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Black Friday Special: Howard Zinn & Voices of a People’s History of the United States

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This year marks 100 years since the birth of the historian Howard Zinn. In 1980, Zinn published his classic work, “A People’s History of the United States.” The book would go on to sell over a million copies and change the way many look at history in America. We begin today’s special with highlights from a production of Howard Zinn’s “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” where Zinn introduced dramatic readings from history. We hear Alfre Woodard read the words of labor activist Mother Jones and Howard’ son Jeff Zinn read the words of an IWW poet and organizer Arturo Giovannitti.

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StorySep 05, 2022Labor Day Special Featuring Howard Zinn & Voices of a People’s History of the United States
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AMY GOODMAN: Yes, today our Zinntennial. We spend the hour remembering Howard Zinn, the legendary historian, author, professor, playwright and activist. Howard Zinn was born 100 years ago, on August 24th, 1922, to working-class Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn. He died in 2010 at the age of 87, but his books continue to be read across the globe.

At 18 years old, Howard Zinn began working as a shipyard worker, then joined the Air Force, where he served as a bombardier in World War II. After witnessing the horrors of war, Howard Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He was active in the civil rights movement and other struggles for social justice. He taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, the historically Black college for women. He was fired for insubordination for standing up for student protesters. While at Spelman, he served on the executive committee of SNCC. That’s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

After being forced out of Spelman, Zinn became a professor at Boston University. In 1967, he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal, no conditions. A year later, he and Father Dan Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three U.S. prisoners of wars released by the North Vietnamese. When Dan Ellsberg needed a place to hide the Pentagon Papers before they were leaked to the press, he went to Howard Zinn and his late wife, Ros Zinn.

In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic work, A People’s History of the United States. The book would go on to sell over a million copies and change the way many look at history in America.

We begin today’s show with highlights from a production of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States, where Howard Zinn introduced dramatic readings from history. We’ll hear Alfre Woodard read the words of labor activist Mother Jones, and Howard’s son Jeff Zinn read the words of an IWW poet and organizer, Arturo Giovannitti. But first, Howard Zinn.

HOWARD ZINN: The IWW, Industrial Workers of the World, was a radical labor organization of the early 20th century. It organized all workers — Black, white, men, women, native-born, foreign, skilled, unskilled — which the American Federation of Labor refused to do. Its goal was revolutionary: to take over the industrial system and run it for the benefit of the people. When immigrant women in the textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike in 1912, they were met with police violence and judicial intimidation. The IWW poet and organizer Arturo Giovannitti was arrested on spurious charges for murder. Here is his speech to the jury, which found him innocent.

ARTURO GIOVANNITTI: [read by Jeff Zinn] Mr. Foreman and gentlemen of the Jury: It is the first time in my life that I speak publicly in your wonderful language, and it is the most solemn moment in my life. …

There has been brought only one side of this great industrial question, only the method and only the tactics. But what about … the ethical part of the question? … What about the better and nobler humanity where there shall be no more slaves, where no man will ever be obliged to go on strike in order to obtain fifty cents a week more, where children will not have to starve any more, where women no more will have to go and prostitute themselves … where at last there will not be any more slaves, any more masters, but just one great family of friends and brothers.

They say you are free in this great and wonderful country. I say that politically you are, and my best compliments and congratulations. … But I say you cannot be half free and half slave, and economically all the working class in the United States are as much slaves now as the Negroes were forty and fifty years ago; because the man that owns the tool where another man works, the man that owns the house where this man lives, the man that owns the factory where this man wants to go to work — that man owns and controls the bread that that man eats and therefore owns and controls his mind, his body, his heart and his soul. …

I am twenty-nine years old — not quite … I have a woman that loves me and that I love. I have a mother and father that are waiting for me. I have an ideal that is dearer to me than can be expressed or understood. And life has so many allurements and it is so nice and so bright and so wonderful that I feel the passion of living in my heart and I do want to live. …

Whichever way you judge, gentlemen of the jury, I thank you.

HOWARD ZINN: In the year 1914, a thousand miners, with wives and children, who had gone on strike against the Rockefeller-owned coal mines in southern Colorado, were holding out in a tent colony near the tiny hamlet of Ludlow. One day in April, the National Guard, financed by Rockefeller, began pouring machine-gun fire into the tent colony, and then came down from the hills and set fire to the tents. The next day the bodies of eleven children and two women were found, suffocated and burned to death. This became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Mother Mary Jones, 82-year-old organizer for the mine workers, had come to Colorado to support the miners, and on the eve of their strike, as they gathered in the Opera House in Trinidad, she spoke to them.

MOTHER JONES: [read by Alfre Woodard] What would the coal in the mines be worth if you did not work to take it out? The time is ripe for you to stand like men. I know something about strikes. I didn’t go into them yesterday. I was carried eighty-four miles and landed in jail by a United States marshal in the night because I was talking to a miners’ meeting. The next morning I was brought to court and the judge said to me, “Did you read my injunction? Did you understand that the injunction told you not to look at the miners?” “As long as the Judge who is higher than you leaves me sight, I will look at anything I want to,” said I. The old judge died soon after that and the injunction died with him. At another time when in the courtroom the bailiff said to me, “When you are addressing the court you must say 'Your Honor.'” “I don’t know whether he has any or not,” said I. Someone said to me, “You don’t believe in charity work Mother.” No I don’t believe in charity; it is a vice. We need the upbuilding of justice to mankind; we don’t need your charity, all we need is an opportunity to live like men and women in this country. I want you to pledge yourselves in this convention to stand as one solid army against the foes of human labor. Think of the thousands who are killed every day and there is no redress for it. We will fight until the mines are made secure and human life valued more than props. Look things in the face. Don’t fear a governor; don’t fear anybody. You pay the governor; he has the right to protect you. You are the biggest part of the population in the state. You create its wealth, so I say, “let the fight go on; if nobody else will keep on, I will.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alfre Woodard reading the words of labor activist Mother Jones as part of a live reading of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Howard Zinn was born 100 years ago, on August 24th, 1922. We’ll continue with our Zinntennial after this break.


AMY GOODMAN: “Ludlow Massacre” by Woody Guthrie, about a Colorado militia gunning down coal strikers in 1914. Howard Zinn once said hearing the song was a defining moment for him and inspired him to research and tell stories left out of most history books.

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Next story from this daily show

“You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”: Remembering the People’s Historian Howard Zinn at 100

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