largely forgotten today, The Southern Mystique.

The book’s central argument is made clear in a journal Howard kept (now in the Zinn Papers at New York University) while drafting this book. He was simultaneously beginning to do oral histories for his next book, SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Thus an entry on January 10, 1963 reports: “Ran into Ruby Doris Smith—she finishes school this semester, will do field work for SNCC thereafter. Told her want to tape her experiences.”

On that same date Howard described a town hall meeting in which he took part together with Eugene Patterson, editor of the leading Atlanta newspaper; Macon mayor Ed Wilson; and Sam Williams, a black professor. “Both Sam and Patterson said at different points that [we] must change Southern white behavior before [we can] change his mind—squares exactly with what I’ve been writing about.”

The next day, January 11, the journal reports the visit of a Princeton sociologist named Berger. On January 19, after interviewing Julian Bond at the Zinns’ apartment and “concentrated talk with Negroes in all sorts of situations,” Professor Berger “came over for a last chat before departure.” Howard and his guest “disputed a little about the future,” Howard records.

He sees, after legal desegregation, a plateau, no real improvement, with whites continu[ing] to be prejudiced and no indication of change. . . . My argument: Yes, it seems strong, and it is at the moment, but it can change quickly—with contact. When housing and jobs become open, when white salesmen begin to have lunch—thru business necessity—with Negroes and stay at the same hotel with them, and so on—I cited my warehouse experience.

What did Howard mean by his “warehouse experience”? After classes at NYU and Columbia, Howard worked from four in the afternoon to midnight in a warehouse loading eighty-pound containers onto trailer trucks. In his autobiography, Howard explains the relevance of this experience to the theme of his conversation with Professor Berger. The warehouse crew included, along with several whites, a black man and a Honduran immigrant.

In Howard’s view “equal-status contact” over a period of time, as among members of the warehouse crew, was what would cause racial attitudes to change. The Southern Mystique presents a sophisticated rationale for this approach. Persons inclined to dismiss Howard Zinn as a shallow popularizer should take a look at the “Bibliographical Notes” to his book. Here one finds works of history, like Stanley Elkins’ Slavery; The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward; W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk; From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin; and W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South. Howard also cites sociologists Ross, Cooley, Mannheim, Merton, and Franklin Frazier, and psychologists Harry Stack Sullivan, Kurt Lewin, and Gardner Murphy.

Howard’s logic goes as follows. Everyone has a hierarchy of values. For many persons, racism may be one such value but it is unlikely to be the thing that anyone cares about most. Change the external requirements of daily life so that whites must engage in equal-status contact with blacks in order to achieve their highest priorities, and over time, racist attitudes will change in response.

In his autobiography, Howard tells us how this idea first occurred to him. After he joined the Air Force and finished training, Howard found himself on a luxury liner headed for Europe. There were 16,000 troops on board. The 4,000 who were black “slept in the depths of the ship near the engine room” and ate last, in, so he comments in A People’s History, “a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old.”

On the fifth day at sea there was a mix-up. The last shift poured into the dining room before the previous shift had finished eating, filling in wherever white men had left. A white sergeant, sitting next to a black man, called out to Howard (who was by then a lieutenant), “Get him out of here until I finish.” Howard refused and the sergeant, apparently caring more about his food than about who sat next to him, finished his meal.

Howard’s entry for March 3, 1963, offers the Journal’s most extended explanation of this strategy for overcoming racism. The YWCA had brought eighty Negro and white college students from all over the South to a conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Howard was invited as a presenter. Regardless of “all the nonsense associated with Y conferences,” he commented in his journal, it was a “revolutionary act, really a marvelous thing to see. . . . Two days of living together are worth two decades of reading or talking about ‘good race relations’.” The young women didn’t need to “talk about these things, just live them.”

My own experience with equal-status inter-racial contact among workers and prisoners strongly corroborates Howard Zinn’s conclusion. Briefly, here are the stories of three white men who changed what they thought about blacks after a period of equal-status contact.

George Sullivan grew up in southern Illinois, a community awash with racial prejudice. (David Roediger grew up in the same setting and describes it in the opening pages of his Wages of Whiteness.) As a young adult George joined the Air Force. He was moved to a new base at about the same time that President Truman’s executive order desegregating the military came into effect. George found himself in a barracks where everyone but himself was African American.

After several days of uncomfortable silence, there came a time when George was sitting on the steps of the barracks with orders to sew on his sergeant stripes by the next day or lose that promotion. But he couldn’t sew on the stripes because, working as a meat cutter, he had cut three or four of his fingers.

I was sitting there by myself just wondering what to do. One of the guys in the barracks . . . came out and said, “Have you already got your stripes?” I said, “Yeah, I bought them already.” He said, “Well if you go get them I’ll sew them on for you.” So that was the first thing that really broke the ice. He sat and sewed those stripes on my uniform while we got to know each other.

Prisoners, too, experience equal-status contact. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Jason Robb had known few African Americans. In prison the majority of inmates were black, and several took advantage of him during his first days inside. He got in a couple of fights in the yard. Then one day, Jason was sitting in the mess hall when his table was surrounded by a group of large white men. “Kid,” the men explained, “we like your spirit. But you don’t have to be alone any more.” It was the Aryan Brotherhood. Jason joined.

Before he was sentenced to death for his alleged actions during an eleven-day prison uprising, Jason tried to explain himself to a jury. He was not a person “filled with hate,” he insisted. Rather, he believed in a separation that recognized cultural differences. “Can’t be in a cell and play country music and he wants to play rap.”

Jason also told the jury that he worked as a plumber in the prison and came into contact with a black electrician. According to Jason, “This guy’s showing me how to do electric work and I’m showing him how to do things and basically we’re teaching each other how to do work.”

The electrician was a pretty militant believer in Black Power, Jason recalled. “But we talked and it surprised me that me and him could talk. And he explained to me his beliefs. And that kind of surprised me that he would be open with me like that. So I explained to him how I felt. And we built a respect between us.”

My wife and I had an opportunity to verify Jason’s description of his attitudes. We were among a team of lawyers who filed a class action concerning the “super-maximum” security prison in Youngstown. The court allowed us to have two class representatives in the courtroom during hearings. Jason insisted that one of the two representatives be black. Over a period of years the representatives were Jason and a black man, also sentenced to death, Keith LaMar. The two functioned as brothers.

The most dramatic example I know of the effect of equal-status contact on prisoners’ attitudes was set forth in a long letter to me by a young white man from South Carolina. He had come to the Ohio State Penitentiary as “a stone cold racist.” But “three years at O.S.P. has changed that 100%. It’s the WHITE police, administrators, and nurses who treat me like a ‘nigger’; treat all of us like that.”

The writer had also been watching public television. “I used to be proud of white historical domination,” he explains, the way whites just crushed and conquered all who stood in their path historically. But now when I watch documentaries on PBS like “Conquistadors” or “The West” it makes me mad because in those conquests and legal genocides I now see the arrogance of Lt.____ or the administrators at O.S.P., with the blind assumption of superiority by all the fontiersmen/conquistadors/correctional officers. . . . It makes me respect the Indians who fought to the death . . . or the Incan/Aztec natives who stood up to the conquistadors . . . or the slaves who found the courage to revolt.

Thus, fifty years after its publication, I find that my own experience tends to support the strategy for overcoming racism set forth in The Southern Mystique.

A People’s History

Howard is, of course, best known to the world as the author of A People’s History of the United States.

This book was first published in 1980, roughly fifteen years after The Southern Mystique and SNCC, and thirty years before Howard’s death. As of this writing (summer 2013), something like two million copies have been sold. The book has been internationally recognized, as by the Goncourt Prize in France. The governor of Indiana has sought to ban A People’s History from Indiana public schools.

According to Robert Cohen, who is working with correspondence in the Zinn archives, the great majority of the (generally enthusiastic) letters from students across the country concern the book’s first chapter about Columbus. I have a personal reason for appreciating that chapter’s critique of Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison was a biographer of Columbus who, according to A People’s History, mentions genocide in passing but waxes enthusiastic about Columbus’ seamanship. I took a course with Professor Morison as a Harvard undergraduate and remember him lecturing . . . in his yachting whites!

So how shall we evaluate the historical phenomenon of A People’s History? No doubt it is too soon to make a final judgment. I shall offer a preliminary assessment.

First I shall present a critique of “people’s history.” Then I shall attempt to say what Howard would say—indeed, has said—in response. My conclusion is that if we listen carefully to Howard’s description of his intentions, many criticisms fade into irrelevance.

A Critique of “A People’s History”

Howard Zinn’s People’s History is not the first panoramic history of the United States from a Left point of view. I have a mental image of myself in the high school library, enthralled by The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard. Perhaps its most distinctive argument was that the Civil War was a second American Revolution. Later, Leo Huberman, labor educator and co-editor of Monthly Review, published a shorter survey history entitled We, The People.

Nor is Howard Zinn’s the first “people’s history” of the United States. Several years before Howard published A People’s History, a young man named Harvey Wasserman sent him Harvey Wasserman’s History of the United States, published by Harper & Row in 1972. At Harvey’s request Howard wrote the Introduction, specifically identifying the book as a “people’s history.”

I believe that one reason “people’s history” was attractive to Howard, as to other progressive historians, was the political atmosphere on the Left during the years in which he came to adulthood. The idea of a united, radical American people was abroad in the land in the late 1930s. The Communist Party was by far the largest and most influential radical group in the United States at the time. Beginning in 1935, the worldwide Communist movement sought to create coalitions of all groups and persons who might be enlisted to resist fascist aggression. The strategy promoted by the Party was known as “the Popular Front.”

In his autobiography, Howard provides a sketch of his interest in world politics as an adolescent. He was “reading books about fascism in Europe.” He was fascinated by a book about Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy, and could not get out of his mind “the courage of the Socialist deputy Matteoti,” who was dragged from his home and murdered by fascist thugs. The Brown Book of the Nazi Terror described what was happening in Hitler’s Germany. And “the Nazi war machine” was beginning to expand westward and eastward.

The Spanish civil war was “the event closest to all of us,” Howard writes, because American radicals were crossing the Atlantic to fight with the international brigades against Franco. Howard knew a few such young men personally. So did I. In May 1936, an Ohioan named Sam Levinger carried me on his shoulders in a gigantic May Day parade in New York City. In September 1937, Sam was fatally wounded in the battle of Belchite.

The Popular Front political strategy had repercussions for the writing of history. The idea of a “people” united for democracy and against fascism was central. There was talk of the democratic tradition of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. There was even talk of Communism as “twentieth-century Americanism.” I was half a dozen years younger than Howard but vividly remember folk dancing at the hall of the furriers’ union and learning the songs of anti-Franco combatants in the Spanish civil war.

The intellectual atmosphere associated with Popular Front politics and focused on “the people” extended far beyond Communists and their supporters. Carl Sandburg wrote an iconic prose poem called “The People, Yes,” as well as a multi-volume biography of Lincoln. During World War II it was natural that concepts of a united “people” came to the fore. Even after the war, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., well-known for his anti-Communism, wrote a paean to “Jacksonian Democracy” that today seems to ignore the displacement of the Cherokees much as Samuel Eliot Morison failed to focus on the destruction of the Arawak Indians who had greeted Columbus.Howard’s history of “the people” at first glance seems vulnerable to the criticism that what he calls “the people” has never really existed. That criticism of the idea of “the people” was memorably expressed by the late Edmund S. Morgan, writing about an earlier historical period in a book called Inventing the People. There Morgan wrote:

Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the King is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. . . .

The people . . . are never visible as such. Before we ascribe sovereignty to the people we have to imagine that there is such a thing, something that we personify as though it were a single body, capable of thinking, of acting, of making decisions and carrying them out, something quite apart from government, superior to government, and able to alter or remove a government at will, a collective entity more powerful and less fallible than a king or than any individual within it or than any group of individuals it singles out to govern it.

To sustain a fiction so palpably contrary to fact is not easy.

I believe Howard conceded that he sought to find in the past examples of heroism and persistence among ordinary people that might encourage us today. That effort is self-evidently vulnerable to the doctrine that historians should seek to discover what happened, not to create a “usable past” with imagined relevance to the present. How would Howard answer that charge? How did he answer it?

Howard’s Response

A good place to begin Howard’s response to critiques like that of Edmund Morgan is his Introduction to Harvey Wasserman’s book. Howard’s Introduction began: “Why should we read Harvey Wasserman’s History of the United States when we can read a regular and respectable textbook written by some regular and respectable historian? Because his book is a beautiful example of people’s history . . . .”

Howard then went on to ask, “What is ‘people’s history,’ and why do we need it?” He cited earlier texts that pointed to that perspective: Harold Laswell’s definition of politics as “who gets what, how, and why?” and Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

We seem to think, Howard continued, that a book is unbiased if it repeats the bias of all the books that went before it. In reality, every history book has a point of view, every historian is subjective.

Then comes a crucial paragraph. After reciting the misdeeds of a series of greedy corporate executives, Howard says of their continuing impact on events:

To know that this has been true for a long time, that it is a persistent fact of American history, is important. It means these conditions do not belong to one period of the past. Here we find a use in history. If it shows conditions as continuous and deep-rooted—in this case, the power of corporate wealth behind politics, behind everyday life—it suggests to us that more radical measures than electing another president or passing another program in Congress will be necessary to change these conditions. It suggests that we will have to dig to the roots—to change our thinking, our relations with one another, to transform our institutions, our economic system, our day-to-day existence. [Emphasis added.]

Note that in his autobiography, published fourteen years after A People’s History, Howard uses almost identical words to describe how he became a radical after he was beaten by police in Times Square. “From that moment on,” he says, “I was a radical. . . . The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

In the Wasserman introduction, Howard moves on to the affirmation that in order for the American people to “trust in themselves,” they “need to know something which history knows”: that people “apparently without power themselves can create power by determining not to be controlled, by acting with others to change their lives.” History “should not leave us with a dark and hopeless vision.” It should leave us, as does Wasserman’s book, with “the good feeling of standing alongside people who fought back.”

In a book called The Politics of History, written at about the same time as his Introduction to Wasserman’s history, Howard reiterated his ideas with reference to his Master’s Essay on the “Ludlow Massacre” of 1914. The massacre came to his attention, Howard says, “first in a song by Woody Guthrie . . . then in a chapter of the book by Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles, written in 1936.” It was a dreadful event, in which National Guardsmen acting on behalf of Rockefeller interests fired into tents in which striking miners, their wives, and their children had taken refuge, and then set them on fire. According to Howard, eleven people were killed by gunfire, and thirteen more (eleven children and two women) when the Guardsmen set fire to the tents.

Howard’s essay on Ludlow makes clear that he was able to write detailed narrative history based on fully-cited primary sources. But the detailed rendering of a particular past event did not satisfy Howard. He makes this clear at the end of his Ludlow essay, reprinted in The Politics of History. There he writes:

How shall we read the story of the Ludlow massacre? As another “interesting” event of the past? Or as supporting evidence for an analysis of that long present which spans 1914 and 1970 [the year in which he was writing]? If it is read narrowly, as an incident in the history of the trade union movement and the coal industry, then it is an angry splotch in the past, fading rapidly amidst new events. If it is read as a commentary on a larger question—the relationship of government to corporate power and of both to movements of social protest—then we are dealing with the present.

In other words, Howard wanted history to be a set of generalizations formed by connecting the stories of comparable historical events occurring at different points in time.

Is this an effort to create a “usable past”? The answer is Yes. But all history seeks to make some use of the past. And Howard Zinn is not distorting past events, except in a sense that is true of every historical undertaking: he selects some facts for emphasis and gives less attention to others. He selects stories showing the ruthlessness of corporate power, and the unappreciated resilience and fortitude of poor and oppressed people.

And that is exactly what he says again in the last chapter and Afterword of A People’s History. He is not describing a past event or making a prediction, but expressing a hope. Using the mantra later popularized by the Occupy movement, Howard incisively contrasts the 99 percent with the well-to-do 1 percent. He says that he is “taking the liberty of uniting those 99 percent as ‘the people’,” writing a history “that attempts to represent their submerged, deflected, common interest.” By uniting them as characters in a single historical narrative he seeks to unite them in fact, as a real force in making history. He wonders how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm in Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.

Working-Class Self-Activity

As in the title of his best-known book, Howard Zinn often invoked “the people.” But the core of Howard’s personal experience of the power of the people was a series of immersions in specifically working-class collective action. I believe that a lifelong commitment to working- class self-activity is at the heart of Howard Zinn’s radicalism. In contrast to the diffuse mutual aid of “the people,” or temporary coalitions of soldiers and prisoners against repression, the solidarity of persons who work together remains the core of resistance to capitalism and prefigures a better society.

Incidentally, working-class solidarity offers a link between the discussion in Part One of this little book and the material in Part Two.

One can follow this thread from beginning to end of Howard’s experience.

Hard labor as an apprentice shipfitter for three years during World War II was Howard’s “introduction to the world of heavy industry,” he tells us in his autobiography. “What made the job bearable was the steady pay and the accompanying dignity of being a workingman, like my father.” But “most important” for Howard was that he found among his workmates “a small group of friends, fellow apprentices—some of them shipfitters like myself, others shipwrights, machinists, pipefitters, sheetmetal workers—who were young radicals, determined to do something to change the world.”

What they decided to do, since they were excluded from the craft unions of the skilled workers, was “to organize the apprentices into a union, an association.” Three hundred young workers joined. Howard says that this was his “introduction to actual participation in a labor movement.” He and his coworkers, Howard writes, were doing “what working people had done through the centuries, creating little spaces of culture and friendship to make up for the dreariness of the work itself.”

Howard and three others were elected to be officers of the apprentices’ association. “We met one evening a week to read books on politics and economics and socialism, and talk about world affairs.”

After the Air Force, Howard shared the following experience with the other truck-loaders at the warehouse.

We were all members of the union (District 65), which had a reputation of being “left-wing.” But we, the truck-loaders, were more left than the union, which seemed hesitant to interfere with the loading operation of this warehouse.

We were angry about our working conditions, having to load outside on the sidewalk in bad weather with no rain or snow gear available to us. We kept asking the company for gear, with no results. One night, late, the rain began pelting down. We stopped work, said we would not continue unless we had a binding promise of rain gear.

The supervisor was beside himself. That truck had to get out that night to meet the schedule, he told us. He had no authority to promise anything. We said, “Tough shit. We’re not getting drenches for the damn schedule.” He got on the phone, nervously calling a company executive at his home, interrupting a dinner party. He came back from the phone. “Okay, you’ll get your gear.” The next workday we arrived at the warehouse and found a line of shiny new raincoats and rainhats.

These personal experiences stood by Howard when, in A People’s History, he came to the worker self-activity of the 1930s. Howard did not agree with typical liberal and radical celebration of the creation of the CIO by John L. Lewis. He insists that “it was rank-and-file insurgencies that pushed the union leadership, AFL and CIO, into action.” He offers a detailed and affectionate description of the first sit-down strikes and how the tactic spread. Then he writes:

The sit-downs were especially dangerous to the system because they were not controlled by the regular union leadership. . . . Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable—more stabilizing for the system than the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank and file. In the spring of 1937, a New York Times article carried the headline “Unauthorized Sit-Downs Fought by CIO Unions.” The story read: “Strict orders have been issued to all organizers and representatives that they will be dismissed if they authorize any stoppages of work without the consent of the international officers. . . .” The Times quoted John L. Lewis, dynamic leader of the CIO: “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.”

Howard goes on to observe that the Communist Party, in its anxiety to create the widest possible coalition against fascism, “seemed to take the same position.”

Summing up, Howard described the National Labor Relations Act, and the structure and practice of the new CIO trade unions, as “two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action.” The CIO might be “a militant and aggressive union,” yet it would “channel the workers’ insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.” Accordingly, Howard concluded that the history of the 1930s seemed to support the analysis of Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven who argued in their book Poor People’s Movements “that labor won most during its spontaneous uprisings, before the unions were recognized or well organized.” 

Once again as a professor at Boston University, Howard confronted personally issues arising from the efforts of workers to organize themselves. To begin with, teachers like Howard pursued the right to organize. In addition, responding to the arrogant administration of President John Silber, workers of all kinds, such as clerical workers, librarians, and staff at the nursing school, also insisted on their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Howard consistently advocated not only aggressive self-activity by teachers but also solidarity with other groups of less prestigious workers on campus.

On one occasion, all of the campus groups that had organized unions went on strike. The issue for faculty was that the university had reneged on a contract that had been agreed to its by negotiating committee.

Anyone who has experienced such a situation knows how hard it is to rekindle the collective will to take risky action after a dispute has apparently been resolved. At the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians after Howard’s death, one of his colleagues described a meeting of faculty activists the evening they learned of the administration’s double cross. Howard, one of the co-chairs of the faculty’s strike committee, was not present when the meeting began. The mood was glum. Then Howard appeared, laden with poster board and magic markers. A strike went forward. Howard’s responsibility, so he says, was “to organize the picket lines at the entrance to every university building, to establish a rotation system among the hundreds of picketers.” After nine days of picketing and endless meetings, the university gave in.

Then a second issue presented itself. While teachers were out on strike and walking picket lines, secretaries also struck. For a time “we all walked the picket lines together, a rare event in the academic world.” Even after the teachers had signed a contract which banned sympathy strikes, Howard and a few other faculty members urged that teachers should refuse to go back to work until the administration agreed to a contract with the secretaries. Teachers as a group could not be persuaded. Howard and four others proceeded to hold their classes out of doors. President Silber threatened them with discharge but after a storm of protest, backed down.

Howard ended his last class early, then led those in attendance to a picket line in front of the school of nursing.

This deep sense of solidarity with the refusal to quit on the part of struggling families like that in which he grew up is one reason that persons who knew Howard, either personally or through his books, feel such affection for him. The text that, more than any other, elicits such solidarity and affection for Howard Zinn on my part, is the final scene in the first version of his play about Emma Goldman, entitled “Emma.”

Let me paraphrase. A group of aged anarchists have gathered at their favorite Lower East Side cafe in New York City. Something has stirred the embers. They are actually going to do something: they are going to distribute a leaflet early the next morning.

A man enters the cafe dressed in a shabby overcoat. Is it possible? Yes! It is Alexander Berkman, released from federal prison after many years of confinement for his attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick of U.S. Steel during the Homestead strike.

His comrades crowd around him. But Berkman asks: What were you talking about when I came in? They respond: It doesn’t matter! This is your first taste of freedom, Sasha! Relax! Be happy!

No, Berkman persists, I want to know. His colleagues answer: Well, if you must know, we are planning a leaflet distribution tomorrow morning. Berkman says: And do you have someone to distribute leaflets at every location where you plan to pass them out? Reluctantly, they admit: For every location except one; we’re still looking for someone for Broome Street.

Berkman says: I’ll take Broome Street. And the curtain falls.

Howard Zinn, presente.


  1. avatar
    Sanda Aronson November 15, 2014 9:51 am 

    Staughton Lynd,
    Nearing my 3/4C=75 or my next notLeapYear birthday, all parts of my life are intersecting!
    First, Howard Zinn called me “friend” -and I only
    name drop because he and Roslyn are dead.
    Second, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” is my favorite book of all books in the world so far and I doubt I’ll change my mind.
    AND, I SAW YOU SPEAK IN NOLA at an antiwar
    meeting in the Black YWCA in the summer of 1965, right after my first spouse and I arrived in NOLA for his job as an organizer in the antipoverty program. You were great. It was on Dryades St., NOLA, the Black Y was the only place, we were told, that was brave enough to hold an AntiVietnam War meeting. On the way out, the FBI and local NOPD
    took flash (remember flash bulbs on big cameras?) photos, in our faces, as we stepped out into the dark from the auditorium of the YMCA.
    We met Richard B. Sobol, Esq. who was running the LCDC office, Lawyers for Constitutional Defense,
    across the street from the YMCA. I got a pt time,
    “Volunteer” job and was there two days a week
    from that next day or so, thru when we left NOLA in 1967. I got to do research, write part of a brief that went up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won
    (my task was to prove how Bogaloosa,LA segregated the bus routes;;;;I figured out how by thinking of looking at the bus routes and a map of the segregated housing.

    So, Prof, Lynd, we both celebrate Howard Zinn.
    I am happy, proud to say he and his wife, Roslyn, a painter whose wonderful work is still online
    google search “Roslyn Zinn”, liked my work. Howard Zinn had a version, the original version of this work adapted for my Flickr photo public stream page, for all to view, FREE MUMIA. The original was done Aug.4, 1999 and the new version was just done recently and second item on the page at the top.
    Thank you for this memorial to Howard Zinn.
    When more awake later, I’ll read it again (insomnia from CFS, chronic fatigue syndrome – see Laura Hillenbrand interviews online for what the illness is).
    The art is at http://www.Flickr.com/photos/sanda-aronson-the-artist/

    Wishing you good health as you can’t be younger than I am, chuckle. Humor goes last….

  2. avatar
    Michael November 15, 2014 2:02 am 

    I love Howard Zinn.

    What a declaration, I know. And I use such words so carefully in my life.

    There was a time when I was doing research that I traveled to several places in Latin America, I was living in Argentina. But my most important destination was Boston and I shared Dunkin’ Donut coffee and donut with Howard. He liked them, and we sat and talked.

    It was great.

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