Staughton Lynd's Blog

Howard Zinn: Historian

Presented on April 9, 2010 at the Organization of American Historians session called Remembering Howard Zinn, hosted by the The Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and Historians Against the War (HAW).

It may seem a strange form of grieving: To remember a friend, who happens to have been an historian, by seeking to discern what kind of historian he was, what vision of history he sought to present, what in the way of history we might wish to carry forward from what he accomplished. Nonetheless that is the project in which I invite you to join me.

A good place to begin an assessment of Howard Zinn as an historian is where he himself began: his Master’s essay on the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.(1)  Howard had been about fourteen years old in 1937, the year of the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan and the Republic Steel Massacre. Later he worked for three years as an apprentice steamfitter.  He read “books about fascism in Europe” and admired Communist friends who were “ferociously antifascist.”(2)  It should come as no surprise that this self-taught working-class intellectual chose as his first academic subject what he called “perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” Ludlow, he added, remains “an obscure event, rarely mentioned in textbooks on American history” such as the Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Richard Morris, or Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People.(3)

In the aftermath of Howard’s death some question has been raised as to whether he was really an historian, and more particularly, whether he was able to produce the paradigmatic product of the academic historian: detailed narrative history based on fully-cited primary sources. His account of the Ludlow Massacre should put that question to rest.  It is available in Howard’s book, The Politics of History.

But the detailed rendering of a particular event did not satisfy Howard.  He makes this crystal clear at the end of his Ludlow essay, where he writes:

How shall we read the story of the Ludlow massacre? As another “interesting” event of the past?  Or as supporting evidence for an analysis of that long present which spans 1914 and 1970 [the year in which he was writing].  If it is read narrowly, as an incident in the history of the trade union movement and the coal industry, then it is an angry splotch in the past, fading rapidly amidst new events.  If it is read as a commentary on a larger question — the relationship of government to corporate power and of both to movements of social protest — then we are dealing with the present.(4)

Howard’s work on the Southern civil rights movement followed Howard’s years of apprenticeship at Columbia.  Howard and his family moved to Atlanta when he was offered a job there. He taught at Spelman College from 1956 to 1963.  Following his abrupt and unjust dismissal in June 1963, he used the year’s salary that came with the discharge letter to write two books: The Southern Mystique and SNCC: The New Abolitionists.

In the book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Howard’s account of the movement in Albany, Georgia is as taut and detailed as his essay on Ludlow.  The difference is that in his writing about SNCC there are fewer footnotes.  Howard drew on personal experience and oral history as well as written sources.  His mini-histories of Albany, McComb, Hattiesburg, and the Mississippi Delta remain the building blocks for the subsequent work of scholars such as Clayborne Carson, Charles Payne and Wesley Hogan.

The Southern Mystique is in some ways a more interesting book than its better-known counterpart. Recall that in connection with the Ludlow essay Howard asserts that historians must “remove enough of the historical detail” from their accounts “so that common ground can be found . . . between another period and our own.”(5)  In effect, history must be reported in a way that makes possible sociological generalization.

Living in Atlanta through the years of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, Howard took a further step, formulating a methodology that would inform everything he later wrote.  Everyone we knew struggled with the question:  What was the best way to end racial segregation? Should it be sought by small, incremental steps that would gradually change attitudes? Or should there be decreed from above across-the-board change in the institutional environment, to which, in the course of time, whites would adjust first their conduct, and then their thinking?

Howard came down emphatically in favor of the second strategy. The example that seemed most compelling was the racial integration of the Armed Forces, which was only indirectly a product of history from below but most obviously was caused by orders from President Truman.  A dozen years later it appeared to be working.

The Southern Mystique articulates a sophisticated rationale for this top down strategy.  Persons inclined to dismiss Howard Zinn as a shallow popularizer should take a look at the “Bibliographical Notes” to this book.  Here one finds works of history, like Stanley Elkins’ Slavery, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin, and The Mind of the South; of sociology, by Ross, Cooley, Mannheim, Merton, and Franklin Frazier; of social psychology, by Harry Stack Sullivan, Kurt Lewin, and Gardner Murphy; as well as classics of the day by Herbert Marcuse and Norman Brown.

The argument of The Southern Mystique goes something like this. The search for causes is a fool’s errand:  it will go on forever, and can never be definitive. Instead of an endless, wandering search for causes, Howard thought, we should focus on the present. Every one has a hierarchy of values. Racism may well be one of them but it is unlikely to be the thing that anyone cares about most. Change the external requirements of daily life so that whites must engage in equal status contact with blacks in order to achieve their highest priorities, and over time, attitudes will change in response.(6)

After his discharge by Spelman College, Howard moved to Boston and found an academic livelihood in the Political Science department at Boston University.

Living in the Boston area and making one’s living at a university there may not, for most people, be a formula for solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Howard made it that.  After he had been at Boston University about fifteen years, the faculty, the secretaries and staff, and the librarians, all organized unions and with various grievances, and at different times, went on strike.  Howard was co-chair of the strike committee of the faculty union.  Like the workers of the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, he and a few other teachers urged fellow faculty members to stay on strike until the university administration agreed to a contract not only with themselves, but also with university secretaries, although to do so might be viewed as violation of the new faculty contract banning “sympathy strikes.”(7)

Ten years later, when Howard decided to “retire,” at the suggestion of his wife Roz he ended his last class half an hour early and together with a hundred students joined a picket line of workers at the university School of Nursing who were protesting an administration decision to close the school because it was not making enough money.(8)

After Howard left the South, the two great themes of his later years were, on the one hand, the People’s History, and on the other hand, his increasingly passionate and comprehensive opposition to United States imperialism and to war.

Howard did not invent the term “people’s history.”(9) Nor did he invent panoramic history of the United States drawn primarily from secondary sources. I can remember the excitement with which, as a high-school student, I read The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard.  Academic historians are still catching up with their idea that the Civil War was a “second American Revolution.”

A People’s History is not mere popularization.  In A People’s History Howard presents a snapshot of labor history in the 1930s consistent with what he had written about the Ludlow strike.  Far from celebrating the advent of the CIO in the manner of most labor historians, these pages offer a minority opinion parallel to that of Jeremy Brecher in his book Strike!, Marty Glaberman, Stan Weir, and myself.  Thus Howard writes:

[I]t was rank-and-file strikes and insurgencies that pushed the union leadership, AFL and CIO, into action. . . .  It was to stabilize the system in the face of labor unrest that the Wagner Act of 1935, setting up the National Labor Relations Board, had been passed. . . .  The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And . . . the workers’ organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers’ insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.

The history of those years seems to support the argument of Richard Cloward and Frances Piven, in their book Poor People’s Movements, that labor won most during its spontaneous uprisings, before the unions were recognized or well organized . . . .(10)

Finally, Howard’s concluding vision of a revolt of the guards is no doubt Utopian.  But I have personally experienced a situation in which predominantly black guards in a private prison, whom I helped to organize a little independent union, began to make common cause with an almost exclusively black prison population in opposition to white administrators. It was pretty exciting. The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest operator of private prisons in the country, took us seriously. Within a week after the guards’ union won a NLRB election, the company began to close the place.

I consider Howard’s greatest achievement between the appearance of The Politics of History in 1970 and the death of my beloved friend and comrade forty years later to be his many-sided assault on what William Appleman Williams called “empire as a way of life.”

The young Howard Zinn emerged from the anti-Fascist politics of the Popular Front in the late 1930s to become a bombardier in World War II.  He tells us in his autobiography how and why his outlook changed.(11) The bombing plane that drops its payload on human beings (most of them civilians and many of them children) whose suffering the plane crew never sees, or hears, or smells, came to represent for Howard the inevitable horror of all modern warfare. After Hiroshima, Howard came to repudiate “that bombing and all the others.”(12)

His opening challenge to United States aggression was Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, which appeared in 1967.  Notice two things.

First, as with racial segregation, there is next to no attention to the cause of the Vietnam conflict.  The rest of us were looking for offshore oil reserves, or tungsten deposits, to explain the disproportionate interest of the American ruling class in this small, impoverished country. Later, after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as an expert witness Howard told juries that United States policy was shown to have been motivated by “tin, rubber, [and] oil.”(13) In Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, however, Howard was single-minded in trying to end the war, not explain it.

Second, as with racial segregation, there is a lingering hope, perhaps based on President Truman’s desegregation order, that the federal government can be induced to change its mind. This took the form of an imaginary speech by President Johnson ending United States intervention.

At journey’s end Howard Zinn had become convinced that only direct action from below, by American soldiers who refuse to fight, can end United States imperialism.  By the time of his death Howard was passionately urging that the civil disobedience he had first defended in the context of racial segregation should be practiced by members of the United States military.

Howard was never comfortable with joining organizations or with labels for his forthright affirmations. As an alternative to mass killing, he proposed action that is “focused, controlled, intervening between victims and the evil they face without creating more victims,” and viewed finding such a substitiute for war as “the central issue of our time.”  Another formulation advocated nonviolence in the form of “underground movements, strikes, general strikes, noncompliance.”(14)

But Howard was not a pacifist.  He rejected war under any conceivable set of modern circumstances, because of what he considered its inevitable impact on innocent civilians, especially children.  No such war could be just.

Similarly, he was not an anarchist. But it would be hard to find anyone, anywhere, who more passionately advocated disbelief in the official pronouncements of all governments. One recent statement was this from 2005:

. . . [W]e cannot depend on the governments of the world to abolish war because they and the economic interests they represent benefit from war. Therefore, we, the people of the world, must take up the challenge. And although we do not command armies, we do not have great treasuries of wealth, there is one crucial fact that gives us enormous power: the governments of the world cannot wage war without the participation of the people. Albert Einstein understood this simple fact.  Horrified by the carnage of World War I in which ten million people died in the battle fields of Europe, Einstein said:  “Wars will stop when men refuse to fight.”

This is our challenge, to bring the world to the point where men will refuse to fight, and governments will be helpless to wage war.(15)

After Howard’s death, Courage to Resist, a network of persons in the military who refuse further service, circulated a flier with the following quotation from him:  “As a veteran myself I know how difficult it is to break out of the stranglehold the military has on one’s mind, and how much courage that takes.”(16)

To conclude: When a soldier falls in battle, we pick up his gun.  When a comrade dies in the struggle for nonviolent revolution, we try to pick up his dreams.

There is a scene in Howard’s SNCC book about the release of a battered civil rights worker from jail in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  Present were two lawyers, dressed impeccably; Howard Zinn, moderately presentable; and Oscar Chase, “his face swollen, his clothes bloody.” The FBI agent came out of his office and surveyed the four.  Then he asked, “Who was it got the beating?”(17)

Is this a description of academic history? Surely we too need to be more precise and explicit in distinguishing victims from executioners. And then, remembering Howard, we need to do something about it.

Howard Zinn, Presente.

(Also posted on the Zinn Education Project website)


(1)  I base my description on “The Ludlow Massacre,” appearing in Howard Zinn, The Politics of History, 1990 edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1970, 1990), pp. 79-101.  Howard’s biographer says that the essay sets forth “the essence” of the M.A. thesis.  Davis D. Joyce, Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 39.  Introducing a reprinting of his Ludlow essay as it appeared in The Politics of History, Howard says that the Ludlow massacre came to his attention in two ways, “first in a song by Woodie Guthrie called ‘The Ludlow Massacre,’ then in a chapter of the book by Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles, written in 1936.”  Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), p. 183.

(2)  Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), pp.   170-171, 175-177.

(3)  The Politics of History, p. 79.  In a column for The Progressive magazine, written near the end of his life, Howard reiterated that the Ludlow massacre was “still absent from mainstream history books.”  Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress(San Francisco:  City Lights Books, 2007), p. 101.

(4)  The Politics of History, p. 100.

(5)  Id., p. 49.

(6)  Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), pp. 7 (cause “not only baffles people, but, worse, immobilizes them”), 9 (except as an academic exercise, there is no need “to probe the fog that inescapably shrouds the philosophical question of causation”), 11 (”there is a magical and omnipotent dispeller of the mystery; it is contact“), 18 (”you first change the way people behave . . . in order to transform the environment which is the ultimate determinant of the way they think”), 93 (”the universal detergent for race prejudice is contact — massive, prolonged, equal, and intimate contact”).

(7)  You Can’t Be Neutral, pp. 190-191.

(8)  Id., pp. 202-203.

(9)  A young man named Harvey Wasserman had previously sent Howard Zinn a manuscript entitled a “People’s History” of the period between 1860 and 1920.  Harvey Wasserman, “How the great Howard Zinn made all our lives better,” e-mail, Jan. 28, 2010.

(10)  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), pp. 399-402.  In Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004), pp. 332-340, 345-349, three “voices” from the organization of the CIO are presented.  All are rank-and-file workers.  All are women.  They are Genora Dollinger, who organized the Women’s Emergency Brigade in Flint, and two of the three “union maids” (Vicky Starr [Stella Nowicki] and Sylvia Woods) whose memories are reported in Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, ed. Alice and Staughton Lynd, third edition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988).  Note, too, that Howard’s own experience as a rank-and-file union member, first as a warehouse worker while he was at graduate school, later as a professor seeking to act in solidarity with non-academic staff at Boston University, was to be “more left than the union.”  You Can’t Be Neutral, pp. 180, 101. (16)  Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral, p. 11.

(11)  See especially You Can’t Be Neutral, pp. 94-95 (fellow airman who told Howard that World War II was an “imperialist” war), 92-94 and 97 (experience in bombing the French town of Royan with napalm when the German soldiers there were waiting to surrender).

(12)  Id., p. 11.

(13)  Id., pp. 155, 161.

(14)  Id., pp. 100-101; Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 23.

(15)  Howard Zinn, Just War (San Giovanni, Italy: Edizioni Charta, 2005), p. 14.

(16)  E-mail from Courage to Resist, Feb. 3, 2010.  To the same effect, Howard Zinn, Introduction to David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, updated edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), reprinted in Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2007), pp. 173-177.  Other relevant essays in this book, which reprints columns Howard wrote for The Progressive magazine, are:  “World War II: The Good War,” pp. 43-47; “Learning from Hiroshima,” pp. 49-55; “Afghanistan,” pp. 77-90; on refusal to fight in Vietnam, “Henry David Thoreau,” p. 137; “The Enemy is War,” pp. 189=197.

(17)  Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, second edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), p. 117.

Staughton Lynd. In the early 1960s, Lynd taught history at Spelman College alongside Howard Zinn.  He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and helped direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools. His involvement in the anti-war movement led to his being denied the right to teach history, so in the 1970s Lynd went to law school. He has dedicated his life to labor and prison issues. Longer bio on PM Press website.

Democracy Now interview with Staughton Lynd, 2006.

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