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Zinn’s “on Race” Traces Violence, Victories in Civil Rights Movement

"on Race" by Howard Zinn

“on Race”
by Howard Zinn, Introduction by Cornel West
Seven Stories Press, 2011, $14.95 paperback, 236 pages

Princeton professor Cornell West's tribute to the late Howard Zinn says it all: “Zinn was an activist intellectual who moved smoothly from the library to the street, from the office to the jail, from the lecture room to the political rally. Zinn had more influence

and impact on the public than other intellectuals of his generation.”

By all accounts, Zinn was a mensch, a man whose down-to-earth brilliance and rich sense of humor touched those he engaged, from students, to colleagues and comrades. His 2010 passing is still being mourned.

Fortunately, Zinn's 25 books and hundreds of articles and speeches provide a lasting testament to both his humanity and political savvy. In addition, Seven Stories Press, an independent book publisher based in New York City, has added to Zinn's legacy by releasing three new anthologies of his work – “on Race,” “on History,” and “on War.” While many of the pieces in each collection were previously published, it is nevertheless exciting to read or reread Zinn's energizing words.

“on Race” begins with essays penned in the late 1950s and early '60s. As the white, Jewish chairman of the history department at Atlanta's Spelman College, the oldest historically black academy for women in the US, Zinn did not anticipate being a central player in the period's racial upheaval. But he was, and the 14 pieces in “on Race” bring the realities of segregation, and the moral outrage and rebellion it generated, into such vivid relief that readers will literally feel the era's passionate momentum. His stark descriptions offer a powerful rendering of what transpired and why. Never a dispassionate reporter, Zinn's account is the emotional outpouring of a participant.

Take “The Southern Mystique,” penned in 1963. “The South is monstrous and marvelous at the same time. Every cliché ever uttered about the South, every stereotype attached to its people, white and Negro [sic], is true,” he wrote. “Prejudice, discrimination, race hatred, are real problems, to the point of viciousness, even murder, but their mystery, for those who look hard is gone … The most vicious thing about segregation – more deadly than its immediate denial of certain goods and services – is its perpetuation of the mystery of racial differences. Because there is not a magical and omnipotent dispeller of the mystery: it is contact. The Southern mystique vanishes when one sees whites and Negroes behave like human beings.”

Zinn's upbeat spirit, his unwavering belief that progressive shifts are not just possible, but inevitable, is showcased in “A Quiet Case of Social Change,” written in 1959. In it, he offers readers an inside peak at the desegregation of Atlanta's public libraries. Unlike lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts or demonstrations to contest bigotry, the campaign to desegregate city libraries was the result of dogged persistence.

In the first incident, Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson, an African-American professor of French walked into the “white only” Carnegie Library and filled out a membership application, She was the first African-American to do so. Dr. Jackson's action was the start of a well-orchestrated campaign in which dozens of black people began to enter Carnegie and request books and articles. After being rebuffed – told that the materials could either be sent to a Negro reading room or perused in the dank basement of the Carnegie building, far from white eyes – these aspiring patrons let it be known that a lawsuit would be filed if the policy did not change.

In short order, the Library Board met and, at the behest of the mayor, city attorney and chief of police, extended library access to all city residents. Zinn notes that the shift “caused no great commotion. The director received a few angry letters. Dr. Jackson was kept awake one night by nasty telephone calls: “You that integratin' nigger? This is the KKK.” And as she sat at the library table reading that first day, a man came by and slammed his books down hard on the table in voiceless protest. But the general reaction was an enormous silence. Lo and behold, this bolstered people's confidence in the power of community organizing; if people of all races could read and research together, what else might they achieve?

Zinn's optimism about multiracial unity is contagious. What's more, his homage to the many unheralded women and girls who, like Professor Jackson, buttressed the civil rights movement, is an important corrective to popular notions of male-led social activism. Similarly, he offers a critical appraisal of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – too often championed for pushing legislation outlawing the most blatant expressions of prejudice – by pointing out how little they actually did to stymie racial hate mongering.

The Department of Justice comes in for particular criticism due to the agency's penchant for siding with police who claimed they were simply “maintaining order” when they attacked protesters.

Zinn recounts dozens of heinous abuses, among them:

  • In July 1962, Mrs. Slater King, the pregnant wife of a prominent Georgia activist, drove to a jail in Mitchell County to deliver food to a young woman who had been arrested at a protest earlier that day. King's three children accompanied her. As she approached the jail a Deputy accosted her and told her to leave. “Mrs. King walked slowly to her car,” Zinn writes. “A Deputy pointed her out, cursed her, threatened to arrest her if she didn't hurry.' She was subsequently kicked, hit on the head, and knocked unconscious.”
  • Several days later, a white Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee member, William Hansen, was jailed after leading a prayer session in Albany, Georgia. He was “beaten into senselessness as he sat on the floor reading. His jaw and several ribs were broken,” Zinn continues. “Bleeding profusely from the mouth, he asked the jailer for medical aid and was told that was not within the jailer's jurisdiction.”
  • A Black attorney who went to check on Hansen was beaten by the Sheriff; he was so badly injured he required hospitalization.

All three incidents were reported to federal authorities, Zinn writes, but the government did nothing. Even worse, despite lip service about investigating the 1964 murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, the deaths went unsolved for 41 years.

“The civil rights movement illuminated the hypocrisy of the liberal promise,” he concludes in “Solving the Race Problem.” “It makes overt, and recorded on television for the world to see, an old daily fact of American life: that a Black person who protested his [sic] condition, or moved one step out of line, would be arrested, or beaten, or inundated with water hoses, or killed, and the government of the United States – the most powerful government in the world – would not act to save him.” Secondly, it illustrated that white sympathizers would also be denied protection.

Zinn's rage is palpable as he slams government inaction and argues that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 were small, if hard-won, victories to appease increasingly enraged people the world over.

“Will the hostility ever end?” Zinn asks. His answer: “Not until Black and white people discover together, the source of their long feud – an economic system which has deprived them and their children for centuries, to the benefit of, first, the Founding Fathers, and lately, the hundred or so giant corporations that hog the resources of this bountiful nation.”

Here, here.

Zinn wasn't afraid to speak truth to power – whether it meant condemning capitalism or criticizing political elites. Heartfelt and thoughtful, “on Race” addresses both how far we've come and how far we've yet to go in achieving the colorblind society of which Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement dreamed. Lastly, the collection serves as a clear-eyed reminder that history is shaped by those who act.

Indeed, “on Race” is an inspiring celebration of community organizing and activism, a true championing of what el pueblo can do when we act together.