The People Speak
Howard Zinn was a world-renowned historian, author, playwright, and social activist best known for A People’s History of the United States. His many highly acclaimed books include his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, published by our own Beacon Press, and Three Strikes.
He was not, let me repeat, he was not ( or as far as I could research he was not), a congregationally attached, pledge-making, dues-paying Unitarian Universalist. He was however, as I just noted, one of our published authors, whose “personal history of our times” has been called an inspiring autobiography in the tradition of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the story of more than 30 years of fighting for social change and an argument for hope.
He was not a UU, but he spoke often in our pulpits, and I heard him speak a few years back at our of our annual General Assemblies, to a packed hall, delivering his insistent message, in his words, that what he had learned in his long life, from his experience as a bombardier in the Second World War, from his seven years teaching at Spelman College here in Atlanta, living in the black community and participating in the southern movement for racial justice, from his involvement with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Daniel Ellsberg in protesting the war in Vietnam, was that “ small acts of resistance to authority, if persisted in may lead to large social movements, that those in power who confidently say never to the possibility of change may live to be embarrassed by these words, that the most important thing he learned was the meaning, the true meaning, of democracy.
Howard Zinn was not, as far as we know, a Unitarian Universalist, but when he died early this year at age 87, the celebration of his life was held at our own Arlington Street Church in Boston, a place where he had spoken several times. My colleague Kim Crawford Harvie welcomed about 250 invited guests, the crowd full of scholars, writers, editors, actors, poets, activists, and neighbors—friends all, saying how fitting it was to hold his memorial service there, since this congregation had been in the forefront of progressive issues for decades, including the first legal same sex marriage in the country.
Marian Wright Edelman, longtime head of the Children’s Defense Fund , told how she was a student of Howard Zinn’s at Spelman and what an influence he had on her there. He taught me I could do anything, she recalled, and that there were more important things to do than getting a man at Morehouse. At Spelman, she said, he made her teachers and administrators uncomfortable because he challenged the status quo. He was passionate about justice and the ability to make a difference. He believed in us and that we were powerful.
He taught the young, the poor, and the weak to be free. What a lot of candles he lit!
Zinn arrived at this historic black college in 1956 was not a particularly deliberate choice—close to finishing his doctorate work in history at Columbia University, he was contacted by its placement bureau for an interview with the president of Spelman, who was visiting New York. Spelman, Zinn recalled, was virtually unknown at the time outside the black community. He was offered the chairmanship of its history and social sciences department and $4,000 a year. He summoned up his courage: I have a wife and two kids, he said, Could you make it $4500?
So he came to what he described as a different world, a universe apart from the sidewalks of New York, a city thick with foliage, fragrant with honeysuckle, with air that was sweeter and heavier, where people were blacker and whiter, where when he told potential landlords he was teaching at Spelman, apartments were no longer available.
Where what for him and his family was an inconvenience was, as he wrote in his memoir, for blacks a daily and never ending humiliation. He had been in his first and new teaching position for six months when in January of 1957, he and his students had what he called a small encounter with the Georgia state legislature. They decided to visit one of its sessions and instead of sitting in the “colored” section of the gallery, ignored the signs and sat in the main section. Panic broke out and the Speaker of the House, in Zinn’s words, seemed to have an apoplectic fit. Only when they moved back into the colored section, Zinn included, were they then warmly welcomed as the visiting delegation from Spelman College.
One of Zinn’s favorite poems by Marge Piercy was read the day of the celebration of his life in our Arlington Street congregation: The Low Road
It starts one at a time,
It starts when you care to act, it starts when you do
It starts again after they said no,
It starts when you say We
And know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.
Second Part of the sermon – by Frank Casper
If, as Robert Bellah theorized, there is such a thing as an American civil religion, replete with its own doctrines and holidays, then it can be safely declared that the 4th of July is very likely to be its high holy day. We call this Independence Day, but it memorializes and celebrates something much deeper and, as Howard Zinn so thoroughly shows us, exceedingly more tenuous then our independence from Britain. What in truth we solemnly remember and renew this day is the theology of human rights, first articulated in what some say is the most powerful sentence ever written in the English language. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. In that celebrated sentence, Thomas Jefferson established human rights to be at the very heart of what it means to be human. He then went on to say that it is for this reason that governments are established among us, to protect and advance human rights, and by that, protect human dignity.
Now, that’s pretty important stuff, ultimate stuff, utterly revolutionary then, and ever since. This, I believe, is what Howard Zinn urgently seeks to remind us of in his book “A Peoples History of the United States”. But Mr. Zinn is not your average historian. His method is a bit strange, but compelling. He tells the story from an odd but, when you think about it, altogether obvious perspective. “I prefer”, he writes in “A People’s History”, to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Indians, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves,…of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills,… of the New Deal as seen by Blacks in Harlem,…and so on”. These are “the people” according to Zinn. And the results are unlike anything any of us likely encountered in high school, or college, for that matter.
We learn, for example, just in the first chapter, that we have managed to establish a holiday celebrating a mass murderer called Christopher Columbus. We learn, that right from the start, that most celebrated line of Thomas Jefferson’s, despite it’s universal language, excluded most of the human beings living in what was then being declared as “The United States of America”. It did not include Indians, African Americans, or women. We learn, as Mr. Zinn makes perfectly clear in his essay on the subject, that the Bill of Rights some 15 years later met with fierce opposition, was debated for three years, and was adopted with what can only be described as deep reluctance. And still excluded most of the people in the country. We learn, in page after page of “A Peoples History”, that the driving forces in our nations founding and development had more to do with power, greed, fear, and racism than the lofty ideals established in the Declaration of Independence. Because this is true, we also learn that all subsequent progress toward a wider, more inclusive meaning of “the people” has been a long, arduous, and bloody struggle that is not yet and likely never will be over. Zinn shows us that the challenges to our legacy of human rights do not come just from foreign powers, such as the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the aims of contemporary Islamic extremists. The challenges he so well documents are domestic, primarily on the part of our own government, both liberal and conservative.
He reminds us that no sooner had the ink dried on the Bill of Rights then Congress, during an undeclared naval war with France, passed the Sedition Act of 1798. This act empowered the President to expel any alien he judged dangerous and to arrest all subjects of warring foreign nations as enemies. The Sedition Act also made it unlawful to “write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing…against” the US government, Congress, or the President with the intent “to bring them …into contempt or disrepute.” Thomas Jefferson bitterly denounced it as a violation of the First Amendment, and the eventual backlash to the Act resulted in his election as President and the control of Congress for Republicans, who were the progressives of the time, the Federalists being the conservatives.
The Civil War provided the next great test of faith in our own ideals, and it failed when, with strong public support, President Lincoln took various measures that infringed on civil liberties in the name of national security, the most egregious of which was the suspension of habeas corpus. This caused the arrest and indefinite military detention of 20 to 30 thousand persons without charges who were merely suspected of being disloyal, dangerous, or disaffected.
In 1917, during WW1, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime during times of war to make false statements with the intent to interfere with the success of US military forces or recruiting. The act was the predicate for confiscating antiwar films and raiding the offices of antiwar organizations. Zinn notes that it was the great liberal Oliver Wendell Holmes himself wrote the opinions affirming the constitutionality of this law. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was also during this time that the Senate considered a bill that would have made the entire United States a military zone within which anyone who published any material that might endanger the success of US military operations could be tried as a spy by a military tribunal and put to death. But President Wilson was unwilling to go that far, so we got the Espionage Act of 1917 instead.
The Act was extended in 1919 by the Sedition Act, so as to make it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about” the US form of government, Constitution, flag, or its military forces..” It was under this act, and with the approval of the press and the public, that Emma Goldman had been deported to Russia in 1919, after serving two years in prison for criticizing the US government during wartime. America largely supported the prosecution, imprisonment, and exile of pacifists, anarchists, socialists, and other dissidents like Eugene Debs, who was convicted after delivering a speech about socialism and telling his audience that they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” In all, over two thousand people were prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
We would of course be remiss if we failed to mention what some consider the most egregious of such unfortunate occasions, the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The justification for this was the unfounded allegation that Japanese Americans were facilitating attacks on American ships in the Pacific. But the real agenda was racism, the desire of their neighbors to halt the influx of people of Japanese ancestry and to appropriate their property. And not too long thereafter, Zinn tells us, “It was the Congress of the United States, Democrats as well as Republicans, that set up the House Un-American Activities Committee, and voted contempt citations against people who refused to bow down to that Committee. It was the Supreme Court that affirmed the convictions of the Hollywood Ten for invoking the First Amendment. It was Republicans and Democrats, it was all three branches of government, all of them swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and all of them violating that oath.”
And so it’s been since, most recently with the Clinton Administrations Antiterrorism Act of 1996, which created a special court to use secret evidence to deport foreigners labeled as “terrorists.” And now, in the stunned aftermath of 9/11, our country is in a deeper crises than it has been in decades, and with Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, which expand even farther the surveillance powers of the government, and giving the executive branch the power to deny constitutional rights to those labeled as “enemy combatant” on the basis of secret and unaccountable evidence. Again, Zinn writes, “It is a truism of our political culture: if you are at war for freedom and democracy, you can’t have freedom and democracy. So, exactly when free speech is most needed, that is, when it is a matter of life and death for the young people about to be sent to the battlefield – exactly at such a moment the government declares it can be suspended.”
What can one say? It’s a damned pitiful record. But I want to draw your attention to some recent events that suggest motives other than the unfortunate American tendency to panic in the face of national crises and to trade liberties for security. I am referring here to the decisions by conservative legislators in the state of Texas regarding textbook content and school curriculum.
This year, after a long and emotionally charged debate, the Texas Board of Education, dominated by a group of conservatives, voted in a host of changes to the state curriculum that has wide-ranging implications for students across the country. Taken together, the clear intent of these changes is to undermine or eliminate references to the Enlightenment and leading Enlightenment thinkers, in favor of biblical and Christian influences on the formation of the American form of government. The most blatant example of this is the elimination of Thomas Jefferson, to be substituted by the theologian John Calvin. John Calvin is the originator Calvinism, the very theology that Unitarian Universalism was born opposing. Additionally, teachers in Texas will be required to cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state. And in a related move, textbooks will not describe the United States as a democracy, but as a “constitutional republic”. What does that mean, you might wonder. Suffice it to say for now that in the conservative circles that make this insistence, democracy is regarded as some form of tyrannical mob rule. You can hear distinct echoes of this in the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, that we are drifting toward or already have become some kind of dictatorship. But this is the subject of a whole other sermon.
To me, it is one thing to occasionally trump the Bill of Rights for reasons of national security, as blatantly fraudulent as that has been. But it is quite another thing to be ideologically or religiously opposed to the Bill of Rights as such, which is what this action by the state of Texas suggests. This is something that Jim Kelley and I were hyposensitized to during our years with Citizens for the Middle Ground. There is a whole cottage industry of conservative publications advancing scholarship that seeks to rescind not only all civil rights legislation, but to discredit the whole history and development of democracy as we have come to know it. While we must be constantly vigilant toward our unfortunate tendency to barter away our freedoms for an illusory security, I urgently believe we should also be vigilant toward those who would trade our liberties for their faith.
And while we’re on the subject, the Texas legislators added something else to this law we should be aware of. They beat back numerous attempts to add textbook references to important Hispanics throughout history, and deleted a requirement that sociology students “be able explain how institutional racism is evident in American society.” This policy echoes recent legislative events in Arizona.
After making national headlines for a new law on illegal immigrants, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill, signed by the governor, that bans ethnic studies programs. According to Suzie Khimm in an article published by Mother Jones, Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction and a Republican candidate for attorney general, wrote the law specifically to target the Mexican-American studies program, taught from grade school through high school. This program, ironically, was created in the late 90’s in response to a lawsuit alleging segregation and racial inequity across the school system. But Khimm quotes Horn as saying that the program teaches a form of “ethnic chauvinsim”, encouraging Hispanics to resent whites. Horn adds that such learning could encourage students to revolt against the US government, effectively legitimizing fears of a Mexican re-conquest of American territory. This is why part of this new law makes it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the American government. In my view this is a transparently insidious appeal to a fear that runs rampant throughout the racist right-wing, the specter of white Western culture being overrun by a horde of brown people.
But the real target of this pernicious legislation can be heard in the response of the students. Students and others who defend the program argue that their classes teach students history from a multicultural perspective, and help them analyze public services to find evidence of discrimination. This is the kind of critique of American culture and politics one finds in Zinn’s books. These are “the people” according to Zinn, and silencing these voices is the real agenda behind the efforts in both Texas and Arizona.
It’s clear, isn’t it, that you don’t have to spend a great deal of time with Howard Zinn before you realize that our government falls far short of the ideals we solemnly observe this day? In fact, Mr. Zinn concludes that if it had been up to the institutions of our government, the Bill of Rights would have been left for dead. But I have to say that, despite the long litany of evidence for it, I think this conclusion of Zinn’s may perhaps be a bit too strident. I read an essay some time ago by Wendy Kaminer. She’s a lawyer and prolific author on civil liberties, and member of the board of the ACLU from the early 90’s to June of last year. She looks unflinchingly at the same sorry record, but says that despite these setbacks, things have gotten gradually better in terms of civil liberties. Members of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and all women have gained unprecedented legal rights since mid-century; and, on balance, you are probably better off being arrested today than in 1960, before the Supreme Court extended the Bill of Rights to criminal suspects in state courts. Indeed, according to Kaminer, the main reason that the US has been able to re-establish and advance a culture of rights in the aftermath of crises is largely because our court system has been able to drive this commitment back to center stage time and again.
I don’t mean to suggest here that this is something we can rely upon. No fair reading of our history can yield that confidence. But it is enough to suggest, contrary to Mr. Zinn, that our institutions do occasionally work on behalf of the ideals so long ago established as the guiding principles of our body politic. But when considering the question of how, against what seem to be impossible odds, we have come as progressively as far as we have toward those ideals, Mr. Zinn has his own answer.
“Ordinary people did it,” he writes, “by doing extraordinary things”. I quote: