Just 12 years ago this coming May, Howard Zinn spent two memorable days participating in Wisconsin Labor History Society events: our annual conference held in 1998 in Oshkosh and the Bay View Tragedy event a day later in Milwaukee.
This marvelous man, whose life was spent using history to spur ordinary folks to recognize their own potential to “right the wrongs,” died Jan. 27 at the age of 87 of an unexpected heart attack in California.
After his Saturday afternoon presentation to our 1998 annual conference in Oshkosh, I had the honor driving Zinn to his Milwaukee hotel; the next afternoon I picked him up and gave him a brief tour of Milwaukee, as well as showing him the route of the 1886 workers who were marching on behalf of the eight-hour day, just before the State Militia had fired into them, killing seven.
What a singular joy this was! This man who seemed to always have a sparkle in his eye found irony and humor as he discussed the trials and tribulations of the day. (Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times has similar reflections in his column of Jan. 30, 2010. Click here to read.)
It surprised us that Zinn, who had made of lifetime career out of chronicling many of the forgotten struggles of working people, admitted he had never before heard of either of these two major labor events in Wisconsin history: the city-wide millworkers strike in 1898 in Oshkosh that brought Clarence Darrow to town to testify in a conspiracy trial against the union leaders or the Bay View Tragedy.
And that was precisely his point: the history of ordinary people is missing from the schools and the textbooks.
The textbooks and teachers, he told the conference audience in Oshkosh, tell about oil baron John D. Rockefeller and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, but not “about the people who worked in Rockefeller’s oil refineries, nothing about the people who worked in Carnegie’s steel mills . . .
“So I had to learn about labor history on my own to find out what was missing in the history books.”
And, of course, learn he did, eventually authoring the marvelous “People’s History of the United States,” which provides great perspective on the realities of history as it affects ordinary citizens, people of color, the poor and the others unheralded in most history books.
Just recently, Zinn participated in “The People Speak,” on the History Channel, in which prominent actors and performers read the words of Americans highlighting the struggle for economic justice and peace. (http://www.history.com/content/people-speak)
Zinn’s philosophy must continue to govern us, even in these days of despair as our economy falters, our troops still fight overseas, banks thumb their noses at us by pocketing huge bonuses in spite of their bungling of the economy, and the Arctic ice cap disintegrates.
It’s fitting, then, that we reflect upon what he told the packed meeting at the Puddlers’ Inn in 1998 at our annual Bay View Tragedy event. Referring to the 1886 massacre that ended, for the time being, the eight-hour day movement, he said: “You can say it was a defeat. They had to go back to work the ten-hour day. . .
“If there is anything important to remember about the Bay View massacre, it’s that no defeat lasts if what is behind it is as struggle for justice, if behind it is a moral cause . . .
“What happened here in Bay View is a reminder that struggle continues and all of us have a responsibility to keep it up.”
Thank you, Howard Zinn.
(For a video of an interesting interview on The Daily Show with John Stewart, go to http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-january-6-2005/howard-zinn
For other links to what others have said about Howard Zinn, go to http://www.howardzinn.org