Labor Day Special: Howard Zinn on Democracy Now!

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Democracy Now! • September 2003

Introduction

Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of The United States, reviews the history of the abolitionists and the Vietnam War to encourage a new generation of resistance against the Iraq occupation and the war at home.

Labor Day was established more than a century ago.

It was a time of tremendous unrest in America, Grover Cleveland was president, railroad workers organized by Eugene V. Debs were leading a nationwide strike against George Pullman. Pressured by the railroad executive, president Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and called out 12,000 troops.

U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters near Chicago. The strike was over, and Cleveland tried to win the labor vote in his re-election by signing off on a congressional bill establishing Labor Day.

He was not reelected.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

But according to the Encyclopedia of the American Left, Gompers and the American Federation of Labor elevated Labor Day as the preferred holiday of the American House of Labor over May Day. He criticized May Day for its ties to anarchists and socialist politics.

Today we’re going to turn first to Howard Zinn. He wrote A People’s History of The United States. He spoke in August in Provincetown on Cape Cod. He talks about Iraq, about labor, and the people’s history of the United States.

A partial transcript of the program is here:

I have great confidence that the truth is beginning to come through to more and more people. This is how change takes place. And, you know, this is how —it’s a tribute. It’s a tribute to the common sense and common decency of the American people that the establishment has to work so hard to keep the truth from us. You see? They, you know, and I really believe that when people learn what is going on, they respond. And we’ve seen this historically. We’ve seen this again and again. Now when the abolitionists — the first abolitionists — the first people in the North who spoke out against slavery in the 1830s began to talk about slavery, they were mobbed and they were attacked — not in the South, all over the North. But the truth that they spoke began to seep through to the American public, the truth about slavery. A man named Theodore Weld wrote a book, [American] Slavery As It Is.

And the book — although ignored by the powers that be — was read and read and read, you see. And by the time of the early 1860s, the anti-slavery movement had gone from a tiny handful of people to an enormous national movement. That’s why we have the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s why we had the 13th, 14th, and 15 Amendments, not because Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although it wasn’t bad, you see. But the key was that when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, this great anti-slavery movement was rising in the country. And we’ve seen this again and again. We’ve seen it in recent years when people learn the truth. Racial segregation in the South was really not in the consciousness of the American people.

And remember Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, that was true — Black people were invisible, and the condition of Black people was invisible. Of course, not to Black people, but certainly to the, to the white population of the country. What happened in the 1960s is that Black people seeing that the American government was not going to help them, knowing that the American government — oh, not just the South, but the national government — the government of the United States had collaborated with the South to maintain racial segregation all through history. Black people in the South knew that they had to do it themselves.

They had to bring democracy alive themselves. They had to bring the truth to the American people. And so they went out into the streets and they sat in. And they went on Freedom Rides. And they demonstrated. And they created a commotion in the country which could not be ignored. And people began to learn the truth about what was happening in the South, the truth of what was happening to Black people in the South. And then you finally had a national movement that whether you have a Republican or Democrat in the House or in Congress or in the presidency, it didn’t matter. You had a national movement where finally the government had to respond.

And you began to see a remarkable change in the South and in the consciousness of the country about racial equality. That’s what social movements do. They bring the truth to people, and, and people when they learn what is going on, respond. This is what happened during the war in Vietnam. People didn’t not know what was going on in Vietnam. All they knew what was being told to them by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense that they fired on our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. I mean, who knew where the Gulf of Tonkin was? Maybe it was off the coast of San Francisco, you see. Nobody knew, really. Did the President know? Well, he was briefed. Presidents get briefed. That’s how they know about things.

Ah, and, but really, people didn’t know what was going on. And how did they learn? They didn’t learn through the major media. They learned through the 1960s equivalence of Democracy Now. They learned through Noam [Chomsky]. They learned through books. They learned through independent media like Dispatch News Service, a little group of left journalists who went into Asia and they were the first ones to break the story of the Mỹ Lai massacre to the American public. And when American people began to see what was happening in Vietnam, and finally the pictures began to appear, when finally they saw the huts being burned and the peasants cowering before American power, they began to, to react to this. And soon we had a national movement against the war.

And the war in Vietnam did not end because Henry Kissinger went to Paris. The war did not end because of anything Congress or the President or the Supreme Court did. The war in Vietnam ended because of the people in Vietnam who resisted and because the people in the United States who finally began to resist the government. And because of the GIs who heard David [Rovics] sing about the San Patricio Battalion and the American GIs, who looked around at the Mexican War and saw what was going on and went over to the other side. And in the Vietnam War, it was American GIs who played a very critical role in bringing the war to an end when they refused to go out on patrol, and when they turned against the war, and when they came back. GIs came back from Vietnam and they formed an organization, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We’ve never seen anything like it in the history of this country.

Some of you may remember that scene where they gathered in Washington, the GIs who came back from the war, and some of them in wheelchairs or with arms missing, and, and hurl their medals over a fence into a heap to demonstrate their opposition to the war.

The truth began to come out, and the truth had an effect. And I believe that is what is going on today — just the beginning of the truth coming out to the American public of what is going on in Iraq and in the world, beginning to learn the truth that we are not liberating Iraq, we are occupying Iraq.

SOURCE: Democracy Now! • September 2003

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