Zinn on the Civil Rights movement. “The federal government was trying-without making fundamental changes-to control an explosive situation, to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering.” (1)
Howard Zinn himself was directly involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. He was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and personally took part in marches and protests to help blacks register and vote safely. During this time, there was incredible violence as whites viciously attacked and sometimes murdered anyone involved in the civil rights movement. This was the time of legalized segregation, and blacks were restricted from voting via racist ballot taxes and other racist legislation. The ultimate triumph of the 60s is that legal segregation and voting restrictions were ended, allowing all people of color fully utilize their citizenship rights. Zinn’s analysis and cynicism of the very era he lived through is astounding, as he belittles Martin Luther Kings I Have a Dream speech, and dismisses the very Civil Rights laws which passed in its wake.
“When black civil rights leaders planned a huge march on Washington in the summer of 1963 to protest the failure of the nation to solve the race problem, it was quickly embraced by President Kennedy and other national leaders, and turned into a friendly assemblage.” (2) Zinn basically declares the high-water mark of the civil rights movement to be Martin Luther Kings sell out moment. He quotes nothing of King’s I have a Dream speech, but gives a full page quote to Malcolm X, part of which reads
“This is what they (the establishment) did with the March on Washington. They joined it… became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost it’s militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all…
Not, it was a sellout. It was a takeover.. The controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get out of town by sundown…” (458)
To support Malcom X’s charges of selling out Zinn quotes Kennedy Adviser from his book A Thousand Days., when Kennedy met with Civil Rights leaders about the march on Washington, which was when Congress was debating Civil Rights Bills. “The conference with the president did persuade the civil rights leaders that they should not lay siege to Capital Hill….. So in 1963 Kennedy moved to incorporate the Negro revolution into the democratic coalition.” (458)
So does Zinn actually think there should have been violence in Washington? Surely a race riot in the nation’s capital with Martin Luther King present would have done wonders for the Civil Rights movement. (Insert sarcasm here). Zinn subtly says that King was a clown, and has much more sympathy toward Malcolm X. The thing is King faced problems directly, where Malcolm X did not. For over a decade King continuously put his life on the line. While Malcolm X gave speeches King was jailed and beaten in the march for Civil Rights. Martin Luther King’s dream was for white men and black men to be together at the table of brotherhood, while Malcolm X spoke of retaining segregation, though later he changed these views. King fought for a day where people would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character, and this is why we have Martin Luther King Day and not Malcolm X day.
In closing, I could extensively quote the I Have a Dream speech to call out Zinn’s nonsense, but instead I’ll allow you to hear it for yourself. Please watch this, and decide for yourself. Was this a weak speech of a sellout clown, or was it a rousing speech calling for fundamental changes and improvement in American society.
1. Zinn, Howard: “A People’s History of the United States” Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2005 p 456-457
2. Zinn p 457
3. Zinn 458
4. Zinn 458