The Advocates • April 20, 1971

On April 20, 1971, Howard Zinn appeared on an episode of the Boston WGBH TV show “The Advocates” debating the question: “If You Oppose the War, Should You Answer the Call for Massive Civil Disobedience?” Zinn illustrates when civil disobedience has been necessary for changing history:

I was listening to the Congressman, the former Congressman, the present Congressman, the Senator, listening to Congressman O’Neill; and they all talk as if the political process were a quite simple one, and that is, that if everybody would just be nice, and talk “nice” to your Congressman, write him letters, write letters to the newspaper, sign petitions, that the war in Vietnam would end, the bombers would be brought home, the GIs would be brought home, and the power-hungry American military establishment would lose its hunger. That’s not the way things have happened in this war, and that’s not the way things have happened in history. Throughout American history, the political leaders have always exhorted the American people to be nice and quiet and leave things to them. But when very serious evils confronted the American people, they had to go beyond the Congressmen and Senators, and they had to commit civil disobedience and they had even to break the law. And the Abolitionists had to do it, and right here in Boston, they had to violate federal law by trying to bring a slave away from the federal marshals; they had to commit civil disobedience; the labor movement had to do this, they had to violate the law, they had to disrupt things; they had to do all sorts of impolite things; they had the sit-ins — sit-down strikes of 1936 and ’37, and only this finally brought that modicum of justice that the labor movement demanded. And the civil rights movement went through the same thing. And you know, the Congress did not act on the Civil Rights Laws of ’63 — of ’64 and ’65 until blacks went out into the streets and made a commotion. They did not do it on the basis of some polite discourse.

Watch the full episode and read the full transcript at the WGBH Open Vault Archives.

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