The Next Page: Howard Zinn, Historian of the People, For the People

Historians in the News

Most every protester at this week's G-20 summit has a dog-eared copy of Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States' in his or her library. Dmitri Ragano talks to the author -- not so much about history, but about the future.

Howard Zinn's"A People's History of the United States" has changed the way millions of Americans think about their country's past and present. Zinn has been on the front lines of political protest for nearly a century. He is critical of many government and business policies that will dominate G-20 discussions this week.

Zinn is a central inspiration for"The People's Summit" in Pittsburgh this weekend (Sept. 19, 21, 22). It will offer alternative views and discussions on topics including poverty, labor rights and environmentalism. (See www.peoplessummit.com)

This week Dmitri caught up with Zinn and Pittsburgh-born filmmaker Lisa Smith who are collaborating with a galaxy of Hollywood stars on a Zinn-themed documentary,"The People Speak," that will air on cable television this year. Zinn and Smith talked about his work, the summits and why Pittsburgh is the perfect place for a debate on how to run the world.

THIS WEEK, we bask in the glow of Pittsburgh's selection for the G-20 summit. We pontificate on how the outcomes, decisions on free trade and global finance, could influence our country's future.

In his underground best-selling book"A People's History of the United States," Howard Zinn describes a less celebrated event that occurred in our city over a century ago. It too played a decisive factor in how millions of Americans would live and work for decades to come.

It was the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. The historian chronicles the face-off between Carnegie Steel and its employees over wages and the right to organize. Henry Clay Frick, tasked with running the company while Andrew Carnegie was in Europe, ordered the creation of three miles of barbed wire fence to keep strikers away from the mills. Gun-carrying Pinkerton detectives were brought in to protect company property and introduce of replacement workers.

A bloody siege ensued. Strikers took control of the whole town of Homestead, battling the Pinkertons when they tried to enter the shore from barges on the Monongahela. After killings on both sides of the conflict, the state government intervened to assist Carnegie Steel. Militia reinforcements poured in and arrested resisting workers. The strike was defeated and there were no unions in the mills for the next 40 years until the Great Depression.

The Homestead Strike is one of many episodes in Zinn's underground classic that show us the rawer, more controversial side of our nation's past than we may have learned about in our high school curriculum. Zinn says that in writing the book, he wanted to"awaken a great consciousness" in his readers, challenging them to consider controversial issues in our past and present -- issues like war, class, inequality and race -- so that we'd be inspired to get civically engaged and create a better future.

The tale is also an example of his gift for storytelling that makes"A People's History" a gripping read and unlikely publishing sensation. Since its initial printing with little fanfare in 1980,"A People's History" has climbed out of obscurity and sold more than 2 million copies. It is one of the only titles in entire book industry that has consistently increased sales year after year -- for almost three decades.

At the age of 87, Zinn is a pivotal source of inspiration for"The People's Summit," a series of political and economic discussions that began Saturday and will continue on Monday and Tuesday, preceding the official G-20 summit. Though Zinn will not be able to travel to Pittsburgh for health reasons, he has videotaped a keynote address.

Asked about the success of his writing, Zinn expresses surprise and humility."It shows that millions of American people are hungry for a new view of our country," he said over the phone from his home in Boston. They are seeking"a more critical view that examines our economic policy, racial policy, environmental policy."

For most of Zinn's life, if he wasn't writing about history then he was in the middle of it. Growing up as the son of Jewish immigrants in New York, he participated in shipyard strikes of the Great Depression and then served in World War II flying combat missions in Europe.

As a political activist he was on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the South and the anti-war protests of the 1960s. As a white professor at a black woman's college in the South, Zinn documented the Freedom Rides. As part of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Zinn travelled to Hanoi to lobby for the release of POWs and collaborated with Daniel Ellsberg to get the Pentagon Papers published.

Zinn's legacy is poised to become more visible in the public mind later this year, when the film"The People Speaks" -- a documentary featuring spoken-word performances from the sources of his book -- is aired on the History Channel. The film includes performances by many of Zinn's admirers in the entertainment world, including Matt Damon, Bruce Springsteen, Josh Brolin and Marisa Tomei...
Read entire article at post-gazette.com (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

comments powered by Disqus