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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.