Howard Zinn died suddenly of a heart attack while swimming in the pool in Santa Monica on January 27; he was 87. I Googled “Zinn Tribute Death”; 1,790,000 results popped up. Add my homage to the list; with a twist.
First, assuming some of you would be unfamiliar with Professor Zinn’s work outside of the fact he authored, A People’s History of the United States; I looked for an obituary that encompassed at least what I knew to be the highlights of his life-long activism. The Washington Post printed an obituary on January 28; they were doing a pretty good job until this: “Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Roslyn Zinn of Auburndale, Mass….” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/28/AR2010012803804.html I knew that Roz, as he called his beloved wife and editor, had died in 2008. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that WaPo finally got around to printing a brief correction, 3 (three) days after that glaring mistake. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/31/AR2010013102654.html)
Despite my recent travails with the Boston Globe – see, “jbjd” BANNED in BOSTON – I found their obituary much better; at least they mentioned Howard’s involvement with the labor strife at Boston University, which occupied so much of his time and energy in his last years there as a tenured Professor. (For those of you who don’t know, Martin Luther King, Jr. received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at BU, and years later an honorary D.Div. http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/news/releases/display.php?id=343 Dr. King honed his preaching skills in Marsh Chapel, located adjacent to the School of Divinity, at the mid-point of the sprawling urban campus.)
Here is a portion of that Boston Globe obituary:
As he wrote in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”
Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five” were soon dropped.
(Note from jbjd: The Globe misidentified the strikers on the picket line Howard would not cross, as “secretaries.” They belonged to District 65, Clerical and Technical Workers Union, the first clerical workers to organize at a private university, a full decade before Harvard. The 900-member bargaining unit included several positions in addition to Secretary, representative workers from all of which positions staffed the picket lines.)
The best recollection of those heady times comes from Professor Zinn. In “Remembering Murray Levin,” a touching eulogy to his long-time friend and BU colleague, Professor Zinn provides a vivid account of campus strife.
Silber was ruthless in dealing with opposition. For student demonstrators, he was quick to call the police. Faculty faced the kind of punishment overbearing administrators can deal out: if untenured, they had little hope of getting tenure, whatever their record in scholarship and teaching; if tenured, raises in salary were withheld.
Murray, long tenured, with a distinguished record in teaching and publications, saw his salary held down again and again. But he never wavered in his outspoken opposition to what was becoming more and more of a police state at Boston University: censorship of student newspapers, intimidation of activist students, the taking of photos of faculty and students who walked on picket lines. The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts issued a report on Boston University, saying it had never before received so many complaints of violations of free speech about any other institution in the state.
The campus conflict came to a head over the refusal of the Silber Administration to recognize the newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) faculty union, the District 65 union representing secretaries and clerical workers, the union of library workers. While resisting decent salaries for secretaries, Silber was raising his own salary year after year by huge increments, until he was getting more than the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton—indeed, he became the highest paid university president in the country. And his captive Board of Trustees, which faculty came to see as a politburo doing the dictator’s bidding, was giving Silber special bonuses and real estate deals.
In a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) election, the faculty voted to unionize. But after a contract was negotiated, Silber reneged and, in an unprecedented action, the faculty went out on strike. Picket lines went up immediately in front of all the major buildings on campus. Murray Levin was a stalwart of the union. Our radical corner of the political science department consisted of Murray, myself, and Frances Fox Piven—and we all became heavily involved in strike activities. The secretaries, their union still unrecognized, within days went out on strike, and the streets around Boston University now saw a rare sight in academe—faculty and secretaries walking the picket lines together in solidarity.
I confess, I had a selfish reason for wanting to see the labor unrest at BU mentioned in Howard’s obituary: I met him during that time, when he became my first college professor. This was a ‘lecture’ class in Political Science, so designated because the primary manner of teaching had him standing at (or leaning on) a lectern at the front of the auditorium, speaking to students (and several non-students) crammed into stationary rows of seats arranged in increasingly higher levels moving further away from him, anxious to be ‘swept up’ in the ‘cause.’ Grades were based on written assignments and class participation. We routinely numbered well over 100 students, more than were actually enrolled and could expect to receive a grade. Not surprisingly, much of the class discussion related in some way to the labor turmoil on campus.
I had begun working at BU shortly after the NLRB Certified the election that brought District 65 onto the campus but before recognition and negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement. Like most of my co-workers, I had no background with organized labor. But in the spring of 1979, when union organizers – some from campus, some from the parent union who had come from out of town – advised, the only way to compel management to join us at the bargaining table was to walk off the job, I went. I found temporary work by day and staffed the picket lines by night, holding my sign, “Clerical Workers are Tough.” But after a couple of days of communal defiance, the euphoria of taking a stand subsided. Now we grasped the imminent threats of losing our jobs. We would have benefited from some hand holding from the more seasoned organizers. Only they were nowhere to be found, busy giving interviews to the press, and meeting among themselves. The next morning, I found them. ‘The ‘union’ is issuing position statements in the Globe; yet no one has asked my opinion of anything. What’s the difference between management deciding what is best for me; or the union? If you don’t schedule a general meeting this afternoon, I will cross the lines tomorrow.’ The next morning, I went back to work. Within a few hours, I received a call from one of the organizers: a general membership meeting would be held that afternoon.
I repeated this story in class, correctly anticipating I would incur the wrath of some of my classmates, just as my conduct had outraged (and surprised) some of my co-workers. But I feared this disclosure could alienate my esteemed teacher. On the contrary; Professor Zinn, who would refuse to cross our picket lines, defended my decision.
Walking alone across campus, I saw Professor Zinn engaged in animated conversation with a man I recognized as Professor Murray Levin. Howard was already a legend by this time; I had no pedigree. Speaking up in class was one thing; here, I had no classmates to act as buffer. But my presence on the path clearly had been detected; going around the two men would have made me even more conspicuous. Now, I would have to say something. So, living in my head, I practiced a polite “hello,” determined I could at least get that out, and then keep on walking. All would have gone according to plan except that as I was making my exit, Professor Zinn exclaimed, “Wait!,” reaching out his arm to draw me into their conversation. He turned to Professor Levin. “Murray, I want you to meet my star pupil.” I could have predicted at that time, I would never forget those words, or how special I felt when he spoke them, for as long as I live.
(Talks with management stalled during our first contract negotiations in the fall of 1979. I was a member of the Contract Committee; my first project had been to survey the rank and file so as to determine their positions on the issues BEFORE we drafted the proposal. We were set to meet to take what could be our first strike vote, which would also be the first strike of clerical workers at any private university. (Technically, that spring walkout was in response to an Unfair Labor Practice, that is, BU management refused to recognize the NLRB-Certified clerical workers union; this would be an economic strike, over our collective bargaining agreement.) The meeting was to take place at Marsh Chapel, which had always served as a neutral site for labor gatherings. But just as we began assembling in the plaza abutting the Chapel, word came down, in an apparent attempt to stave off a strike vote, Dr. Silber had not only denied permission to meet there but also threatened to have anyone inside arrested for trespassing. We knew he meant what he said. Hundreds of employees from both ends of campus could be seen, walking toward the plaza; several members of the press had shown up, prepared to capture this historic event. I commandeered a scout. ‘See if the auditorium in the basement of CLA is open.’ It was. Now, I proposed we should surreptitiously file into the auditorium, grabbing members of the press along the way. I figured, by the time Dr. Silber found out where we had gone, with reporters and cameras; he would not do anything about it.)
(We checked in at the door to pick up our ballots for the strike vote. But when the motion was made to vote to strike, I stood to make an objection. ‘How can we take a strike vote without voting on whether we accept the proposal on the table, first?’ Union officers and national organizers, sitting on the stage, agreed. Chaos ensued; union members were trying to tear their official ballots in half, prepared to vote twice. Now, I shouted, ‘Stop! You cannot use a defaced ballot!’ The room became silent. ‘The first vote, that is, the vote on whether to accept the proposal on the table, does not have to be secret. This can be a hand or voice vote; if the proposal is not accepted, the vote on whether to strike can be done with the secret ballots.’ A representative from the National union shouted from the stage. “We can always count on you, ‘jbjd.’”) (We rejected management’s proposal and voted to strike.)
Now, after Howard’s death, reading these lines from his eulogy to his dear friend, Murray, I confirmed the reason my teacher had held me in such high esteem 30 (thirty) years ago.
It would be hard to characterize his politics in simple terms; “socialist,” “radical,” “progressive?” In the thirty-five years I knew him, including twenty-four years as his close friend and colleague at Boston University, there was never any occasion to describe him in any of those ways.
Murray Levin… refused to accept the orthodoxy of American liberalism—its pretensions to democracy, justice, equality. …Despite his huge teaching load (which included advanced courses on American political ideas and Marxist philosophy), as well as his political involvement, Murray never stopped writing. He wrote several iconoclastic books on Edward Kennedy—refusing to go along with the reverence of so many liberals in Massachusetts for the Kennedy clan. His book Political Hysteria in America: the Democratic Capacity for Repression was in many ways an ideological companion to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man in its puncturing of the myth of American tolerance.
See, Howard equally rejected political ideologues cloaked in banners that identified their wearers as grounded on the left; or on the right. And despite all of his literary accomplishments, in his world of civil disobedience, words apparently held less import to him, than deeds. And nothing, it seems, meant more, than combining words with corresponding consistent deeds to promote social change.
Here’s how he explained this ‘modus operandi’ for change, in the essay, “Changing Minds, One at a Time,” which appeared in the March 2005 issue of Progressive Magazine.
That question leads me to a larger one, which I suspect most of us have pondered: What does it take to bring a turnaround in social consciousness…
It seems to me that we need not engage in some fancy psychological experiment to learn the answer, but rather to look at ourselves and to talk to our friends. We then see, though it is unsettling, that we were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness–embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television.
This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas. It is so simple a thought that it is easily overlooked as we search, desperate in the face of war and apparently immovable power in ruthless hands, for some magical formula, some secret strategy to bring peace and justice to the land and to the world.
“What can I do?” The question is thrust at me again and again as if I possessed some mysterious solution unknown to others. The odd thing is that the question may be posed by someone sitting in an audience of a thousand people, whose very presence there is an instance of information being imparted which, if passed on, could have dramatic consequences. The answer then is as obvious and profound as the Buddhist mantra that says: “Look for the truth exactly on the spot where you stand.”
But there is still a large pool of Americans, beyond the hard-core minority who will not be dissuaded by any facts (and it would be a waste of energy to make them the object of our attention), who are open to change. …It is a challenge not just for the teachers of the young to give them information they will not get in the standard textbooks, but for everyone else who has an opportunity to speak to friends and neighbors and work associates, to write letters to newspapers, to call in on talk shows.
The false promises of the rich and powerful about “spreading liberty” can be fulfilled, not by them, but by the concerted effort of us all, as the truth comes out, and our numbers grow.
Notice that, nowhere in his essay, “Changing Minds…” did Professor Zinn use the word R-I-D-I-C-U-L-E. Not once did he suggest, even if informed engagement fails, ridicule is an appropriate tack to impose on different thinkers.
You will understand then, given Professor Zinn’s overarching emphasis on working for social change through teaching and education, whether reading and writing books or, “speak[ing] to friends and neighbors and work associates…”; and his rejection of ridicule as a tool for such change; I was struck by the outpouring of post-mortem accolades from thousands of so-called Progressives on internet sites like Daily Kos; Democratic Underground; Politijab; and the Huffington Post. Ha! These are the same people who resort to ridicule (this includes name calling) and smears to chill the expression of opposition to Barack Obama, their favored candidate in the 2008 general election. (To be consistent, given his anti-Obama sentiments, instead of praising Howard Zinn, these Progressives should rightly excoriate him, too. See, for example, his “Obama at One” essay, published in The Nation two weeks before his death. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100201/forum/6 He opens with this line: “I’ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama’s rhetoric; I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.”)
Let me be clear: I presume posters on those Progressive blogs share a good faith belief in the sincerity of their tributes to Howard Zinn. But I also believe they are thumbing their noses at the principle of ‘educating for change’ that guided his life work.
Which brings me to that ‘twist’ I mentioned earlier.
In living loving tribute to the memory of this gifted teacher, I issue this challenge to all of you so-called Progressives from sites like Daily Kos, Politijab, Democratic Underground, and Huffington Post who join me in mourning the passing of the late great Howard Zinn:
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS.
If you have been making fun of those people who question whether Barack Obama is eligible to be President under Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, stop. Professor Zinn said, take seriously your “enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas.” Now, I know his admonitions cannot be carried out literally in this case, since no information available to you in the public record can establish, Barack Obama is eligible to be President under Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. (Of course, conversely, nothing exists from which his critics can confirm, he is not.) But that’s no reason to call anyone names.
However, simply not engaging in conduct that is intended to chill speech is insufficient to pay tribute to the man. I challenge you to go further.
Some of us suspect that members of the DNC Services Corporation who Certified to state election officials Barack Obama was Constitutionally qualified to be President in order to get these officials to print his name next to the D on the general election ballot; failed to ascertain beforehand, he was eligible for the job. And plenty of evidence that is available in the public record supports the conclusion, they did not. (Please note, even assuming these D’s swore he was Constitutionally qualified without first determining this was true; this does not mean, he is ineligible for the job.)
See, the laws in some states require candidates whose names appear on the ballot must be eligible for the job. In those states, members of the DNC Services Corporation or of state Democratic clubs, Certified to state election officials, Barack Obama was Constitutionally eligible to be President, getting these officials to print his name next to the D on state general election ballots. But no state requires any public official to check. So, citizens who had enacted these laws in their states decided to check, on their own. They asked those Democrats who had submitted these Certifications to their state election officials, on what documentary basis did you ascertain Mr. Obama was Constitutionally qualified for the job? But the D’s wouldn’t answer. Next, citizens turned for help to their Attorneys General who, under state constitutions, are the chief law enforcement officers in the states. Specifically, they charged that members of the D party had certified Barack Obama was Constitutionally qualified to be President just to get his name printed on the state ballot, but hadn’t actually ascertained he was eligible for the job. They submitted well pleaded complaints, detailing the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that supports their charges, including the fact D officials refuse to identify the documentary basis for Obama’s Constitutional Certification.
But in what can at best be characterized as a flagrant abuse of discretionary authority, these state government officials, Republican and Democrat alike, refuse even to acknowledge receipt of the complaints, let alone to investigate these reported crimes. In this regard, the dismissive conduct of these elected officials toward citizens of the state mimics that of Certifying members of the D Corporation (and, in the case of TX, the state D club). (See, CLUBS RULE)
Surely you agree, Howard Zinn would not suffer such a display of hubris from either public officials or party representatives without a fight! And, admiring his sense of fair play – as you obviously do – neither should you.
Accept this challenge to do something about this. Here’s how.
Contact these A’sG in applicable states – so far, GA, HI, MD, SC, TX, and VA – on behalf of those citizens who have petitioned their government to investigate charges of election fraud and let them know: ignoring the people in this way is unacceptable. And, if you are from an applicable state, become one of these citizens. (Complaints are posted in the sidebar of the blog; varying numbers have been downloaded and filed in each of the 6 identified states.) (I assume other states have similar ballot eligibility requirements; look up the laws in your state and get back to me. If yours is an applicable state, I will draft another complaint. If you’re not sure, come to the blog with your research, and ask.)
Keep in mind, working together is how the disparate unions at BU – Faculty; Clerical and Technical Workers; Librarians; and Buildings and Grounds – managed to gain recognition and obtain collective bargaining agreements.
Finally, please, stop calling those of us who are addressing the issues related to Barack Obama’s Constitutional eligibility for President, racists. That’s just plain stupid. (To see what my son looked like at age 3, click on this link to my story on Curtis Cooper. They look so much alike, my son thought I had posted a picture of him. REST IN NOBLE PEACE, CURTIS COOPER )
P.S. Searching the internet, you can find plenty of material describing Professor Zinn’s general disdain for Barack Obama. I liked this interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, in May 2009 entitled, “I Wish Obama Would Listen to MLK.” (The tape is set to cue at the 35:00 mark.)
(I was unable to embed this video but it is well worth watching. Also, the transcript can be found below the video, at that same link.)
Read the transcript here. http://www.democracynow.org/2009/5/13/howard_zinn_i_wish_obama_would
Again, my reasons were partly selfish. The 15-year-old girl he mentions at around the 40-minute mark, the girl who refused to give up her seat on the bus 9 (nine) months before Rosa Parks, is Claudette Colvin. I mention her whenever I have the opportunity; I was pleased but not surprised, the ‘People’s Historian’ Howard Zinn would know about her, too.
P.P.S. For further reading about Claudette Colvin, see this story that appeared in the New York Times in November 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/books/26colvin.html)