FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Remembering Howard Zinn

by CHIP GIBBONS

August 24, 2012 would have been Howard Zinn’s 90th birthday. Zinn was one of many thinkers and activists who played a significant role in developing my political consciousness. In addition to helping to shape my views of how social change occurs he is probably among the chief reasons that I decided to pursue history as an undergraduate major and why the study of social movements were such a heavy part of my academic focus. In honor of his birthday I am sharing a brief note that I wrote when Zinn passed over two years ago.

There’s a general portrayal of Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, as being “negative” or “critical.” I know rightwing commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly, hold it up as an example of the left’s desire to “blame America first” or their Anti-American views. This depiction is not just prevalent on the right, but throughout the mainstream. Even people who are generally liberal or “left-of-center” often times seem to think that a A People’s History is just a litany of atrocities committed by the United States, and that it’s a “depressing” book. It’s true Zinn did not shy away from exposing the many crimes committed by the United States government, and was not afraid to show critically even the holiest of America holy cows. That being said that wasn’t all A People’s History was or even its main focus. In fact, despite my prior expectations to the contrary, I found A People’s History to be anything, but depressing, I found it to be hopeful and inspiring.

It’s inspiring because it’s not the story of the American government, or American elites (such a story would truly be depressing), but a story of the American people. The slaves who struggled for freedom, the workers who struggled for a decent wage and humane working conditions, women who struggled for the right to vote, Americans who struggled not only for a better life for themselves, but for a better world. These are the people, who as Zinn said, “gave us whatever freedom we have.” That’s what’s important to remember–No benevolent power granted your freedom, people fought for it. And people are still fighting for it. We’re still fighting.

I remember back in November 2007 I had the privilege of seeing a theatrical version of A People’s History (similar to what premiered on the History Channel). I was expecting and excited to hear the words of Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, and other great social justice heroes. I was not disappointed, but what I was most moved by was the words of three women who during the Great Depression organized workers and the unemployed. Now they certainly weren’t Presidents or any of the usual American heroes, but they also weren’t part of the standard repertoire of Leftwing heroes either. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that Eugene Debs isn’t great but one man doesn’t make a movement. I think we, even on the left, forget that sometimes. We think that only extraordinary men and women can change the course of history, but the truth is that it’s the ordinary people when they band together and agitate from below that ultimately are the greatest agents of change. We hear Hilary Clinton say that it “took a president” to grant civil rights or we learn that Lincoln freed all the slaves, and we are indoctrinated with the belief that we the people are irrelevant. But the truth is Lincoln was forced to free the slaves only after decades of organizing by the abolitionist movement and the same can be said of civil rights. Howard Zinn changed my view of history, making me realize that change does not come from above, it comes from below.

Whenever I look at the world, I can’t help but feel depressed or overwhelmed. My country is occupying two nations, and escalating violence not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The profits of corporations triumph over individuals’ health, and the best “reform” we’re told we can hope for is to use state power to enforce the corporate monopoly over health care. The greedy, selfish, and reckless behavior of a few have caused untold misery and hardship for the many, and my government’s response is to bail out Wall Street while leaving working people to fend for themselves. I could go on, but there’s no point. When I look at these facts my reaction is to despair. It’s the human thing to do. But then I think of what Howard Zinn taught me. I think of the great people who were faced with similar or greater problems and fought back. Not only people like Eugene Debs and Martin Luther King, who I admire greatly, but lesser known people like the three women organizers. Many of them are people I wouldn’t even know about if not for Howard Zinn. And their stories, their struggles, their successes, this is what I think about. And yes, I still feel despair, but I also have a glimmer of hope. And that glimmer, the promise of a possibility, that’s what keeps me going, that’s what prevents me from being totally overwrought with despair. Thank you Howard Zinn.

Chip Gibbons is an activist who has been involved in various activist causes from labor rights to death penalty abolition to anti-war activities. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Political Studies and History from Bard College. His undergraduate thesis was on the Central American Solidarity Movement. He maintains the blog Exiting Emerald: Observations on Democracy and Empire.

More articles by:
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull, 500 Years of Trauma
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Gordon Smith
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
stclair
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered, Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail