‘I Wish Obama Would Listen to MLK’
Democracy Now! • May 13, 2009
Legendary historian Howard Zinn joins us to talk about war, torture and the teaching of history. Zinn says Obama had Obama heeded the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he wouldn’t be escalating US attacks abroad and increasing the size of the US military budget. We also play excerpts of the forthcoming documentary, The People Speak, featuring dramatic readings based on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: My next guest for the rest of the hour is Howard Zinn, one of the country’s most celebrated historians. His classic work, A People’s History of the United States, changed the way we look at history in America. First published a quarter of a century ago, the book has sold over a million copies and continues to sell more copies each successive year.
After serving as a shipyard worker and then an Air Force bombardier in World War II, Howard Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He went to college under the GI Bill, received his PhD from Columbia. He was active in the civil rights movement and many of the struggles for social justice over the past half-century. He taught at Spelman College, the historically black college for women in Atlanta, was fired for insubordination for standing up for the women. He is now Professor Emeritus at Boston University and was recently honored by Spelman.
Howard Zinn has received the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. He is the author of many books, including the People’s History Series; a seven-volume series on the Radical ’60s; several collections of essays on art, war, politics and history; and the plays Emma and Marx in Soho.
This year, a documentary based on the live performances of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States is premiering on History, the History Channel. It’s called The People Speak. It’s co-directed by Howard Zinn, Anthony Arnove and Chris Moore. It will feature dramatic performances chronicling the history of the country from actors like Matt Damon and Josh Brolin and Viggo Mortensen and Marisa Tomei and Don Cheadle and Jasmine Guy and Kerry Washington and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder and John Legend.
Well, Howard Zinn is in New York today to launch the new paperback edition of A Young People’s History of the United States, which is adapted by Rebecca Stefoff. This evening, he’ll be at the 92nd Street Y in New York hosting a performance of readings and songs from Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
HOWARD ZINN: Thank you, Amy. Happy to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. In that introduction before, you have Eddie Vedder singing Bob Dylan, “Masters of War,” part of the —-
HOWARD ZINN: That’s part of the documentary, yeah, singing Dylan’s song “Masters of War.” I think we had Dylan listen to Eddie Vedder sing the song, and we asked Bob Dylan if he wanted to sing it. And he said, “No, that’s good. Let Eddie sing it.” And so, we have Bob Dylan singing a Woody Guthrie song in the film, “Do Re Mi,” one of Woody Guthrie’s famous songs.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this whole series and this -— I mean, this is just growing. The People’s History of the United States is a remarkable book that really — well, why don’t you describe the philosophy, your approach to US history?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, of course, the idea of A People’s History is to go beyond what people have learned in school and what I learned in school or most people learned in school, and that is history through the eyes of the presidents and the generals in the battles fought in the Civil War, and we want the voices of people, of ordinary people, of rebels, of dissidents, of women, of black people, of Asian Americans, of immigrants, of socialists and anarchists and troublemakers of all kinds. And so, we decided to put together — Anthony Arnove and I put together 200 documents. Seven Stories Press agreed to put it out. And these 200 documents are the letters and memoirs and reminiscences of people who stood up against the establishment.
Now, we have, for instance, a black woman recalling growing up in the South, in the segregated South, and walking to school to her black segregated school and having to walk through a white playground, where she wanted to walk — wanted to go on the swings, couldn’t do it because she couldn’t stop in this white playground. And she went into school and refused to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And they asked her why. She said, “Because so long as I can’t go on this swing, there’s no liberty and justice for all.” And so, we have — that’s just one of the many readings in our book.
And in this Young People’s History that we are launching tonight at the 92nd Street Y, we have a lot of these sort of dramatic words by people who have been dissidents and resisters in history. It’s not a — we don’t present the history of victimization; we present the history of people fighting back. And we want to give — we want to give Americans a history which shows them that it’s possible to fight back, that you don’t have to depend on the President and Congress and the Supreme Court. In fact, you had better not depend on them, because they’re not going to solve the fundamental problems that we have in our society. We can only do it ourselves, when we organize, when we act, when we protest. And so, we’re trying to, yes, energize people by learning a history that is provocative and that is inspirational.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in the introduction to A Young People’s History of the United States, “Over the years, some people have asked me: ‘Do you think that your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the United States, is suitable for young people? Won’t it create disillusionment with our country? Is it right to be so critical of the government’s policies? Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt?’”
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, it’s true that people have asked that question again and again. You know, should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero, that Columbus mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold? Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that?
And I think the answer is: we should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.
Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don’t learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren’t told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don’t learn in school and young people don’t learn in school what we want them to learn when we do books like A Young People’s History of the United States, that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There’s Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have it in this Young People’s History. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this fifteen-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of —- we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, “This is the way to live.”
AMY GOODMAN: Howard, we’re going to break and then come back. But the break is a part of the performance of The People Speak. Howard Zinn is our guest, the legendary historian. New book, A Young People’s History of the United States. Stay with us.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson, singing Neil Young’s song “Ohio” about what happened on May 4th, 1970, the Kent State shootings. And I urge you to go to our website at democracynow.org to hear Alan and Chic Canfora. Alan was shot that day. When we were on our “Community Voices, Community Media” tour, we spoke to him on the campus at Kent State.
And tomorrow, May 14th, is the anniversary of the Jackson State College, now Jackson State University, shootings in Jackson, Mississippi, where the troopers gunned down two students, that one not often as remembered.
Our guest today is Howard Zinn, the legendary historian, wrote A People’s History of the United States. And now there are all these adaptations. Today, he is launching A Young People’s History of the United States, which is adapted by Rebecca Stefoff.
But you are a great chronicler of the civil rights movement. Jackson State not as well known as Kent State.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, well, it’s a very common thing in history to ignore the things that happen to black people. And, of course, the Kent State shooting was a very dramatic and terrible event and deserves to be remembered as one of those shameful things in American history. But the media tend to focus on some things and not on others, and the media did not focus on the other shooting that took place at Jackson State, where two black youngsters were gunned down. And so, yeah, I think our job as historians is to bring out things that we did not get ordinarily in our history lessons.
AMY GOODMAN: Or February 8th, 1968, the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, students protesting. And I was amazed to watch Barack Obama, you know, poor as his bowling game is. But actually, it’s sad in this country that it’s a breakthrough to see an African American man bowling, because these kids, in February of 1968, protesting the segregation of a bowling alley, also the troopers opened fire.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The police opened fire. Three dead.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. And, well, you know, it wasn’t until I went south to teach in a black college that I, myself, became aware of the black history that has been left out of our history books. And I went through graduate school at Columbia University, and I learned very, very little about black history. W.E.B Du Bois was not on our reading list. There were really no black historians on our reading list. But when I came south and became immersed in the black community, and I began to read these black historians.
I mean, for instance, I read a historian named Rayford Logan, who was giving the history of the early part of the twentieth century, which in traditional American history courses is called the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era. He pointed out that in the so-called Progressive Era, more black people were lynched than in any other era in American history. So, that distortion of our history that takes place when we do it through race, colored lines.
AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker talked about you as one of her great teachers at Spelman. But you were kicked out of Spelman, though you were recently honored there.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, let’s not use the word “kicked out.”
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, excuse me.
HOWARD ZINN: In the academic world, we have polite terms: “His contract was not renewed.”
AMY GOODMAN: Fired and sacked.
HOWARD ZINN: Yes, fired and sacked. But, as you pointed out before, forty-two years after I was fired, I was called back to be given an honorary degree and to give the commencement speech. So, you know, sometimes -—
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you kicked out? Why were you — why was your contract not renewed?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, the students at Spelman College rose up out of that very tranquil and controlled atmosphere at the college during the sit-ins and went into town, got arrested, they came back fired up and determined to change the conditions of their lives on campus, which were very, very antiquated. And they sort of — like a nunnery, they were living in. And so, they rebelled against the administration. I supported them in their rebellion, and I was too much for the administration of the college.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to excerpts from the forthcoming documentary inspired by People’s History. It’s called The People Speak, co-directed with Anthony Arnove and Chris Moore. The following excerpt includes the voices of Danny Glover reading John Lewis during the civil rights movement, Michael Ealy reading Malcolm X. It begins with actor Josh Brolin reading Mark Twain’s response in 1906 to President Theodore Roosevelt’s congratulations to General Wood, whose troops had just massacred 600 Filipino villagers.
JOSH BROLIN: [reading Mark Twain] The official report stated that it ended with a complete victory for the American arms, that of the 600 Moros, not one was left alive. Hoo-yah. So far as I can find out, there was only one person among our 80 millions who allowed himself the privilege of a public remark on this great occasion, and that was the President of the United States. “I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms, where you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag. Signed, Theodore Roosevelt.”
HOWARD ZINN: Here, Malcolm X, who became a hero to a whole generation of African Americans speaks his mind in Detroit.
MICHAEL EALY: [reading Malcolm X] I am telling you, you don’t know what a revolution is, because when you find out what it is, you’ll get back in the alley, and you’ll get out of the way. You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed. And you’re afraid to bleed. I said you’re afraid to bleed. Long as the white man sends you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls being murdered, you haven’t got any blood.
DANNY GLOVER: [reading John Lewis] To those who say, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that patience is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient. We do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democratic and Republican Party have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. We won’t stop now. The time will come when we will not confine our marches to Washington. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, “Wake up, America.”
AMY GOODMAN: Danny Glover, reading a young John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia. What about that speech? It actually wasn’t given, was it?
HOWARD ZINN: No, the speech was given —-
AMY GOODMAN: In that way.
HOWARD ZINN: —- but it was truncated, it was censored. The most militant parts of the speech offended or worried some of the black leaders in the March on Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: This was Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, where he delivered his.
HOWARD ZINN: That’s right. That’s where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And John Lewis was representing, you know, the young angry people of the South and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And his speech was a more revolutionary speech. And of course he denounced both parties and so on. And some of the — yeah, and so, you know, some of the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League and the more conservative black leaders said, “We have to cut out some of this.” So, we are trying, in our documentary, to bring back those parts of his speech which were most revolutionary and which they cut out of the Washington march.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, at the Democratic convention in Denver at the stadium, John Lewis was honored. When President Obama was inaugurated, he shook John Lewis’s hand. He was on the main stage at the Capitol right there when President Obama came down the steps. Your thoughts on President Obama today, the first African American president?
HOWARD ZINN: I wish President Obama would listen carefully to Martin Luther King. I’m sure he pays verbal homage, as everyone does, to Martin Luther King, but he ought to think before he sends missiles over Pakistan, before he agrees to this bloated military budget, before he sends troops to Afghanistan, before he opposes the single-payer system, which you talked about earlier in your program. He ought to ask, “What would Martin Luther King do? And what would Martin Luther King say?” And if he only listened to King, he would be a very different president than he’s turning out to be so far. I think we ought to hold Obama to his promise to be different and bold and to make change. So far, he hasn’t come through on that promise.
AMY GOODMAN: When Barack Obama was running for president, asked in the debates who would MLK endorse, who would Dr. King endorse, he said, “None of us.”
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, that’s true, because King believed — and this actually is one of the themes of our people’s history, is that you cannot depend on presidents, and you cannot depend on elections and voting to solve your problems. People themselves, organizing, demonstrating, clamoring, they are the only ones who can push the President and push Congress into change. And that’s what we have to do now with Obama. We have to point to what Obama said in the course of the campaign, when he said we not only have to get out of Iraq, we have to get out of the mindset that brought us into Iraq. Obama, himself, has not gotten out of that mindset yet. And I think we, the people, have to speak to him about that.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, these people that I saw on your program earlier who were demonstrating for the single-payer health system, which Obama is very, very reluctant to endorse, they were doing what needs to be done. They were committing acts of civil disobedience. They were going into offices where they were told to leave, and they wouldn’t leave. They were doing what we were doing during the movement against the war in Vietnam. They were doing what the black movement was doing in the South. And this is what we will need. We will need demonstrative acts which dramatize the fact that our government is not responding to what the people need and what the people want.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the alternative to war with Afghanistan and Pakistan?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, the alternative to war is to send food and medicine. I was with a taxi driver from Afghanistan, and I always start up a conversation with taxi drivers, because they know more than most news commentators. And so — not you. I’m not talking about you, Amy, of course. But he was from Afghanistan. And I said, “What do you think about Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan?” I didn’t tell him what my position was. He said, “We don’t need troops.” He said, “We need food and medicine.”
We ought to stop thinking that we must have military solutions to the problems that we face in the world. The solutions that we need are the solutions of dealing with sickness and disease and hunger. That’s fundamental. If you want to end terrorism —
AMY GOODMAN: I’m telling you, the great historian, you have five seconds.
HOWARD ZINN: If you want to end terrorism, you have to stop being terrorists, which is what war is.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, he’ll be tonight at 92nd Street Y in New York.
SOURCE: Democracy Now! • May 13, 2009