The late historian, writer and activist Howard Zinn would have turned 90 years old today. Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010. After serving as a bombardier in World War II, Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He was active in the civil rights movement and many of the struggles for social justice over the past 50 years. In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic book, “A People’s History of the United States,” which would go on to sell more than a million copies and change the way we look at history in America. We air an excerpt of a Zinn interview on Democracy Now! from May 2009 and another from one of his last speeches later that year, just two months before his death.
Howard Zinn, historian, activist, playwright and author of A People’s History of the United States.
Juan Gonzalez: We end today’s show with a tribute to the late historian, writer and activist Howard Zinn. He was born on August 24th, 1922. He would have turned 90 years old today. Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010. After serving in World War II, he taught at Spelman College, the historically black college for women, and became deeply involved in civil rights and antiwar movements.
Amy Goodman: In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic work, A People’s History of the United States. The book would go on to sell over a million copies and change the way we look at history of the United States.
Howard Zinn was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! We spoke to him in May of 2009 when he was in New York to launch a new edition of A Young People’s History of the United States, and I asked him to respond to a question he had frequently been asked about the book: Is it right to be so critical of the government’s policies, of the traditional heroes of the country?
Howard Zinn: It is 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 15-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: Now we turn to one of Howard Zinn’s last speeches.
Howard Zinn: But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight, as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore, war can’t go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can’t continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things.
That’s all I want to say. Thank you.
Amy Goodman: Historian Howard Zinn, he would have turned 90 years old today. He died in 2010.
Well, tune in next week for Democracy Now!’s “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace, and the Presidency.” Starting Monday, we’ll be doing two hours of expanded coverage from the Republican convention in Tampa and the next week in the Democratic convention in Charlotte. We’ll report from the corporate suites to the streets to the convention floor. We’ll be broadcasting from 8:00 to 10:00 Eastern [Daylight] Time every day. You can go to our website at democracynow.org or your station. Your public radio or television station will air both hours. You can just ask them.