In the following excerpt from Chapter 17, “Or Does It Explode?” of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes about the legacy of Black resistance in the 20th century, and the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and 70s.…
Speech give by Howard Zinn in Madison, Wisconsin, May 2, 2009
Matt Rothschild: For all his fame he’s more humble, or as I told him once, he fakes it better than anyone I know. So, let’s hear it for Howard Zinn.…
Topic: Race in America
HOWARD ZINN: There are more openings in media and business and the professions for a certain number of Black people. But I speak about 10 or 20 percent. For the vast majority of Black people, their lives are still constricted by poverty and racism. The civil rights movement accomplished a good deal by beginning to remove some of the important social barriers. What it did not remove was the barrier of class, the barrier of economic injustice. Martin Luther King recognized this. That’s why toward the end of his life he began working for economic rights for Black people.
Historically, how do you think schools have served as a catalyst for social change and furthering the human rights movement?
Zinn: I think it works both ways. Students who learn in school about what is going on in the world are motivated to do something about it, to act on what they have learned. When I say it goes both ways, when you have students become active in human rights and feel that human rights has touched them personally, then they are likely to come back into the classroom and have the curriculum reflect their own consciousness.
In this year 2000, I cannot comment more meaningfully on the Fourth of July than Frederick Douglass did when he was invited in 1852 to give an Independence Day address. He could not help thinking about the irony of the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of equality, life, liberty made by slaveowners, and how slavery was made legitimate in the writing of the Constitution after a victory for "freedom" over England. And his invitation to speak came just two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, committing the national government to return fugitives to slavery with all the force of the law. So it is fitting, at a time when police are exonerated in the killing of unarmed black men, when the electric chair and the gas chamber are used most often against people of color, that we refrain from celebration and instead listen to Douglass' sobering words…
Some years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the Holocaust of World War II, not about the genocide of six million Jews. It was the mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy. My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history. It seemed to me that to remember what happened to Jews served no important purpose unless it aroused indignation, anger, action against all atrocities, anywhere in the world. A few days later, in the campus newspaper, there was a letter from a faculty member who had heard me speak -- a Jewish refugee who had left Europe for Argentina, and then the United States. He objected strenuously to my extending the moral issue from Jews in Europe in the 1940s to people in other parts of the world, in our time.