The following is reprinted from Frances Fox Piven’s introduction to Some Truths Are Not Self-Evident: Howard Zinn’s Essays in The Nation on Civil Rights, Vietnam and the “War on Terror.” Download yours today!
The essays of Howard Zinn collected here remind me sharply of the living man, who was my friend for many decades. Each commentary is written much as he spoke: straight-forward and to the point, invariably penetrating and well-informed, never cluttered with needless complexity or intellectual pretension. What is most distinctive about Zinn’s writing is his moral passion and indignation at the corruptions and deceptions and bloodiness of the powerful; his deep empathy for the travails of ordinary people, especially people engaged in struggle. As Eric Foner comments in the final essay here, Zinn was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong.
Zinn and I became friends when I took a teaching job at Boston University in the early 1970s. I was assigned an office next to his in an out-of-the-way corner of a building on Bay State Road. Our corner was often crowded with undergraduates, many sitting on the floor, waiting for Zinn. It cheered me when he arrived, as soon as he had finished meeting with the students, buoyant and smiling, ready for our milkshake and BLT lunches. He was always eager to talk about the political dramas of the day, the dramas of the big world outside BU, and the endless dramas of BU itself, usually having to do with John Silber, our increasingly maniacal and right-wing president, who wanted to run the university as if he were the ruler of a banana republic.
Readers of this volume are likely familiar with Zinn’s opus, A People’s History of the United States. The essays in this volume are somewhat different. A People’s History documents the struggles of ordinary Americans for a measure of justice, but it does so at a remove of several decades, and even centuries, from the people and the events it describes. These Nation essays remind us that for nearly fifty years Zinn himself was deeply involved in the major twentieth-century struggles for social justice in the United States: the emancipatory movement of African-Americans for civil and political rights and the recurrent movements against America’s imperial wars, first in Vietnam and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. These essays are reports and reflections on those struggles, on the courage and imagination of the young people who were the main participants, and on the abuses on the part of the political authorities, including the Democratic presidents who tried to resist or evade movement demands. And while the issues of today’s protest movements are different, there are also remarkable continuities.