FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Remembering Howard Zinn

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:

Chip Gibbons is writer whose work can be found in CounterPunch, Jacobin, and Truthout. He is a contributor to the Henry Kissinger Files, forthcoming from Verso.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 18, 2020
John Pilger
Julian Assange Must be Freed, Not Betrayed
Peter Harrison
Religion is a Repeating Chapter in the History of Politics
Norman Solomon
The Escalating Class War Against Bernie Sanders
Conn Hallinan
Irish Elections and Unification
Dean Baker
We Shouldn’t Have to Beg Mark Zuckerberg to Respect Democracy
Sam Pizzigati
A Silicon Valley Life Lesson: Money That ‘Clumps’ Crushes
Arshad Khan
Minority Abuse: A Slice of Life in Modi’s India
Walden Bello
China’s Economy: Powerful But Vulernable
Nicolas J S Davies
Afghan Troops say Taliban are Brothers and War is “Not Really Our Fight.”
Nyla Ali Khan
The BJP is Not India, and Every Indian is Not a Modi-Devotee
Binoy Kampmark
Buying Elections: The Bloomberg Meme Campaign
Jonah Raskin
Here’s Hoping
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Herakles in the Age of Climate Chaos
Bob Topper
The Conscience of a Conservative
John W. Whitehead
We’re All in This Together
Gala Pin
Bodies in Freedom: a Barcelona Story
Laura Flanders
Democracy, Dictatorship and Bloomberg
James Chandler
Among Cruel Children
February 17, 2020
Sheldon Richman
Anti-BDS Laws Violate Our Freedom
John Horning
NEPA is Our National Defense System

Evelyn Leopold
How the UN’s Middle East Peace Plan Was Trounced by Its Own Members
Stephen Cooper
“Just Mercy” and Justice Don’t Exist in Alabama
Patrick Cockburn
Sinn Fein’s Victory is Ireland’s ‘Brexit Moment’ When Left-Out Voters Turn on the Elite
Ralph Nader
“Democratic Socialism” – Bring it on Corporate Socialists!
Phillip Doe
Every Day’s a Holiday for the Oil Business in Colorado
Binoy Kampmark
Fashion Fetishism, Surgical Masks and Coronavirus
Cesar Chelala
The Democrats’ New Chapter
Robert Koehler
The Wall: Separating Democracy From Voters
Peter Cohen
Time to Retire the “He Can’t Beat Trump” Trope
Sr. Kathleen Erickson
Lessons From Ministering on the Border
Alvaro Huerta
Another Five Lessons for Democrats to Defeat Trump in 2020
Wim Laven
Donald Trump’s Plan for America: Make it Ignorant
Christopher Brauchli
You Tube’s Trump Predicament
Steve Klinger
Trump Shoots Romney at Prayer Breakfast; GOP Shrugs
Elliot Sperber
Ode to the City Bus 
James Haught
Megachurch Mess
Weekend Edition
February 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Mayor Mike, Worse Than Mayor Pete
Bruce E. Levine
“Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Leader of the Pack
Jennifer Matsui
The Doomsday Cuckoo Clock
Paul Street
Things Said in Confidence to 4000 Close Friends This Week
Jonathan Cook
Even With Corbyn Gone, Antisemitism Threats Will Keep Destroying the UK Labour Party
Thomas Klikauer
Cambridge Analytica: a Salesgirl’s Report
Joseph Natoli
Vichy Democrats vs. the Master Voice
David Rosen
Sanders vs. the Establishment Democrats: McGovern All Over Again?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail