Thursday, January 28, 2010

Radical Historian Howard Zinn Dies at 87

"I'm convinced of the uncertainty of history, of the possiblity of surprise, of the importance of human action in changing what looks unchangeable."

UC Berkeley's Harry Kreisler interviews historian and activist Howard Zinn.

Zinn, a historian with a powerful sense of social justice, who wove that sense of justice into the construction of his histories, remembers how he became conscious of injustice:
I grew up in a family of working-class immigrants, living in tenements in Brooklyn. Our living quarters were rather miserable and we kids spent most of our time out in the streets. It seemed natural that I should develop a certain class consciousness, an understanding that we lived in a society of rich and poor, and whether you were rich or poor had nothing to do with how hard you worked.

There were young radicals in my neighborhood, a few years older than me, and I was impressed with how much they knew about what was going on in the world. I was beginning to read books about Fascism and socialism. One day, my friends asked if I would join them in going to a demonstration in Times Square. I had never been to a demonstration, and it seemed like an exciting thing to do. When we got to Times Square, there was no sign of a demonstration, but when the big clock on the Times Building struck ten, banners unfurled in the crowd, and people began marching and chanting. I wasn't sure what they were concerned with but it seemed they were opposed to war, and that appealed to me. One of my friends took one end of a banner and I the other. I heard sirens and shouts and I wondered what was happening. Then I saw policemen on horses charging into the crowd, beating people with clubs. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Here were people peacefully demonstrating and they were attacked by the police. Before I knew it, I was spun around and hit on the side of the head, with what I didn't know. I was knocked unconscious, and when I woke up in a doorway, it was an eerie scene, everything quiet as if nothing had happened. But something had happened to me. I was stripped of my illusion that we lived in a democracy where people could protest peacefully. At that moment I moved from being a liberal to being a radical, understanding that there was something fundamentally wrong with the system that I had always thought cherished freedom and democracy.
Howard, we will miss you terribly.

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