Monday, March 29, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Political Movements and Democracy

At the end of my last post, I promised one more excerpt from Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech. Really, though, there are two more posts I want to include here to complete this series. I’ll still end with an entry on Zinn’s optimism, but first, I want to share part of what seeded that optimism by posting some of Zinn’s remarks on political movements and democracy.

Teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early ‘60s put Zinn in the midst of the blossoming Civil Rights Movement. He both witnessed and participated in this striking moment of change in the U.S. Here’s what he told his Michigan Tech audience about that experience, and about the role such movements play in democracies.

Howard Zinn:

My first real teaching job was in the south [at] Spellman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. I taught there from 1956 to 1963, seven years. My wife and I and our two little kids left New York … and went down south and spent the next seven years essentially living in the black community … at that time in the south when the Civil Rights Movement was coming to its head. And there was no way I could teach in that kind of situation and be neutral – teach in a city like Atlanta, which at that time was as totally segregated by race as Johannesburg, South Africa. A city where if a black person and a white person walked down the street together and it looked as if they weren’t employer and employee, looked as if they might be walking down the street as equals, there was an immediate change in the atmosphere of that street. An immediate tension, an immediate air of threat in the street. That’s what Atlanta was like ….

“You have to understand that southern colleges were more conservative than northern colleges, and women’s colleges more conservative than men’s colleges, and black colleges more conservative than white colleges, and you put all of that together and you have Spellman College, virtually a convent, really, in which students were signing in and signing out and going to compulsory chapel six times a week. There was like an unspoken pact between the City of Atlanta and the black colleges of Atlanta, and the pact was or seemed to be, you can have your nice little Negro college, and turn out the college graduates who will service the segregated black community, the social workers and the teachers and maybe a doctor or a lawyer here or there, and in return, don’t venture out into the city. Don’t trouble the way we live in the City of Atlanta.

In the late ‘50s and especially in the 1960s, with the sit-ins, that pact was broken. The students at Spellman College and at Morehouse College, the men’s college across the street where Martin Luther King went to school – they saw on television the pictures of the four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sitting in at a lunch counter, and the violence and the arrests that ensued. And they decided it’s time to move, to do something, and they leaped over the wall – there actually was a stone wall around the Spellman College campus – and they went out into the city and they demonstrated and they got arrested and they came back from that experience no longer the same, no longer the quiet subdued dutiful obedient students they had been. They were very different.

“You mentioned Alice Walker, who was one of my students and who participated in that movement. Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, who was another one of my students at Spellman, and who came out of jail a very different person than she went in. Then I as a teacher felt that I had to somehow join them. I had to become involved, I had to sit in, I had to march. I didn’t see how I could simply be a classroom teacher while all these things were swirling around me, because I thought by doing that, by just being a classroom teacher and not taking part in what was going on out in the city, that I was teaching my students that it’s all right to talk but not to act. And I felt that a teacher teaches more by what he or she does than by what he or she says. And so I became involved … with a particular civil rights organization in the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee … and I went to Albany, Georgia, and I went to Selma, Alabama, and Townsend, Mississippi, and I was both a participant and a writer about these events.

“One of the important things I learned – and this is a lesson that history books, the traditional history books, somehow fail to convey (it struck me that I’d gone through all this training as an American historian and I still hadn’t learned [this] until I saw events unfold before my eyes in the south in a social movement) – what I learned was that when important social change comes about in our country, it doesn’t come about as a result of the operation of our formal democratic system. It doesn’t come about as the result of Congress passing a law, the President signing a law. It doesn’t come about as a result of what we learn in the civics classes in junior high school, the three branches of government, the checks and balances, oh how beautiful it is, how wonderful it works out. Those alone have never sufficed to solve any important problem that we’ve had in the United States. When we have faced important injustices, they were redressed not by the formal structure – voting for this candidate or that candidate – they were addressed by citizens, getting together, forming a movement – the Anti-Slavery Movement before the Civil War, the Labor Movement in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Black Movement of the 1960s. The Anti-war Movement. The Women’s Movement. The Gay Movement. The Disabled People’s Movement. It’s when citizens get together and organize and do things, that’s when democracy comes alive. I mean, to think that we live in something we call a democracy and that we don’t learn through our history what democracy is, that we come out of all this learning thinking that the most supreme act that a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls every two or four years and vote for somebody we don’t care about? I began to understand that democracy was much more intricate, more complex. It required much more of us than voting, and I suppose in my teaching and in my writing I try to convey that.”

Tomorrow, at last, I’ll put up the final post in this series: Zinn on optimism.

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