Interview with Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States: By Sean Carswell and Todd Taylor

Dec 06, 2011

A strange thing happens to you when you read A People’s History of the United States. You come out feeling optimistic. You feel that, even if you can’t change the world, you can change some things in some small way. Beyond that, though, you feel like all of the people around you could do the same. You start recognizing the overworked, frazzled teller at the local Bank of America as a woman with all the strength and potential of the women in the Lowell textile strikes. You start to pay more attention to things like full-time UPS workers risking everything to help get benefits for part-time workers. You see how that relates to you, how striking UPS workers are one more step on the same path that brought us healthcare benefits, minimum wage, and child labor laws. You understand clearly that the people who bring positive change in our lives are not the President of the country or the CEO of large corporations. Positive change comes from the common people who stand back up every time they get pushed down.

Of course, this will lead you to hunting down everything you can find by or about Howard Zinn. The more content you read from him, the more blown away you will become. One thing that will amaze you is his writing style. He tackles some very complex issues that he has a clear understanding of in such a way to make it understandable to readers. It’s not light reading by any stretch of the term, but at the same time, he’s very easy to read. His stories flow naturally. His points come across clearly, and the more you read of him, the more you come to recognize a very subtle, stabbing sarcasm. And he can be downright funny at times.

Equally as impressive as his writing, though, is his life. Howard Zinn is a man whose life reflects his philosophies. He grew up in a cold water flat in Brooklyn. When he was eighteen, he went to work in a shipyard and there, he helped to organize his first union. He fought in World War II. He enrolled as a freshman in college when he was in his mid-twenties. The GI Bill covered his tuition, but he spent most of his college years working the four-to-midnight shift in a warehouse to support his family. After receiving his doctorate in history from ColumbiaUniversity, Zinn took a job teaching at SpelmanCollege, an all-black, women’s college in Atlanta. While there, Zinn was active in the civil rights movement, working closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, joining in on sit-ins, demonstrations, and organized efforts to help black southerners register to vote. His activities in the civil rights movement got him fired from Spelman. They also inspired J. Edgar Hoover to start what would become a lengthy FBI file on Zinn.

After Spelman, Zinn took a job at Boston University. Undaunted, Zinn remained an activist and continued writing inflammatory articles for The Nation, Harper’s, and The New Republic. He fought against the war in Vietnam. He battled a conservative administration at BostonUniversity. After Daniel Ellsberg obtained classified documents regarding the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Zinn helped him edit and release the documents in a book called The Pentagon Papers. Zinn also wrote several books himself, the most well-known being A People’s History (which has, to date, sold over 700,000 copies)—but, really, you can’t go wrong with any of his books. Even now, at the age of seventy-nine, Zinn continues to be active, speaking out against the war in Afghanistan, publishing frequently in Z Magazine and The Progressive, and even writing the Colorado Coal Strike section of the recent book, Three Strikes (Beacon Press, 2001).

Six months ago, if you had asked me who I would interview if I could interview anyone alive, I would’ve told you Howard Zinn. Luckily, Todd and I were headed to Boston recently anyway, and Todd set this interview up. On October 18, 2001 we met up with Howard Zinn in his BostonUniversity office. Here’s what we talked about.

This interview originally ran in Razorcake #6 and is in honor of the memory of Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

Interview by Sean Carswell and Todd Taylor

Sean: In previous interviews, when you discuss important events that are overlooked by traditional history, you tend to bring up Shays’ Rebellion and the Ludlow Massacre. Why these two particular events?

Howard: I guess Shays’ Rebellion because it tells so much about the origin of the nation, especially because the origins of the nation have been romanticized and the founding fathers have been deified. Almost every reference to the founding fathers is a reference which is done in awe. You have all of these biographies coming out about John Adams—a best selling biography—Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Brothers, all of these. And a very close look at Shays’ Rebellion begins to dispel the idea that we had such a pure and good and democratic beginning. The fact is that our beginning was fraught with conflict, with class conflict—a class conflict that existed before the Revolutionary War for a hundred and fifty years and also manifested itself during the war with mutinies against Washington’s army and after the war with Shays’ Rebellion.

Shays’ Rebellion is important not just because it was a rebellion of small, poor farmers against the rich of Boston who were over-taxing and taking over their land, but because Shays’ Rebellion, although it was repressed by force, put a scare into the founding fathers. If you read the letters that go back and forth after Shays’ Rebellion, their letters—Jefferson, Madison, Washington—express worry about whether this new nation can handle future rebellions. There’s one particular letter that I think of: General Knox, who was one of Washington’s generals, wrote to Washington right after Shays’ Rebellion, and he said, in effect, “These people who fought in the revolution think that, because they fought in the revolution, they deserve an equal share of the wealth in this country and we better do something.”

My point is the Constitutional Convention was convened with Shays’ Rebellion in mind and with fear of future rebellions. Fear of slave rebellions; fear of farmer’s uprisings. Shays’ Rebellion was not the only one, although it’s the only one that’s at all known. But there were similar farmer’s rebellions in other states of the union. So this puts a new light on the Constitution and the founding fathers. And what I say is reinforced by what James Madison says in The Federalist, Number Ten when he’s trying to persuade people in New York to ratify the Constitution. He says, “We’re going to have factions based on who has property and who doesn’t. These factions are going to come in and conflict with one another. But if we set up this kind of government, we can control these factions.”2 So that’s why Shays’ Rebellion is important.

The Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado Coal Strike are important because, Shays’ Rebellion is one side of the spectrum in the late eighteenth century, and here in the twentieth century, you have the continuation of class conflict expressing itself very dramatically and violently in the Colorado Coal Strike.

Basically, the same forces operate. By that, I mean you have poor people—at that time it was farmers, now it’s miners—poor people being exploited and put upon by the wealthy classes and the government playing the role that was foreshadowed in the Constitution. That is, the government playing the role of maintaining law and order. They don’t maintain law and order in Colorado when the miners are on the run, when the national guard is having its way, when the national guard is in control. But after the massacre of April 1914, and the miners take up arms and they go on a rampage through the countryside, killing mine guards, blowing up mine properties, then, for the first time, the federal government—which has been standing by, watching—sends troops in to quash things. So both events are very revelatory about the nature of American society.

Todd: Going back further, what is the undisputed text of Columbus because I’ve read that you’re a revisionist, but how can you be revisionist if you’re using source text?

Howard: That’s an interesting question. You become revisionist not because you’re revising the original text, oddly enough. You become revisionist simply because you are going to the original sources and paying attention to them, whereas the standard histories are ignoring the original texts. They’re ignoring what Columbus said; they’re ignoring what las Casas (Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who sailed with Columbus in 1498) said; they’re ignoring what another priest, Montecino, said. And standard histories have made up their own heroic story of Columbus to suit the patriotic needs of the country. So when you go back to the originals and you bring it forth, they cry revisionist.

Sean: On Booknotes, you told the story of a teacher in California who was teaching your Columbus chapter from A People’s History and she got in a lot of trouble for it. She was investigated by the school board. Do you remember how the case was resolved?

Howard: Yes, I do. She wrote to me and said that they’d set up an investigative committee because a parent got excited when she read the first chapter of my book. The parent said that the teacher must be a communist. I mean, who else would say such a thing about Christopher Columbus, our hero? [laughs] So the teacher wrote to me and said they’d set up this committee. Then, sometime later, she wrote to me and said, “The committee has talked to the students and so on, and the committee has exonerated me.” The students told the committee that she had not only used my book, but she used the standard text, and the students liked my book better than the standard text. So she was free and clear. At the same time, I’d been invited to give a commencement address at EarlWarrenCollege of the University of California, San Diego. So she said, “I see you’re coming to San Diego and I’d like to throw a celebratory party to celebrate the fact that I was exonerated and the fact that you are here.” So she was okay.

Todd: At the beginning of this century, Emma Goldman was being deported and was considered a true threat to American security. Are the forces that be so entrenched and so powerful that they don’t pursue eradicating or deporting people such as yourself or Noam Chomsky? How can you explain the difference in attitude?

Howard: I don’t think it’s a difference in attitude. They would love to deport me and Noam Chomsky [laughs]. And sometimes there are times when I’d like to be deported. Please, send me to Paris. Send me to Tuscany. But, of course, Noam Chomsky and I were born in this country. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were born in Russia. They found a way. They challenged Emma Goldman’s citizenship, so they had a legal basis for deporting her. They don’t really have a legal basis for deporting me or Noam Chomsky, although they could have a legal basis for rounding us up and putting us in detention. But, there are certain things that they don’t dare do because they have an idea of how far they can go without arousing too much opposition because civil liberties are still a touchy issue with the American people.

Sean: I’ve got another Emma Goldman question. Emma Goldman was twenty when the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. How come, in everything I’ve ever read by her, I’ve never seen Emma Goldman discuss the Indians or Indian society?

Howard: That’s an interesting point. Not only that, but you don’t hear her—and this is a great big gap—talking about the race issue. And there were race riots that took place in this country. In East St. Louis in 1917, blacks were massacred and she was in America. She wasn’t on trial yet. What you say is true. You know, I’m going to investigate this, because you’re right. I haven’t seen any indication that she showed any interest in or wrote anything about Native Americans or blacks. I’m going to turn to the source. The source is on the west coast at Berkeley. Do you know about the Emma Goldman Papers Project? A woman there named Candace Falk has been assembling an enormous archive of Emma Goldman-abilia. Really, everything that Emma Goldman ever wrote. Anything pertaining to Emma Goldman, so if anybody knows anything about this, she would. I’m going to ask her.

Sean: It just makes sense. When you look at the construct of Plains Indians’ societies, they were anarchists, essentially.

Howard: Yes. You would think that she’d be very conscious of the structure of Indian society and how closely they approximated an anarchist ideal. Consider this: the radicals and progressives at that time, before the 1930s, I would say, they generally were white-oriented. They generally were not that conscious of the race question or of the Native American question. There were a handful of people but the socialist party, for instance, did not make a vocal statement about the race issue. The IWW (International Workers of the World) took in blacks and whites and all sorts of people into the union, but I don’t remember them taking a particular stand against the race riots at that time. That’s a very important issue.

Todd: This is a really broad question, but which is larger: racism or classism?

Howard: It’s complicated. They’re intertwined. But if I have to say what is basic, really basic, it’s class. Racism itself would not be enough to account for slavery. They’re so deeply intertwined that, the truth is, neither one alone was enough to account for slavery. If slavery weren’t profitable, the difference in color would not have led to slavery. So class and class interests were involved. But if they didn’t have blacks from another culture who were helpless in this new world, and who were susceptible to racist ideas, then it would’ve been hard to have slavery also. It’s really hard to separate the two. But if I had to say which I think is fundamental, I would say it’s class if you look at the United States today and you think about what is crucial. And it’s this: if we could solve the class question, if we could really create economic equality in the United States, I would say we would go eighty or ninety percent towards solving the problem of racism—not totally. And the fact that I say “not totally” shows that it’s not that simple. Racism is, in itself, a powerful force.

Sean: How does institutionalized racism work as a form of social control?

Howard: Well, there we get down to economics. Institutionalized racism means that, if you have an economic system in which there must be a lower class, there must be unemployed. There must be a large pool of people working at the worst jobs and the lowest paid jobs. Once you have a system like that, then the most likely people to be victims of that are people of color. That’s where prejudice comes into the economic picture and then that institutionalized racism serves as control over the lower classes. You control them by depleting them of resources and if they rebel, you put them in jail. This puts a number of people of color in prison. It is one of the forms of control of the lower classes. Imprisonment is one of the forms of institutional racism.

Todd: On a similar note, is the name of a Jack Daniels drink called “Lynchburg Lemonade” offensive?

Howard: Well, it’s Lynchburg, Virginia. So the question is, is Lynchburg offensive? The name. I guess the question of what is offensive ultimately has to be answered by the people who are offended. It may not offend me, but if it’s offensive to black people, then it has to seriously be considered. And maybe if black people become the majority of the population in Lynchburg, Virginia, maybe they will change the name of the town.

Sean: What about the Washington Redskins?

Howard: There, too, you have to go by how Native Americans feel about it. A lot depends on what accompanies it. In other words, if you have the Cleveland Indians without the logo or the Atlanta Braves without the tomahawk chop, you know, conceivably “brave” is not a bad term and maybe even “Indian,” but when it has all of these things that accompany it, then it becomes unacceptable.

Todd: Switching gears a bit—since we’re basically a music magazine—do you think that music can be used to advance political issues and causes or does it distract people?

Howard: Well, both. Certainly music can be a distraction and an escape. Sometimes a welcome escape. You need it. But music can also serve a very important social function because music can do things that mere prose, mere ordinary political agitation can’t do. It can deepen the feelings that people have about issues. You hear Bob Dylan singing “Masters of War” and it’s a more powerful statement than anybody could write about war. In the sixties, during the Vietnam War, music played an important part. And when you think of the music of the labor movement, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and all of those labor songs that helped people together. And, of course, when I was involved in the Civil Rights movement in the south, the church meetings. The music. When I first heard the Selma Freedom Chorus in Selma, Alabama, wow. It gave people courage. It revved them up. People were able to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. You might say it has the opposite effect. The patriotic songs and the marching songs. Bugles blowing have sent soldiers to the front lines. So music can be used both ways.

Sean: What do you do to relax?

Howard: I watch movies. I’m a great fan of movies.

Sean: Which ones?

Howard: Well, thinking of music, I think of a film like Round Midnight. It’s about a black musician in Paris. It’s really, really good. I like all sorts of movies from absolute escape like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the Marx Brothers to good political films like Three Days of the Condor. It’s funny because the other day, I read a story about how Hollywood, because of September 11th, is rethinking its films. They’re saying, “We’ve had too many films critical of the government.” [Laughs] Really? They cited Three Days of the Condor. One. It’s like saying, “We have one black person in this city. That’s too many.”

Todd: Getting out of entertainment and into the manufacturing of phrases and images. “Right to work” was a phrase made by a public relations firm. They used very soft words for a pretty devious thing, like to break a union. Do you know of any other instances where media or media-related firms have been able to take over union resolve? I’m talking about basically soft force or intellectual force over Pinkertons coming in and bashing unions over the head.

Howard: It’s an interesting point. If you can wean people away with words then you don’t need the Pinkertons. “Right to work” is a good example. “Right to life” is another one. Who can be against a right to life? And, of course, the government uses all of these euphemisms: “Operation Infinite Justice.” [laughs]

Sean: Have you ever belonged to a union?

Howard: Oh, yeah. When I was eighteen, I went to work in a shipyard. I was a shipyard worker for three years. I belonged to the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilders of America, CIO. That was before the CIO and AFL joined. We also, when I was working in the shipyard, we—the apprentices of the shipyard—formed our own union. I was one of the organizers in the union. Then, I belonged for a while when I was working in New York after the war, after World War II. The war [laughs]. The best war. I was knocking around at various jobs before I went to school on the GI Bill. I worked for a while as a member of the State, County, and Municipal Workers Union. When I was going to school, I was working the four-to-twelve shift in a warehouse, loading trucks. I was a member of District 65 in New York, warehouse workers. And what else was I a member of? We had a teachers’ union here at BostonUniversity. We went on strike in 1979. Now I’m a member of the Writer’s Union. That’s my list of union memberships.

Todd: Have you ever really wanted to fudge a fact? Say you have a great point that you’ve already made and maybe you just can’t get the date right or something’s not particularly there. I’m not saying lie. I’m just saying stretch it so that maybe you’ll fill the points in later on?

Howard: Yes. That happens because you’re not sure of the figure. I once gave a figure, writing about the 1930s, about bootleg coal mining. Bootleg coal mining was when the mines had shut down and the miners were out of work. This was in the depth of the depression in the 1930s. And not only were the coal miners out of work, but they didn’t have coal themselves to heat their homes, so they did bootleg coal mining. They went out on their own and did mining to have coal for themselves and also to sell coal and make some money. An interesting sort of private enterprise operation. So I saw somewhere a figure for this, for how many tons of coal were mined this way. It was an enormous figure, like two million tons of coal. And I wasn’t sure it was true, but I used it. I used it waiting for someone to correct me.

Sean: Did you ever get called on it?

Howard: I never got an answer, but things like that happen. Or you say, “So many people showed up at this demonstration.” I don’t know. These are not things you lie about. They’re things where you’re not totally sure but you take a chance and figure, if somebody corrects me, I’ll accept it.

Sean: A popular belief in the U.S. is that there is a poor, a middle class, and an upper class. Sometimes people will throw in an upper middle class. Who is the working class?

Howard: That’s a good question, because there’s a traditional Marxist notion of the working class, and basically these were industrial workers. It’s not clear that service workers were involved or certain professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers. The economy has changed so much since that early, classical definition of the working class because now we have all these service workers and now we have so many professionals who are working for a corporation. People who you would call middle class who are working for giant corporations, and they’re white collar workers, and they may be well paid—so in that sense they’re not as bad off as industrial workers or service workers—but I would argue that we probably could use a new definition of the working class which includes anybody who’s subject to anybody else’s authority when working on a job, so this would include a lot of middle class professional people. It would include doctors and nurses who work for some HMO. In other words, people who are not owners of their own enterprise. It may be also—and this is something to consider—that small business people who work, they’re workers. They work for themselves. Like people who run magazines, they work. They’re partially in control of their own destiny but, on the other hand, they’re subject to the power of the market and everything else. I would prefer to use a very inclusive definition of the working class. I’d like to include all of those people who are, if they’re not exploited by an immediate employer over them, they’re exploited by the system and therefore have a cause to want to change the system. Having a very inclusive definition of the working class creates a great opportunity for organizing people.

Sean: I have a kind of involved question for you. It took ten years for the “threat to national security” to pass and the U.S. government to give out information on the El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador. Would information about that event really have been a threat to national security if it had come out at the time?

Howard: It would have been a threat to the political security of the people running the government. That whole idea of threats to national security is a very interesting one. The phrase is very useful for the government to try to encompass the citizenry in the same box as the government is in. To say, “We’re all in this together. It threatens all of us.”

But there are so many ways in which the United States has been involved in other countries—our aid to El Salvador being just one of them. To expose all of these ways in which the United States has intervened in other countries in very ugly ways—either overthrowing other governments or supporting death squad governments—to expose that certainly would be no threat to the people of the United States, but it would be a threat to the government.

In fact, this came up during the Vietnam War when the Pentagon papers where purloined by Ellsberg and xeroxed and distributed. When it came to trial in 1973, I testified in Los Angeles. One of the issues was did the release of The Pentagon Papers threaten the national security of the United States. And that’s what I was talking about on the witness stand. I was saying, “Look, here’s what the papers said: they gave you the history of American involvement in Vietnam. Divulging this information is no threat to the security of the American people but it’s an embarrassment to the government.”

Sean: So then, does a democratically-elected government have the right to keep secrets from its people?

Howard: It’s interesting that you say “a democratically elected.” The presumption being that, if it’s democratically elected, then we trust them. That’s like saying, “Does a democratically-elected president have the right to take us into war because he’s been democratically elected?” I remember John Updike, the novelist, was one of the minority of writers who supported the war in Vietnam and his argument was, “We elected him president, and therefore, he has the right to take us into war.” But no, I don’t. The fact that people have been elected—and of course, we’re begging the question of how democratic our elections are; we’re choosing between two characters who have been put up before us by the most powerful financial entities in the country and when one of them is elected over the other, we say that we elected him. Well, Reagan was voted for by twenty-eight percent of the electorate. Clinton by twenty-six. Bush by, who knows, twenty-four point nine percent. But putting that issue aside, even if you assume they were democratically elected, no, they still have no right to keep secrets from the American people.

Sean: What about, say, plans on how to build an atomic bomb or blueprints on a stealth bomber?

Howard: Well, it depends on whether or not you believe that the United States should build stealth bombers or that the United States should build atomic bombs. After all, the United States builds weapons presumably secretly, and then it sells them to other countries. So the whole business of secrecy is kind of a fake issue because hardly anything technological remains a secret for very long. You know, we charge the Rosenbergs with giving the secrets of the atomic bomb (to the Soviet Union), but everybody in the scientific community said that the Russians would’ve had the atomic bomb in a couple of years, anyway, spies or no spies.

To me, the whole business of spies is a very interesting one. I haven’t seen anybody really expose the whole “spy” myth. By spy myth, I mean that every two years they find an FBI guy or a government person who gave away naval secrets to the Soviet Union. And it’s all done in a sort of atmosphere which suggests, wow, what this guy did is, wow. So the guy is sentenced to a life imprisonment or thirty years imprisonment and just barely escapes execution. But when you dig down underneath all of what these spies did, it doesn’t amount to anything. It’s not important.

The Alger Hiss case is one of the most famous spy cases. Hiss gave documents to the Soviet Union. How did he get them? He buried them in a pumpkin on Chambers’ (Whittaker Chambers, the man who accused Alger Hiss of being a communist and a spy) farm or something like that. And Hiss could’ve been sentenced to long years in jail, but the statute of limitations was up for some reason. But he could be sentenced for perjury, so he spent four years in prison. But no one ever said what was in the pumpkin papers and whether it was trivial or not trivial, you see. I think somebody, someday will write something that will say, “All of this spy stuff is like Halloween. They’re trying to scare the hell out of us and it doesn’t amount to anything.” Here the Russians have ten thousand nuclear weapons; we have ten thousand nuclear weapons, so what more is there to do? Oh, they’ve discovered that we have a new listening device in a submarine. What’s the big deal? And some poor joker, to give away these piddly secrets, I feel for these dumb people who do this.

Todd: This is maybe not the right question for a historian, but how do you see American civilization coming to an end?

Howard: Well the Roman Empire came to an end, but the Roman people didn’t come to an end, so I see the American Empire coming to an end just as other empires have come to an end. I see the beginnings of it with September 11th because September 11th brings home for the first time for the American people—as soon as they get over the immediate horror and think about it, which is bound to happen sooner or later. For the first time, Americans will begin to think, we’ve over-extended ourselves. We’ve gone too far. We have been an expansionist power ever since World War II. Well, we were an expansionist power all of our history, but especially since World War II. We sowed the seeds for resentment all over the world: in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, and more recently in the Middle East. And it has come back to haunt us and to terrify us with September 11th, with anthrax, with people scared as hell.

So now we better rethink the position of the United States in the world and whether we want to be an empire. Being an empire puts all of us in jeopardy. The American Empire, while it was just wreaking havoc on other nations, didn’t bother us. Now that we see it’s coming back to us, we have to really consider whether we want to be an empire. Sweden is not worried about terrorism. New Zealand is not worried about terrorism. Holland is not worried about terrorism. Why not be a modest little country without all of these enormous ambitions?

Sean: To switch gears again, what’s the role of gender in history? Specifically, where are the women in traditional history texts?

Howard: In traditional history texts women don’t exist very much. They’re not paid attention to. Their movements are ignored. The women textile workers of the early nineteenth century don’t appear in books on the Jacksonian period. You have books on Jacksonian democracy, the Age of Jackson, and this is exactly the time when women in the Lowell textile mills were organizing and going on strike to better their conditions, but they’re not there. They’re ignored.

A few women will make the texts in a line or two. Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote. The right to vote is always a safe issue because they don’t care if people vote. It doesn’t matter. Let ‘em vote. We’ll do what we want anyway. So they’ll give attention to the suffragists, but they won’t give attention to Emma Goldman—this powerful woman of the turn of the century. They won’t give attention to Helen Keller except as a victim. They won’t give attention to her as a socialist, as an anti-war agitator, as a powerful radical. Mother Jones doesn’t appear in traditional histories. She was an incredible labor organizer.

I suppose, maybe the new histories have to pay some attention to the women’s movement because the women’s movement became such a force, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s treated very lightly. There’s been a tendency to treat the sixties and the movements of the sixties very lightly. You don’t have any real treatment of the anti-war movement, even in the new texts. They may deal with the Vietnam War, but they won’t deal in any full way with the anti-war movement. They won’t deal in any full way with the women’s movement or the gay and lesbian movement or the disabled persons movement. But, of course, women have begun to write their own histories.

Sean: What damage does this do to young women in junior high and high school to read history and feel constantly ignored? Or, to any group who reads history and feels ignored?

Howard: It lowers self-esteem. It creates a passive citizenry, because it leads people to believe, well, we’re not movers in history. We’re not important in history. These other people have the power. They’re the people who matter. So it’s demeaning and self-demeaning. The function of traditional history, really, is to create a citizenry that looks to the top—the president, Congress, the Supreme Court—to make the important decisions. That’s what traditional history is all about: the laws that were passed, the decisions made by the court. So much of history is built around “the great men.” All of that is very anti-democratic.

Todd: Dovetailing on to that, there have been opportunities for very popular—I’m thinking of sports right now—people who went against the war or had protested and that has pretty much been forgotten. How many people remember that Muhammad Ali gave up his belt to not go to the Vietnam War? And what about the Black Panthers in the ’68 Olympics3?

Howard: That’s a great story in itself: the sports figures who’ve entered the world in a political way and what’s happened to them. I remember Jim Bouton4, the pitcher for the Yankees. He was very politically involved. He didn’t last very long. I don’t know if it was his pitching or his politics.

Sean: I’m going to ask you to comment on a Helen Keller quote. She once said, “I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.” And your own life challenges that statement. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?

Howard: She just said that it’s not within the reach of everyone. She didn’t say it’s out of the reach of everyone, which means that there are people who can rise—even in this society which keeps people down—but they’re the Horatio Alger myth. Some poor people become multi-millionaires. That’s not true of the majority. Most people are not in a position to become powerful figures in society.

Todd: Were there any very staunch supporters of the civil rights movement who either renounced it or went to a more conservative stance?

Howard: That’s interesting. The civil rights movement lasted a very short time, a very short span of years. There were people who came out of the civil rights movement, then became more conservative. But they did not renounce the civil rights movement. I don’t know of anybody who was involved in the civil rights movement who renounced the ideas of the civil rights movement or their activities in the civil rights movement. There were people who came out of the civil rights movement who did not move on to other issues.

I’m thinking of those people like Bayard Rustin. He was a veteran of the civil rights movement, but when it came to the presidential election of 1964 and the democratic convention and the issue of whether Mississippi blacks—because they were forty percent of the population—deserved to have forty percent of the delegates from Mississippi, and the Democratic leaders said, “Oh no, we’re not going to give you that.” And Bayard Rustin went along with the democratic leaders. He said to the people in the civil rights movement who had come up from the south to demand representation, “No, I think you should hold back. We don’t want to hurt the Democratic party.”

The same thing happened with the war in Vietnam when other black leaders said to Martin Luther King, “You should not speak out against the war in Vietnam because it will hurt our cause.” So there were people in the civil rights movement who limited their commitment and wouldn’t go beyond civil rights.

Sean: Did you have any personal encounters with Martin Luther King?

Howard: Personal encounters. Yes. A few. I taught in Atlanta. Atlanta was his hometown. His sister was a colleague of mine. His father was a local minister. His brother was a graduate student in the university where I taught. And King and I met a few times socially. Our paths crossed in Albany, Georgia where I went down to write a report (about civil rights demonstrations5) and he went down to give some help to the people. Our paths crossed socially because the black intellectual community in Atlanta was relatively small and everybody knew everybody else. So I’d see him from time to time.

In the anti-war movement, we spoke from the same platform at a huge Central Park rally against the war in 1967. Just glancing encounters. Maybe the most important connection we had was that, when I wrote a report on Albany, Georgia criticizing the FBI, a newspaper man asked King if he agreed with that report and that the FBI should be criticized and he said, “Yes.” At that point, J. Edgar Hoover set up the wire tap apparatus for Martin Luther King.

Todd: Have you ever been exposed to what’s called reverse racism? Have you ever been in a place or in a rally or walking down the street and because of the color of you skin, have you ever been antagonized?

Howard: You mean have black people ever treated me as a white enemy? I’ve had black people suspicious of me. I taught and lived in a black community for seven years. A number of people in the black community in Atlanta had not had contact with white people in any egalitarian way, and here I was, a white person coming to teach in a black college. So some of my colleagues looked upon me with, you know, “What is he doing here? What is his motivation?” And some of my students, I could see the very first day in class, I could see by the way they were looking at me, they were thinking, who is this dude? What’s he doing here? However, that changed. For the people who got to know me and my students, that dissipated. Other than that, I’ll say this, living in Atlanta, when I’d go out into the city—the white city—I was in enemy territory even though I was white. When I came back to the black community, I was at home. I felt at home. I felt safe.

Sean: We have the same feeling. We live in a predominantly Latino community.

Todd: We were sitting on a stairway today next to a nice restaurant on Newbury Street and a lady—in all honesty—asked us to park her car. She rolled down the window and said, “Are you guys the valet?” We said, “We’ll steal your car, but we’re not the valets.”

1. We had to cut the interview short so that Howard Zinn could get to the Boston Public Library to speak about his new book, Three Strikes. During that talk, Zinn discussed the difference between history as a living, vital force and history as a collection of trivial facts. He warned the audience, “Don’t be a coroner of history.” This seemed to sum up Zinn’s work pretty succinctly.

2. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: one occurs by destroying the liberty, which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.—James Madison, The Federalist, Number Ten (1787)

3. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics. They walked out to the receive their medals wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize poverty amongst black Americans, wore a black scarf and black beads to symbolize lynchings, and rose black gloved fists in the air. It was a pretty powerful statement. Both men were expelled from the Olympic team and banned from Olympic Village.

4. Jim Bouton is alive and is active on the lecture circuit. In 1969, he wrote a tell-all book about major league baseball called Ball Four. Recently, he came out in support for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. On a strange note, while making a comeback to baseball in 1977, Bouton and a teammate came up with the idea for Big League Chew.

5. This report was titled “Kennedy: the Reluctant Emancipator.” It originally appeared in the December 1, 1962 issue of The Nation. You can read it in the Zinn Reader available from Seven Stories Press.


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