Howard Zinn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Radical History: Conversation with Howard Zinn, Author, 'A People's History of the United States'; 4/20/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Early Civil Rights Movement

Your first teaching assignment was at Spelman College, a black college for women in Atlanta. Tell us about that experience and the amazing events that occurred during your stay, that is, the large historical events.

Those seven years at Spelman College are probably the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me. Living in the South at a very interesting time, the late fifties, early sixties, just before the onset of the big Civil Rights Movement, and then during those years, the early sixties, I learned so much.

For one thing, I began to look at history in a different way. I began to look at history from a black point of view. It looks very different from a black point of view. The heroes are different, and the eras get different names. The Progressive Era is no longer the Progressive Era, because it's the era in which more black people are lynched than in any other period in American history. I began reading black historians. Reading Raford Logan, reading DuBois, reading John Hope Franklin, reading E. Franklin Frasier, and things that weren't on my reading list right up in graduate school, Columbia University.

So that was one thing, learning about history, but the other thing, more important I think, was learning by being in the movement. By moving out from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, and demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Greenwood, Greenville, Jackson. By becoming a kind of participant writer in the movement, it taught me something very important about democracy, about the democracy that I had been taught in junior high school, and which people learn even in higher education: institutions, constitution, checks and balances, voting, all those things that political scientists concentrate on. Obviously, that was not democracy. Those things had failed to produce equality for black people, had failed, in fact, to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments. Every president in the United States for a hundred years had violated his oath of office by not enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Democracy came alive finally, when black people took to the streets and demonstrated and sat in and got arrested by the tens of thousands and created a commotion that was heard around the world. So it was an insight, suddenly. It shouldn't have been, I should have known that from before, that democracy comes alive not when government does anything, because government cannot be depended on to rectify serious injustices. It comes alive when people organize and do something about it. The Southern black movement taught me that.

Next page: The Development of Social Movements

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