Bill Moyers Journal: Remembering Howard Zinn
Bill Moyers reaired part of his interview with Howard Zinn from Dec. 11, 2009.
Howard Zinn died at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010
"They're willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don't want people to think that we could actually transform this country."
Transcript via Bill Moyers Journal.
BILL MOYERS: Like Richard Trumka, the historian Howard Zinn, who died this week, was a man who believed that working people couldn't wait for a better life - they had to fight for it.
He once wrote, "historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and freedom rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action."
Howard Zinn didn't just write history, he lived it, practicing what he preached, gaining enemies and critics by leaping into the fray himself. A working class kid from Brooklyn, he came home from fighting for America in World War II, to fight alongside other Americans for justice, peace, and jobs.
His fame and popularity came from helping us see America from the ground up - as ordinary people struggling to gain and hold their place in it. When no history book told that story as it should be told, he wrote the book himself -- A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. It became a perennial best seller.
He appeared on the JOURNAL just last month to tell us about a television special, THE PEOPLE SPEAK, based on his people's history. Here is a little of what we talked about:
What do you think these characters from the past that we will see on the screen, what do they have to say to us today?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I think what they have to say to us today is think for yourself. Don't believe what the people up there tell you. Live your own life. Think your own ideas. And don't depend on saviors.
Traditional history creates passivity because it gives you the people at the top and it makes you think that all you have to do is go to the polls every four years and elect somebody who's going to do the trick for you and no. We want people to understand that that's not going to happen. People have to do it themselves. And so that's what we hope these readings will inspire.
BILL MOYERS: One of my favorite sequences is in here, is when we meet Genora Dollinger. Tell me about her.
HOWARD ZINN: She was a woman who got involved in sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Those very dramatic moments when workers occupied the factories of General Motors and wouldn't leave, and therefore left the corporations helpless. But this was a time when strikes all over the country galvanized people and pushed the New Deal into the reforms that we finally got from the New Deal. And Genora Dollinger represents the women who are very often overlooked in these struggles, women so instrumental in supporting the workers, their men, their sweethearts. And Genora Dollinger just inspires people with her words.
BILL MOYERS: She was only 23 when she organized.
HOWARD ZINN: Amazing. Yes.
MARISSA TOMEI as GENORA DOLLINGER: Workers overturned police cars to make barricades. They ran to pick up the fire bombs thrown at them and hurl them back at the police. The men wanted to me to get out of the way. You know the old "protect the women and children" business. I told them, "Get away from me." The lights went on in my head. I thought I have never used a loud speaker to address a large crowd of people but I've got to tell them there are women down here. I called to them, "Cowards! Cowards! Shooting into the bellies of unarmed men and firing at the mothers of children." And then everything became quiet. I thought, "The women can break this up." So I appealed to the women in the crowd, "Break through those police lines and come down here and stand beside your husbands and your brothers and your uncles and your sweethearts." I could barely see one woman struggling to come forward. A cop had grabbed her by the back of her coat. She just pulled out of that coat and she started walking down to the battle zone. As soon as that happened there were other women and men who followed. That was the end of the battle. When those spectators came into the center and the police retreated, it was a big roar of victory.
BILL MOYERS: That's Marisa Tomei as Genora Dollinger. What do you think when you hear those words?
HOWARD ZINN: First, I must say this, Bill. When my daughter saw this, she heard Marisa Tomei shout to the police, "Cowards, cowards." My daughter said a chill, a chill went through her. She was so moved. And so, when I see this, and I've seen this so many times, and each time I am moved because what it tells me is that just ordinary people, you know, people who are not famous, if they get together, if they persist, if they defy the authorities, they can defeat the largest corporation in the world.
BILL MOYERS Howard Zinn was 87. That's it for the JOURNAL. I'm Bill Moyers. See you next week.