Skip to content Skip to footer
Against Discouragement – HOWARD ZINN Interviewed by David Barsamian

Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is perhaps this country’s premier radical historian. He was born in Brooklyn in 1922. His parents, poor immigrants, were constantly moving to stay “one step ahead of the landlord.” After high school, he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During World War II, he saw combat duty as an air force bombardier. After the war, he went to Columbia University on the GI Bill. He was an active figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Today, he is in great demand as a public speaker. He’s a regular contributor to “The Progressive” magazine. His masterpiece, “A People’s History of the United States,” continues to sell in huge numbers. His latest books are “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress” and “Original Zinn.

There are many allusions comparing the current economic collapse to the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s become almost the stock phrase in the media and in political discourse—“the worst since the Great Depression,” or “the most severe job losses since the 1930s.”

We obviously are in a serious economic situation. But to me it’s very interesting that we have these periodic economic crises in American life. There was one in 1873, one in the 1890s, then, of course, the one you just described, the big crash of 1929, and now we have this one. I’m sort of both amused and disturbed by the fact that the assumption is that between these crises everything is okay, that before the 1929 crash there was the age of prosperity, the 1920s, The Jazz Age. But the fact is that in all these periods in between the crises most Americans were living in a period of crisis; that is, the average American was having a hard time struggling to survive. Crisis is generally defined by what happens to the stock market, what happens to Wall Street, what happens to the banks. When they get into deep trouble and they begin to collapse, then it’s called a crisis. Of course, also in these times of crisis, things get worse for the working class, worse than ever before. But I want to point to the fact that for a good part of the population they’re always in an economic crisis.

In 1929, the stock market crashed. It’s interesting that people don’t go back and ask why—why did it happen, and did it have anything to do with the so-called prosperity of the 1920s. I think the answer is it had a lot to do with it, because in the so-called prosperity so many parts of the population were left behind. In the 1920s, the gap between the rich and the poor widened considerably, widened considerably because the government was following fiscal policies, tax policies which benefited the rich. The secretary of the treasury was Andrew Mellon. How can you find a more fair-minded person to appoint as secretary of the treasury than Andrew Mellon? So Andrew Mellon was the secretary of the treasury through the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge. And Mellon organizes the tax structure in such a way that the rich get richer and the poor either stay where they are or get poorer. This huge gap and the loss of purchasing power by a large part of the population is, I think, what accounts for the crash of 1929.

That’s significant for today, because again we have seen in the last several decades the growth of this gap between the rich and the poor, enormous growth in the difference between the richest 1% of the population and everybody else. The result is that people cannot pay their mortgages, so millions of foreclosures, people lose their jobs. It’s interesting to me that the remedy for this which seems to be agreed on to some extent by both Republicans and Democrats is to bail out the financial institutions that sit on top of the heap, to worry about them and to hope, and to present this as a promise to the public, that if they bail out these financial institutions, that everybody will benefit. In other words, the assumption is that the $700 billion initially designed to give to the financial institutions to get out of the crisis will trickle down to the people who have to pay their mortgages and the people who lost their jobs. That is not the thing to do if you care about economic justice.

Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times on the banking system rescue, says it’s a classic example of what he calls “lemon socialism,” that is, taxpayers bear the cost if things go wrong, but stockholders and executives get the benefits if things go right.

That’s exactly the situation here, because what’s happening is that the government, by bailing out the financial institutions, is creating a great government debt, which will be satisfied by taxing the rest of the population. So the average American is going to pay higher taxes in order to give this big bonanza to the financial institutions, who are undoubtedly—and the evidence is already in—already beginning to waste this money or to give it away in bonuses and salaries and yachts and luxuries instead of money going directly to poor people. I was disturbed to see, when the $700 billion bailout was announced first by the Bush administration, both Obama and McCain standing there and approving of this, which is not a good sign for the future of the Obama administration.

Noam Chomsky calls these kinds of bailouts and state interventions, “a regular feature of state capitalism, though the scale today is unusual.”

Everything today is on a much larger scale. And, of course, it’s on a global scale. So what this means is that the remedy has to be on a larger scale. The remedy that Obama is proposing is a stimulus package from $700 billion to a trillion dollars. However, because the scale of the crisis is much greater than ever before, this is not nearly enough. It will take a much, much more drastic set of economic programs, and it will take a stimulus package which is not designed to utilize the market and private enterprise and businesses, which too much of Obama’s program is dedicated to.

No, what it will take is spending huge sums of money, for the government to give jobs directly to people, as the New Deal did in its early years, gave jobs to 4 to 6 million people. This economic crisis requires much, much greater allocation of wealth to give directly to people, to help homeowners pay their mortgages, to give jobs to people, as the New Deal did in the 1930, created millions of jobs through the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project, the Civilian Conservation Corps. It will take an extremely bold program and one that bypasses the market system, which cannot be trusted, and instead creates a direct and democratic relationship between the government and the American people.

There is a kind of conventional wisdom to explain the economic collapse. You mentioned the housing foreclosures. There is a lot of opprobrium being placed on greedy Wall Street financiers and some cheats in some instances and the lack of regulation, as if these were the main causes.

Well, greedy Wall Street financiers. What else do they expect but greed from financiers? It’s true that deregulation has played a part in this crisis, because the government—and this goes for both Republican and Democratic governments over the last years—have little by little deregulated the business institutions, the corporations, and the economy. You cannot allow the corporations to be unregulated, because corporations only care about profit, they don’t care about what happens to human beings.

I remember that Pope—I think it was Pope John XXIII, but one of the recent popes—I’m not up on my popes, as you can see. I’m more up on the lineup of the Boston Red Sox than I am on the popes. But it was one recent pope, and certainly not the current one, who talked about something has to be done about—and these are his words—“savage, unbridled capitalism,” capitalism unregulated. So, yes, regulation has something to do with it. We need to regulate corporate behavior. Of course, preferably, we should really so drastically change the economic system that corporations are not in charge of our lives.

FDR and New Deal. There is certainly a lot of evidence that he responded to the heat in the streets, the public pressure to make things happen, to bring the state in a major way to intervene in the economy.

That’s an important thing to understand about Roosevelt and the New Deal, because in the American culture, in the American educational system, it’s a very simple story. We had a depression, a crisis, Roosevelt came into office and solved the crisis, saved people. The story is much more complicated than that. The fact is that when Roosevelt came into office, he did not have ideas about bold changes in the system. However, when Roosevelt came into office in early 1933, he was faced with a country in turmoil, he was faced with all sorts of strikes. In 1934, there were general strikes tying up the whole city of San Francisco, tying up the whole city of Minneapolis, strikes of hundreds of thousands of textile workers in the South. Unemployment councils were springing up, tenants’ councils were growing, civil disobedience was being carried on. People were defying sheriffs and police officers and moving furniture back into the houses of evicted people. As the first years of the New Deal went on, the CIO was growing, the labor movement had a resurgence of energy and militancy, and soon we had strikes all over the country, the sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937.

So Roosevelt, faced with a country that was so agitated, responded to it. This must be said to his credit. Not every president would have responded so sensitively. But it has to be understood that political leaders don’t move unless there is agitation and anger expressed below. And that’s what happened in the New Deal.

You’ve written about the robber barons in the late 19th century in A People’s History of theUnited States, Maureen Dowd recently wrote about them in this way. She said, “At least the old robber barons made great products.” To which I may add, as opposed to what Kevin Phillips calls today “exotic financial instruments.”

Of course, it’s true that the economy in the 19th century was more concentrated on making real things rather than sort of playing around with paper. Today there is an enormous amount of the national wealth and world wealth which consists of paper. It has no substance. And certainly in the American economy so much is concentrated on financial transactions which have nothing to do with producing anything good. So Maureen Dowd is right in pointing to that difference.

However, I wouldn’t go so far as to praise the robber barons for producing real things. It’s true, J.P. Morgan produced real guns for the Civil War. They were defective and people lost their lives because of his guns, and he made a lot of profit from his guns. Andrew Carnegie produced real steel in his mills, but he exploited his workers. And when they went on strike, he called in the Pinkertons to shoot them down. So, yes, they produced real things. They also exploited their workers and the public to a horrendous extent. That’s why we are still justified in calling them robber barons.

There seems to be a kind of market fundamentalism on the issue of tax cuts. It’s almost a fetish. “We have to cut taxes, we have to put money in people’s pockets,” which sounds very attractive, I’m sure. You want money in your pocket, I want money in my pocket.

I want money in your pocket. (laughter)

Can a tax cut build parks, schools, recreation centers, libraries?

Tax cuts by themselves won’t do that. The government must do that. The government must do what the New Deal did. It takes several million young people. Instead of sending them off to military bases to fight in other countries, put them to work building parks and swimming pools and playgrounds and so on.

But I want to say something else about the tax structure and about the so-called we must reduce taxes. Taxes in this country, in the media and by politicians, are always discussed in classless terms. By that I mean it’s always, Should we have more taxes or should we have less taxes? They don’t ask, Who do you mean? Who do you want to tax more? Who do you want to tax less? So when the American people read in the headlines, tax cuts, Well, good, my taxes will be cut. Then, if they inspect it further, they would see the tax cuts are intended for the people who least need cuts, the people who make the most money. So we have to look at the tax system in a class-oriented way and to see what we need are no tax cuts for the rich, increasing taxes for the rich, and, yes, tax cuts for the poor and for the middle class, yes.

Wall Street has always been a frequent target for politicians, from Teddy Roosevelt denouncing the “malefactors of great wealth,” to FDR talking about the “economic royalists,” and today Barack Obama criticizing CEOs for their compensation packages and their overly generous bonuses and, salaries.

Of course, it’s good to see presidents lashing out at the CEOs who make 400 times as much as the average worker, and it’s good to see Obama doing that. It’s an easy thing to do. The rhetoric is easy. However, following actual policies which will reduce corporate profit and help ordinary people, that’s another matter. Roosevelt’s rhetoric soared to its height, I thought, when in his 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden when he said—this is as close as I can get to recalling his words—I’ll paraphrase it, or maybe it will be almost exact; you will have to take my word for this—The wealthy classes “hate” me, “and I welcome their hatred.” That was refreshing to hear. And, in fact, some of Roosevelt’s policies were designed to help the poor. But we have to get beyond the rhetoric and actually look at policies. And we certainly have to do that with Obama.

John Dewey, the 20th century American social philosopher, observed, “Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” And that will remain so as long as power resides in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

John Dewey was a wise man. And while I don’t generally like to mention the name of Karl Marx—after all, it was Karl Marx who was castigated for what they call economic determinism; he really wasn’t an economic determinist in the hard sense that economics rules everything—it was Karl Marx who said, Behind politics is economics. Behind political decisions are economic decisions. The economy is the base from which politics and culture—which include media and the press—get their sustenance. So John Dewey was right in pointing to the fact that if you want to have political democracy, you must have economic democracy. You cannot have political democracy while the economy is in the hands of corporations or is in the hands of what they call “the market,” which they sometimes call erroneously “the free market.” So Dewey’s advice should be heeded.

Do the media perhaps focus too much on bad apples rather than the barrel? For example, Bernie Madoff, the corrupt New York financier, a giant Ponzi scheme, $50 billion lost. He’s an easy target. It’s no great heroism to denounce him. But what about the larger structure in which these things happen? That seems to elude the scrutiny of most of the media.

That’s an interesting point, the bad apple. I remember that during the Watergate hearings and after the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, people talked about how, Well, Nixon is resigning, and we’re getting rid of the bad, the rotten apple. But the barrel remains intact. In fact, I remember Anthony Lewis, a liberal and in many respects an intelligent man, saying, “The system works. We got rid of Nixon.” No, Nixon came out of the system, and when he was gone, the system remained and the system that produced Nixon then produced all his successors, including the present one or the recently passed one of Bush.

So it’s a very common thing, yes, to take Bernie Madoff and the others and say “Put them in jail,” and now we’re happy. No, you have to do a lot more than that. It’s not the rotten apples, it’s the barrel. We have to change the barrel—change the economic system, change the political system. That’s much harder. And, of course, the media, being part of that barrel, part of that system, being controlled basically by the rich corporations and paying very subservient obedience to the government, are not going to ask people to examine the system.

Two of the major New Deal programs were Social Security and unemployment insurance. Where would people be today without those lifelines?

Without Social Security and without unemployment insurance, we would be in a much, much more severe economic crisis than we are now. At least Social Security gives people a sort of a minimum, not enough. Social Security systems in other countries are much more generous than ours, unemployment insurance in other countries is much more generous than in our country. But they are crucial. Of course, what we need to do is expand Social Security, expand unemployment insurance, and introduce a health care system, health security to parallel Social Security. A system in which people do not have to deal with insurance companies and forms and bureaucracies but where they get free medical care without any kind of red tape, the way it’s done in Canada, France, New Zealand, Italy, so many countries. Some of us who have traveled and been in these countries have remarked, when something happens, you go to a doctor, you go to a hospital, you don’t have to think about money. So, yes, we need to expand these social programs.

2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008, the most since the 1940s. Some analysts have been talking about how bogus the unemployment figures actually are, because they don’t take into account discouraged workers, people who have dropped out, and people who are working, perhaps, a few hours a week because they can’t find full-time work. They suggest that the actual figures could be as high as 15%.

I don’t doubt it. Unemployment statistics have always underestimated the amount of unemployment that there is, because they don’t take into consideration the people who are partly unemployed and they don’t take into consideration people who have stopped looking for work and who don’t show up in the statistics. The whole statistical picture of employment needs to be made more complex. For instance, take in the fact that there are so many people who work at two jobs in order to survive. So, yes, we cannot take government statistics as an accurate representation of how people are living.

Contextualize the Obama election and what it represents. Again, it became a cliché heard over and over again—I guess that’s redundant, too, since all clichés are heard over and over again—but we were told incessantly, this was a historic election, it was a historic turning point, et cetera.

Clichés generally have an element of truth, and you have to separate the element of truth from the element of exaggeration. It’s true that this was a historic election. It’s true that the election of an African American president, or even a half African American president, is quite an astounding thing in a country whose history has been plagued by slavery and racism for hundreds of years. So the people exulting at the Obama victory are right to exult. I remember, as I was watching on television on the night of the election, seeing the faces, especially of black people. A lot of people, black, white, were happy, but black people especially, what it meant to them after all they’ve been through. And I remember seeing on television they flashed on to the faces of students at Spelman College in Atlanta, where I taught, and these kids were shouting, screaming, ecstatic. I could understand it perfectly and it was justified.

But now that that moment of exhilaration is over, now that we’ve recognized that historic moment, we also need now to be soberly realistic in asking, Will this first African American president behave like another politician, as other African Americans have done, or will he behave like Martin Luther King would behave if Martin Luther King had power? We have to understand that Obama, with all of his admirable qualities—he’s articulate, he’s intelligent, yes, but these are not the most important qualities, because we have all sorts of people who are articulate and intelligent. The real question is, What are their values, what do they really care about?

We have to recognize that Obama, with all of these admirable qualities, the charisma that is attached to him, is still a politician. As Lincoln was a politician. Lincoln was, yes, a good, decent man, eloquent, of course, but ending slavery was not his priority. Lincoln had to be pushed by an anti-slavery movement that grew and grew and grew. He had to be pushed by this movement into the Emancipation Proclamation, and Congress had to be pushed by millions of petitions pouring into Congress, into passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. So, yes, Lincoln was a politician, but he could be moved

I first recognized that Obama was a politician during the primary campaign, when he went to Connecticut, where Joseph Lieberman was in the Democratic primary fighting against Ned Lamont. Lieberman was the pro-war candidate, Ned Lamont was the peace candidate. Obama went to Connecticut to support Lieberman. This troubled me. And since then we have many indications of Obama as a politician, as compromising. The people that he’s appointed are holdovers from the Clinton administration. He does not show in the appointments of the people around him, the economic advisers, members of the cabinet, that he is interested in a bold departure from previous policies. His call for more troops to Afghanistan and, shockingly, his sending Predator drone missiles over Pakistan, almost one of the first acts of his administration—the same thing that Bush was doing—where is the change, where is the difference?

So it’s clear that Obama is just going to be a traditional Democratic Party politician as president unless there is a national movement, as there was during the 1850s before the Civil War, as there was during the 1930s with FDR, to demand that Obama change his direction.

You mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Certainly in the last years of his life, that have been largely obscured since he’s kind of frozen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in “I have a dream,” his main concerns were about the poor, poverty and alleviating it, as well as issues of imperialism, that is, America’s role in the world as a hegemonic power. I have not heard yet Obama challenge any of the assumptions of American privilege. He says the United States must “lead” the world. And there has been very little attention paid to the poor, quite a bit of attention paid to the middle class, as if all Americans are in the middle class.

Obama basically follows the values that have been the values of all presidents of the United States from the beginning, Democrat or Republican. Richard Hofstadter, the historian, who was one of my mentors, you might say, when I went to Columbia University, wrote a wonderful book called The American Political Tradition.In this book Hofstadter examines the leaders of the United States from the Founding Fathers down to Franklin Roosevelt. What he finds—and this has always intrigued me—in examining the policies of these presidents, whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, there were fundamental principles that all of them followed: one of them, preserve capitalism; the other expand national power.

Obama seems to be stuck in exactly that position. His economic policies are predicated on capitalism and the market system. His foreign policies are still militaristic, expansionist, yes, imperialistic. He talks about America leading the way, being the beacon for the world. This is the old rhetoric. It’s time we got off this high horse of America leading the world and deciding that America should become a more modest country. Pull back our troops from other countries, not insist that we must set the standard. Our standards are not very good. So Obama, I think, has to make a really drastic change in his policies.

He has announced that the Guantánamo prison will be closed. But in all the discussions and media reports about Guantánamo, I haven’t seen a single mention of how the United States acquired Guantánamo.

I’m sure that most Americans, including most educated Americans, do not know, do not remember, maybe never learned, because our educational system is not that good, that Guantánamo is part of Cuba. I don’t know where people think Guantánamo is. Maybe they think it’s an island in the Pacific or in the Caribbean. Who knows? Maybe they think it’s a city in New Mexico. But Guantánamo is part of Cuba. The United States established it as a military base when the United States invaded Cuba in 1898 to drive Spanish out and establish American control over Cuba. In the course of it, this military base was established. I think it has required remarkable forbearance on the part of Castro. So Castro is not as radical as we think. A truly radical president would say to the world, “Hey, the United States should get out of Guantánamo. This is ours. Guantánamo is on the island of Cuba.” So, yes, people should not only examine, of course, the imprisonment of people on Guantánamo but should ask the question, Why should the United States have a piece of Cuba?

In this time of enormous economic distress and calls for frugality and looking for monies to pay for programs and to help people, one budget seems to be a no-go zone, and that’s the military budget. Why isn’t it a subject of debate and discussion? Military spending is in the hundreds of billions. If you include supplemental spending for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s close to a trillion dollars a year.

The military budget is enormously, enormously loaded. Why is there no discussion of it? The press is remarkably silent, the politicians are silent. Of course, there are huge economic interests involved in maintaining the military budget, huge corporate profits involved in the military budget. The military budget enables the United States to be an imperial, expansionist power with military bases all over the world and to conduct wars. And it’s become a kind of hush-hush subject. What strikes me is that if there were some political leadership or if there were some leadership in the media to begin questioning the military budget, I believe the public would recognize that the military budget is crowding out and starving the social programs that this country could have if it weren’t spending a trillion dollars a year on the military. It’s one of those sort of hidden premises, like the emperor has no clothes, that people are trained not to question but absolutely should be questioned.

In 1963 you were fired from Spelman College.

I wish you would put it in a more gentle way. Just today I got an email from somebody who said, “I understand in 1963 you were asked to leave by Spelman College.” That’s a more polite way of saying it. But I have to admit, I was fired.

You had supported your students, with whom you had been active in the movement against racial segregation. In May of 2005, you were invited back by Spelman to receive an honorary degree and to give the commencement address. This is in the afterword of Original Zinn. It’s called “Against Discouragement.” If I may ask you to read this. I would be most appreciative.

Of course, I love to read my own words. It was quite a remarkable day. I got such a warm welcome from the students and the parents and the faculty and the new president of Spelman College. So here’s what I said to the assembled students and parents, but mostly it’s addressing the students.

“I am deeply honored to be invited back to Spelman after 42 years … but this is your day—the students graduating today. It’s a happy day for you and your families. I know you have your own hopes for the future, so it may be a little presumptuous for me to tell you what hopes I have for you, but they are exactly the same ones that I have for my own grandchildren.

My first hope is that you will not be too discouraged by the way the world looks at this moment. It is easy to be discouraged, because our nation is at war—still another war, war after war—and our government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. There is poverty in this country and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded classrooms, but our government, which has trillions of dollars to spend, is spending its wealth on war. There are a billion people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East who need clean water and medicine to deal with malaria and tuberculosis and AIDS, but our government, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, is experimenting with even more deadly nuclear weapons. Yes, it is easy to be discouraged by all that.

But let me tell you why, in spite of what I have just described, you must not be discouraged.

I want to remind you that fifty years ago racial segregation here in the South was entrenched as tightly as was apartheid in South Africa. The national government, even with liberal presidents like Kennedy and Johnson in office, was looking the other way while black people were beaten and killed and denied the opportunity to vote. So black people in the South decided they had to do something by themselves. They boycotted and sat in and picketed and demonstrated, and were beaten and jailed, and some were killed, but their cries for freedom were soon heard all over the nation and around the world, and the President and Congress finally did what they had previously failed to do—enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Many people had said: The South will never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up. That’s when democracy came alive.

I want to remind you also that when the war in Vietnam was going on, and young Americans were dying and coming home paralyzed and our government was bombing the villages of Vietnam—bombing schools and hospitals and killing ordinarypeople in huge numbers—it looked hopeless to try to stop the war. But just as in the Southern movement, people began to protest and soon it caught on. It was a national movement. Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing to join the military, and the war had to end.

The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies. I know you have practical things to do—to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.

Remember Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Illych. A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism.

My hope is that whatever you do to make a good life for yourself—whether you become a teacher, a social worker, a business person, or lawyer, or poet, or scientist—you will devote part of your life to making this a better world for your children, for all children. My hope is that your generation will demand an end to war, that your generation will do something that has not yet been done in history and wipe out the national boundaries that separate us from other human beings on this earth.

Recently I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times which I cannot get out of my mind. It showed ordinary Americans sitting on chairs on the southern border of Arizona, facing Mexico. They were holding guns and they were looking for Mexicans who might be trying to cross the border into the United States. This was horrifying to me—the realization that, in this 21st century of what we call “civilization,” we have carved up what we claim is one world into 200 artificially created entities we call “nations” and are ready to kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

Is not nationalism—that devotion to flag, an anthem, a boundary, so fierce it leads to murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking, cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on, have been useful to those in power, deadly for those out of power.

Here in the United States, we are brought up to believe that our nation is different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral; that we expand into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. But if you know some history, you know that’s not true. If you know some history, you know we massacred the Indians on this continent, invaded Mexico, sent armies into Cuba, and the Philippines. We killed huge numbers of people, and we did not bring them democracy or liberty. We did not go into Vietnam to bring democracy; we did not invade Panama to stop the drug trade; we did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq to stop terrorism. Our aims were the aims of all other empires of world history—more profit for corporations, more power for politicians.

The poets and artists among us seem to have a clearer understanding of the disease of nationalism. Perhaps the black writers especially are less enthralled with the virtues of American “liberty” and “democracy,” their people having enjoyed so little of it. I’m thinking of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

I am a veteran of the Second World War. That was considered a “good war,” but I have come to the conclusion that war solves no fundamental problems and only leads to more wars. War poisons the minds of soldiers, leads them to kill and torture, and poisons the soul of a nation.

My hope is that your generation will demand that your children be brought up in a world without war. If we want a world in which the people of all countries are brothers and sisters, if the children all over the world are considered as our children, then war—in which children are always the greatest casualties—cannot be accepted as a way of solving problems.

I was on the faculty of Spelman College for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. It was a heart-warming time, because the friends we made in those years have remained our friends all these years. My wife Roslyn and I and our two children lived on campus. Sometimes when we went into town, white people would ask, “How is it to be living in the black community?” It was hard to explain. But we knew this—that in downtown Atlanta, we felt as if we were in alien territory, and when we came back to the Spelman campus, we felt that we were at home.

Those years at Spelman were the most exciting of my life, the most educational certainly. I learned more from my students than they learned from me. These were the years of the great movement in the South against racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta, in Albany, in Georgia, in Selma, Alabama, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Greenwood and Itta Bena and Jackson. I learned something about democracy: that it does not come from the government, from on high. It comes from people getting together and struggling for justice. I learned about race. I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point—that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornell West has written) it matters only because certain people want it to matter, just as nationalism is something artificial. I learned that what really matters is that all of us—of whatever so-called race and so-called nationality—are human beings and should cherish one another.

I was lucky to be at Spelman at a time when I could watch a marvelous transformation in my students, who were so polite, so quiet, and then suddenly they were leaving the campus and going into town, sitting in, and being arrested, and then coming out of jail full of fire and rebellion. You can read all about that in Harry Lefever’s book Undaunted by the Fight. One day Marian Wright (now Marian Wright Edelman), who was my student at Spelman, and was one of the first arrested in the Atlanta sit-ins, came to our house on campus to show us a petition she was about to put on the bulletin board of her dormitory. The heading on the petition epitomized the transformation taking place at Spelman College. Marian had written on top of the petition: “Young Ladies Who Can Picket, Please Sign Below.”

My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way that our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you. There are wonderful people, black and white, who are models. I don’t mean African Americans like Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas, who have become servants of the rich and powerful. I mean W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and good white folk, too, who defied the establishment to work for peace and justice.

Another of my students at Spelman, Alice Walker, who like Marian has remained our friend all these years, came from a tenant farmer’s family in Eatonton, Georgia, and became a famous writer. In one of her first published poems, she wrote:

“It is true—

I’ve always loved

the daring


Like the black young


Who tried

to crash

All barriers

at once,

wanted to


At a white

beach (in Alabama)


I am not suggesting that you go that far, but you can help to break down barriers, of race certainly, but also of nationalism; that you do what you can—you don’t have to do something heroic, just something, to join with millions of others who will just do something, because all of those somethings, at certain points in history, come together and make the world better.

That marvelous African American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, who wouldn’t do what white people wanted her to do, who wouldn’t do what black people wanted her to do, who insisted on being herself, said that her mother advised her: Leap for the sun—you may not reach it, but at least you will get off the ground.

By being here today, you are already standing on your toes, ready to leap. My hope for you is a good life.”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Naked Punch © 2024. All Rights Reserved.