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 Development of Social Movements

You write in your autobiography, "I began to realize no pitifully small picket line, no poorly attended meeting, no tossing out of an idea to an audience or even to an individual should be scorned as insignificant."

I suppose that's something that people learn when they participate in social movements, especially if they participate in the movement long enough to see it develop into something that at first seems impotent and impossible and then becomes a force and brings about change. I saw that in the Civil Rights Movement, and I saw that in the anti-war movement. Because in both cases, you could see little things happen which seemed as if they would go nowhere. It seems as if you are up against forces that cannot be dislodged.

Here, the change takes place in the Civil Rights Movement in the most dangerous parts of the country, in the deep South, where everything is controlled by the white power structure and blacks don't have the wherewithal. The only thing they have is their bodies, their determination, their unity, their willingness to take risks. And, yes, it starts with small things. You don't think they are going to get anywhere. Nobody really knew in the late fifties or even in the first years of the sixties that anything big would happen, and yet it did.

The anti-war movement starts off with small anti-war gestures in little gatherings around the country and it seems impossible. How are you going to stop the greatest military power on earth from continuing a vicious war? And yet, those small meetings, demonstrations, turned gradually, over several years, into a movement which became powerful enough to cause the government to think twice about continuing a war.

You state a part of your philosophy of history: "I'm convinced of the uncertainty of history, of the possibility of surprise, of the importance of human action in changing what looks unchangeable." We can go to a concrete example in your life. You participated in one of the first (if not the first) teach-ins on the Vietnam War on the Boston Commons very early in the game. It was years later that you were drawing massive crowds to a similar event on the Commons.

That's right. That very first anti-war meeting on the Boston Commons in the spring of '65, when Johnson had begun the real escalation of the war, begun the bombing, begun the dispatch of large numbers of troops, we had our first anti-war meeting on the Boston Commons, perhaps a hundred people showed up. Herbert Marcuse spoke, I spoke, a few other people spoke. It looked pitiful. This was '65. In '69, another meeting on the Boston Commons, a hundred thousand people are there. In those few years, something very important had taken place. I think that showed the possibility of change if you persist.

Next page: Experiencing War

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