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Patricia Marx sits down with historian Howard Zinn to discuss his recent books, "The New Abolitionist" and "The Southern Mystique." Zinn describes his recent experiences teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1956 to 1963, and his subsequent observations on racial prejudice in the Southern United States.
WNYC archives id: 56192
Title: Patricia Marx Interviews: Howard Zinn
Last Updated: 2016-06-16 7:15PM
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I'm delighted to have as my guest today Professor Howard Zinn who recently spent seven
years as chairman of the history department at Stillman College which is a
predominantly Negro school in Atlanta Georgia. During this time professors
in observed and participated in the civil rights
struggle and has just written two books out of this personally experience.
One entitled The new
abolitionists is about the activists civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The other in title the southern mystique challenges are accepted views of the
South and race prejudice. This isn't just what you mean by the Southern mystique.
There's a certain atmosphere built up around the south in history books.
I guess in our literature in the folklore of the nation.
And this in the final feeling about
the South somehow was one of
mystery and that people somehow had gotten a
notion through this long tradition of literature and history and
folklore that the South
was an unfathomable quantity that it was so different
from the rest of the nation that there was no point in attempting to
penetrate this mystery.
And as I observe the actions and the ideas in action of
white Southerners a negro sudden was about
me I began to realize that the South was very much like the rest of
the nation that it was not unfathomable not mysterious not
indecipherable that it was subject to rational consideration and analysis and
thought that something like race prejudice for
instance which so many not only American
Northerners but perhaps people all over the world have begun to think is something ingrained
and mysterious in the southern white that this race.
This is really something understandable and something with which you can
grapple and something you can
change it isn't really known such as lynchings
in for segregation murders isn't what we know about the South that makes us
feel race prejudice is unfathomable an
unchangeable Well these are the facts and these are true that is the
mystery as I think all mysteries. The mystery is
based on an element of truth. The South has been more
violent has been more prejudiced has reacted in the
most terrifying ways to negroes has killed
and the most Negroes and brutalized them more
than any other section of the nation. This is true what is not
however is the idea that this therefore is an
unchangeable part of the self that this has always been in the south and
will always be there and nothing we can do will erase this feeling in
the minds of white Southerners in this pattern of action that they have
had throughout history.
It's often said that one must wait to change men's hearts before wind changes
their laws. I do agree with this.
I think this is one of the fundamental points in the southern
city and I suppose one of the reasons I set
out to write it
because Americans concerned with the race problem. I think
particularly liberal Americans have long said well the way to get
at the problem is to change first the thinking of man the feelings of
man mainly by education.
Which meant mainly by verbal education and then this would have an effect on the
situation in the south. And what I began. To see a
living at a ladder. Through seven years of very intense
change. Those exactly those seven years in which the south has been going through
this great turmoil.
For one hundred fifty six two years after the Supreme Court decision to nineteen.
Sixty three and what I saw in
years was that white southerners began to change
their patterns of behavior before they changed their way of thinking and they did this
because several things happened because
one laws of the community
change and second the
atmosphere in the community that which is created by the predominant opinion
of editors ministers professors and all of the powerful organs of opinion in
the community. All of these
things began to create a different atmosphere and this changed
atmosphere not some internal change in the way of thinking this changed atmosphere and the
changed legal situation which led them to change their behavior even before they change
minds and my argument is that what you really do is first
change the way people behave by creating a new environment around them and as they begin
to behave differently. They begin to think
differently. And this is based I suppose on
the idea that people's
behavior does not come as much out of some
internalized thought process as it does out of the behavior they see.
About them whether this is consistent with their internal thinking and that there are so many people go through
life behaving in a way that they don't think they should
behave simply because this. These are the laws of society. And these are the
patterns and the mores and I'm saying you change the mores you change the environment of the
Southern you change the way behaves and then you change the way of
thinking. I mean changing the way he behaves strictly through law.
Not strictly but this is one way. I think at one point in the
book I mention this incident on the
bus which a student of mine. Experience she that this was
a class. I suppose we weren't supposed to be discussing this in class but you know
we teachers get off on things and students get off on things and I was happy to let it get
way she told about an incident that happened that
morning and was the morning after the busses had been legally the
segregated in the federal courthouse in Atlanta. This is a
Negro girl a student of mine and she'd gotten on the
bus and she saw a Negro man sitting in the front of the
bus the very first morning after the court had said now it is legal
for Negroes to sit in front of the bus. And then a white woman got on to
the bus saw this negro man sitting in the front asked him to move. He wouldn't move.
He said you know don't read the newspapers
very quietly and then she appealed to the bus driver or white Southern bus driver.
Well whose feelings on race you can well imagine mirrored those of the
community and of
tradition and the bus driver
wouldn't do anything he called the policeman because she insisted on the policeman got
on and when the white woman asked the policeman to remove the negro man the policeman turned to the woman
her very quietly man don't you read the newspapers in other words
the white policeman the white bus driver both of them undoubtedly in their
segregationists were immediately within twenty four hours conforming to a judgment of the court
whether they liked it or not and what this meant was that from this point on Negroes and
whites would be
sitting not fully integrated. But at least partly integrated
and occasionally integrated in the buses in little white children growing up in
Atlanta and seeing occasionally Negro sitting next to whites on the
buses would think differently than did their forebears their fathers and
their grandfathers who grew up always seeing whites and negroes sitting in their
places thinking will change now.
What does that mean that there are things that are more important to the sudden you're other than segregation.
I think this is this is precisely the point
that all of us.
The white Southerner is like all of
us to me is very important consideration. He's a
human being as we all are and I think we all have a certain set of
values which are arranged in a kind of hierarchy.
Some are more important than others. And for the white Southerner and this sort of
crashed in on me one day on one mass while I was in the south the white
southerner has always valued segregation.
never almost never more than other things which mean more to him when
the white southerners confronted with a
choice between losing his
cherished racial traditions and losing something which he values
even more it may be his freedom. It may be
something economic It may be the good opinion of the community.
But when he faces a choice between those he will give up or a
certain Mr Finn you've been speaking about as a man to your experience a letter which
is considered the model city of race relations and I wonder whether
this experience would apply to the Deep South the rest of the Deep South which
is known for its violent reaction to integration.
It doesn't apply as quickly and it doesn't apply as fully but I
think it up. Flies in
I left Atlanta in winter of one thousand nine hundred sixty one to go
into Albany Georgia which
is as different from the latter as Mississippi is from Massachusetts and
this is the hardcore slave plantations south and then I saw I
saw the kind of south you're talking about the south of
lynchings were really the odor of slavery still
lingers in Albany at that time looked as if it would never become
another ladder but today it is moving in that direction. The library has
been the segregated in Albany the bus stops in a train stations and the segregated schools have
begun to be
desegregated a Negro has run for Congress in Albany Georgia he didn't win
but he he got votes and he will get more votes.
There's a slightly different atmosphere in Albany Georgia today I've been in this city and in
Alabama and some of those places most of those places today still
remain intransigent in fact they look today like Atlanta looked eighty years
ago but Jackson Mississippi. A few months
ago and you know Mississippi is the worst
in Jackson Mississippi.
A few months ago saw the peaceful admission of
Negro children to white schools in a number of communities
throughout the state and what this meant was that the police chief the
mayor and certain citizens of those communities decided that
peace was more important
than segregation and so they saw trouble coming and they knew what had happened
at Little Rock and other places where the South had put up resistance to the desegregation
of schools and it'll last in the
end and they decided we must give in and because they are giving
in because they are they haven't changed their minds but they're changing a behavior because of
this little white children in Jackson Mississippi will go to. With a little Negro children for the
first time and I think they'll grow
up different How effective has the civil rights movement the activist groups
been promoting the cause of
equality Well they are the they are the critical element in the situation.
the courts alone can only issue the Crees Congress alone can only
pass laws as the civil rights movement had not gotten to the streets. Starting
with the Montgomery bus
boycott and then moving into the sittings of one nine hundred sixty in the
freedom rides in one thousand nine hundred sixty one in the street demonstrations in Albany in sixty two
and the great great thrusts of energy by
mass movements of negroes in the streets of Birmingham and Jackson everywhere else in
the south and sixty
three if if all of this had not taken place then
the civil rights laws passed by Congress the decisions made by the
Supreme Court would have remained as dead as the fourteenth Amendment did
from eighteen seventy two one hundred fifty
four this the civil rights movements the and this means mainly the
Negro people in the
south they really have given force behind whatever
legal decisions are made by the
government there in the south an element in the Negro population that is much
more conservative than you would be or the activists would be. And isn't this a
force that you have to combat also.
There is and
there are conservative negroes. I know because I lived
among them. I lived on a Negro college
campus and Negro schoolteachers Negro college professors
Negro college presidents a negro businessman and he grown surance men
have sometimes managed to carve out a certain way of life for
themselves even. In the segregated south
which protects them from the worst excesses of the system and which makes them
complacent. Not all of them but but many of them.
But what has been interesting is the way these conservatives Negro conservatives in the
south have in the face of this great outpouring of militancy by
young negroes all around them these conservative had to keep
quiet and today a Negro is called conservative when he is simply not as
as the next what I call the the extreme groups the
very militant groups.
Did you find it difficult being more radical yourself to work with a more establishment administration
college I found it difficult and I found
it marvelous I found it difficult
because yes I
irritated I'm sure
my college president and
the deans of women and some of the
teachers and some of the more conservative elements in the community just as
I probably irritated white segregationist leaders
in the Atlantic community but on the other
hand the students themselves who who were the heart of
the salute and my own students and other students who went into the restaurants and sat in the
march downtown in the face
of helmeted state troopers guarding the state capitol against their
entrance and well the students were so happy that they could find
a college professor a two or three of four who would go with them who would march with them who would sit with
them that this made up for
everything was the treatment that they received in the jails is that a very brutal kind
This. It's a hard thing to talk about not tell you
why it's like asking was slavery brought.
And after all not all slaves were whipped and maybe only some slaves were whipped and most
of them were just slaves.
There are some institutions which are brutal in themselves just in the
ordinary day to day living out of that institution and being in jail.
Anywhere is brutal simply because you're deprived of your freedom. And I guess what
most most damaging is the thought that you're
there unjustly. But Southern
and Southern jails in the Deep South in Albany Georgia in Selma
Alabama in Jackson Mississippi in the Coleman Hattiesburg. And in these other hard
core areas of the South unspeakable. They're
the jailers or brutes there you
are people are beaten.
Well just just almost
exactly a year ago that I walked
into the jail house in Hattiesburg Mississippi to bail
out a young White Snake worker that is a work of the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The young recent graduate of Yale Law School who
decided not to go into corporate law on Wall Street but
to go into Mississippi and work with the movement. And he went to jail because picked
up as so many civil rights workers were picked up
on false traffic charges and kept in jail
overnight and came to take him out of jail and came
down the Karda blood all over him
and his shirt and his pants his nose broken
his face was
gashed he had been given a working over in the jail. The night
before and spent the night in the
semi senseless and bleeding condition. And this is
happens so many so many times in southern jails and what is the
most terrible thing about it is this is happened in
a federal government where the national.
Administration has all the legal and actual power to prevent this but has not
to prevent this you spoke quite critically of the federal government in
not doing what it could do I wonder if you would talk about that a little bit.
There's been a great deal of misinformation misinformation to a great extent spread by
the federal government itself about its
own role in this. Let's take the murder
of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Last June June twenty
first this could have been prevented if the federal government had
acted with the power that it has legally but for years
now and but for years I mean. Ever since the civil rights movement began
in earnest with the sit ins in one nine hundred
sixty brutality and murder have taken place in
the south where the federal government keeping out
of it and maintaining that it was
not within its power to do anything about the
situation in actuality the number of laws on the
statute books of the United States
government. Which make it a federal offense for
to deprive any other person of his constitutional rights.
What this means is that anybody who does this is violating a federal law.
What this means also is that any federal agent an F.B.I. agent.
For instance or another agent can arrest such a
person for violating such a law but in instance after
instance. Federal agents members of the F.B.I. stood by and watched people being
beaten or watched people being taken away to jail and didn't do a thing about it didn't step in
didn't make an arrest didn't act according to federal law. The reason of course is a political
one that the federal government throughout its history and even
today plays a cautious role. To the rest of the world it seems
as if the federal government plays a very active role they see the civil rights bill of fifty seven
the civil rights law of one thousand nine hundred sixty and civil rights law in one thousand nine hundred sixty
four and they don't see how much sweat and agony. How much marching and
parading and how many beatings and how many
murders went into. That
bill that finally emerged and then they don't see how difficult it is to get the federal government to
enforce these laws. Once they are passed.
What do you think can be done by the citizens to activate.
One thing they might
do is to simply let it be known in some way
to their congressman to the president to the Department of Justice publicly in newspapers and letters to
the newspapers with
every every power that words can
give them. Let it be known that they know that the federal government
can act according to law to send a
protective force of federal agents into the deep south where ever civil rights are being
violated in to prevent murders before they begin to take place.
There is a law on the books passed a very long time ago.
Section three thirty three Title ten of the United States
Code and this law says that whenever any state is unable
or fails or is unwilling to protect the constitutional rights of any citizen of
that state then the president may use any
means he wishes to protect those
rights. This means not only that the president can send troops which
at this point are not urging But it means that the federal. That the president if he
to can create for instance special forces. Federal agents.
Preferably not the F.B.I. because they're not enthusiastic about civil
rights a Special Forces federal
agents which will be stationed at trouble
points in the south and which
will act to protect civil rights workers in the grows from violence
and from deprivation of their rights and which will act simply as a protective force as
a screen as soon as this is set up I would estimate
that the situation were going to change radically deputy sheriffs and sheriffs will not
behave with the brutality that they have behaved behave this way because they felt immune
and because they've been immune. It's time to take away the
simulated this isn't what you call them true with this in effect setting
up a federal police state.
No it wouldn't be setting up a federal police state what it would be doing would be to
set up a branch of the federal government which
enforces one part of federal law in the same way that
federal revenue. Agents
enforce fiscal law and in the same way that F.B.I. agents and
force laws against interstate kidnapping interstate auto theft
embezzlement use of the mails to the fraud and so
on you see we have federal laws in the south. Which federal
agents right now in force acting as Federal Policeman. But the
one kind of
law which has remained immune from enforcement in the
south has been civil rights law and all that I'm suggesting is that civil rights
laws be placed on the same footing as all other other laws that a
sheriff who drags a civil rights worker into jail and beats
him be treated as a bank robber. Is treated who
is immediately apprehended by the F.B.I. and thrown into the federal penitentiary to go through the
process citizen you've been talking about both the progress and the deep rooted violence.
What is your forecast in ten years what will the. Progress be in terms of race relations.
Oh I think I don't think it's hard to forecast.
I hesitate to forecast for this reason because too many of
us and I include myself here.
Forecast from a standpoint of passive A-D. those we want to stand by
and watch how things
develop and I think the only reasonable forecasts
that can be made is one that's based on. Action. I think if
we forecast. From the standpoint of
acting ourselves then we can predict that very good and positive
favorable things are going to take place in the south in the area of really race relations in the next ten years.
What short is going down and being a snake worker or a
professor of history it's Norman college. What can a responsible individual do
that without to you know pattern of his
life. Well that changing the whole pattern of his
life. Of course this is an
important phrase it would be good if we could change
the patterns of our lives so many people have I mean reshaping your
life in terms of what you see about you for the first time and what you spend your spare time
doing and the fact that you become aware perhaps of the Negro community where you live
in a way that you never were before because negroes are invisible wherever they live in the north and in the
south and. It's interesting that white Northerners see negroes
in Mississippi now in the headlines before they see the negroes living around the corner and they become
aware of this to become aware of the
little Mrs. Beon corners of our own community. I
think this would be a very great country and then one.
To act to pretend
that we are the government.
Doesn't mean that.
Well we are supposed to be of course in a democracy but to
to do those things which we want the governments to do and we
want which we want other people to do and by
example therefore to lead both the
government and other groups of people. To act in the same
way to set up. Perhaps
institutions where existing institutions don't do what we want the freedom school idea
for instance a marvelous idea to set up a school in
a community. Where you bring Negroes and whites together in a way that
are not brought together in the ordinary
school to create little yardsticks as the T.V. A was to
the power in the street a little
examples in schools in housing and social life.
In every way we can to bring begin to break out of the
professional specializations in which we are all involved and.
To become human beings first and lawyers second teachers
I would thank you for this interview. You've been listening to Professor Howard
Zinn author of the Southern mystique. Thank you and goodbye for now.