Howard Zinn and the Civil Rights Movement

Howard Zinn is an American hero. His time spent teaching at Spelman College, his participation in the Civil Rights movement, and his writings and teachings against war are an inspiration for any person seeking to bring about social justice. Even though his definition of justice and his understanding of economics differ greatly from my own, I can’t help admiring the man for all that he has done.

His autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train – A Personal History Of Our Times, has some gripping, first hand accounts of what it was like to be on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the South. Blacks across the South stood up and defied local police forces and governments. For demanding that their Constitutional rights be recognized and enforced, many were jailed, beaten, harassed, and murdered. They refused to yield.

Time and time again in Zinn’s telling of the events, it is governments, state and local, that carry out the most heinous acts. Small town sheriffs call in state riot squads to break up voter registration rallies. Police cars wait outside of churches to arrest Civil Rights protesters. Local authorities hide the bodies of murdered blacks and volunteers so that no evidence can be brought against the killers. Officers put freedom riders in cells with deranged, racist criminals, who predictably beat their victims senseless. Cops electrocute blacks with cattle rods and beat them with nightsticks.

Particularly startling is the fact that much of this was done in the presence of federal officers. When asked why they weren’t stepping in to stop the illegal violence, they responded that they didn’t have support from Washington to do so. A young, liberal president, John F. Kennedy, was fully briefed on what was happening and did nothing to stop it. Lyndon Johnson was finally pressured into providing protection for protesters and congress was pushed in to passing the Civil Rights act of 1964. Even so, Johnson had the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, harass, threaten, and spy on Martin Luther King, Jr. for the rest of his life.

To read the details about the combative relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. click here.

Let’s take a look at some passages from the book.

On page 62 and 63, Zinn describes an event that took place in front of 4 FBI officers and 2 Justice Department lawyers, in front of a federal government building. Two young black men, Avery and Chico, attempted to give food and water to blacks who were waiting to in line to become registered voters.

Zinn writes,

“The major called out, ‘Get ’em!’ The next thing I saw was Chico Neblett on the ground, troopers all around him. I heard him cry out and saw his body jump convulsively again and again. They were jabbing and him and Avery with their cattle prods. Then they lifted them by their arms and legs and threw them into the green arrest truck that stood at the curb.”

He continues,

“James Baldwin and I went into the FBI office to talk to the chief. Baldwin was angry, upset. I asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest Sheriff Clark and the others for violating federal law?’ The FBI chief looked at us. ‘We don’t have the right to make arrests in these circumstances.’ It was an absurd statement. Section 3052, Title 18 of the U.S. Administrative Code gives FBI agents the power to make arrests without warrants ‘for any offense against the United States committed in their presence.'”

On page 71, Zinn writes,

“Sam took up the cause of a fourteen-year-old boy who had been picked up by the police and charged with burglary. The boy said he was innocent, that he had worked all day in the cotton fields on the day of the burglary, but the police took him to the police station, stripped him, threw him onto the concrete floor, used a bullywhip on his naked body, and beat him with fists, a billy club, and a blackjack. Sam took affidavits from the boy and photos of his wounds, and sent them to the Justice Department in Washington. It was like dropping them into a bottomless, bucketless well.”

On Page 75, Zinn writes,

“I sat in on the strategy session for Freedom Day. There would be a mass meeting that night, a picket line around the courthouse the next day. There would be arrests, undoubtedly. A telegram was sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy: ‘Tomorrow morning, hundreds off Hattiesburg’s citizens will attempt to register to vote. We request the presence of federal marshals to protect them. We also request that local police interfering with constitutional rights be arrested and prosecuted. Signed, Bob Moses.’ We all knew that there would be no reply.”

Lastly, on page 65 we read,

“In early 1965, Selma became a national scandal, and an international embarrassment for the Johnson administration. Demonstrations against racial segregation were met with mass arrests, the clubbing to death of a white Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb, the shooting of a black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and the bloody beating of blacks trying to march across a bridge out of Selma toward the state capital to Montgomery. Finally, Johnson asked Congress to pass a strong voting rights act, and ordered a federalized Alabama National Guard to protect the planned civil rights walk from Selma to Montgomery. It would be a fifty-mile trek, a triumphant march after all the beating, all the blood shed.”

So, what can we take away from these episodes?

Of course, there is the obvious fact the racism is vile. Unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the name of racism throughout the centuries.

More subtly however, is the fact that it was government doing most of the terrorizing. State and municipal cops and judges were the bane of the Civil Rights movement. It was local police forces that beat up protesters. It was local judges that gave them exaggerated sentences for petty crimes.

Meanwhile, the federal government just stood by. FBI agents, who had the legal authority to stop the violence, did nothing. Justice Department officials ignored the letters, photos, and pleas. Presidents and Attorney Generals ignored the whole situation for as long as they could.

It took years of public outcry and an international crises to convince president Lyndon Johnson that he should send in federal troops. The march from Selma to Montgomery was a triumphant moment; one that should have occurred much, much sooner.

The federal government is not to be praised for their eventual action but rather chastised for their years of inaction.

What kind of system do we have when it takes so much prodding to get the government to carry out its most essential function?

Government’s primordial job, if you think the government should even have a job at all, is to protect people and property. If citizens are being aggressed against and attacked, it is the government’s job to step in and defend you. If the government can’t or won’t do that, it is the job of the people to defend themselves.

Interestingly, if there was ever a place where second amendment rights should have been fully exploited, it was in the pre-civil rights South. Armed whites would have thought much longer and harder about attacking blacks if it was know that blacks had guns. Indeed, this was a cornerstone of Malcom X’s platform. If the government won’t your community, you must protect the community yourself.

If we learn one lesson from Zinn’s passages above, let it be this: Government’s are just as capable of committing crimes against humanity as private individuals. Whenever wrongs are committed, be it by hateful individuals or out of control governments, it is the job decent people to fight back against them. Be they carried out by a Ku Klux Klan member, a local sheriff, or a United States Congress person, all acts of injustice must be opposed.


2 Responses to Howard Zinn and the Civil Rights Movement

  1. galudwig says:

    Excellent article again! Like many libertarians who, under the influence of fusionist ideas, considered themselves on the right scale of the political spectrum, I had an intuitive dislike for people like Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal, who were firmly “leftist”. I could never quite bring myself to hate their books though, being a huge Vidal fan.
    It took Jeff Riggenbach’s book “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism” for me to make me really appreciate them for the American heroes they are, and understand that, even though their understanding of economics leaves a lot to be desired, they are in fact very close to libertarians philosophically.

    • Thank you again for the kind words! I haven’t read much Vidal personally, but I’ve read a couple of articles by Riggenbach that discussed Vidal at great length. Come to think of it, maybe they were excerpts from “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism”.

      In any event, Zinn is spectacular on what I consider to be THE issues of our times, peace and civil liberties. You can’t have a free market without peace and property rights. There can be no division of labor and capital accumulation if the government is locking people up and going to war all the time. Of course a war economy is a command economy.

      I so prefer a Zinn, Chomsky, or Vidal to a mainstream conservative like Buckley Jr., Hannity, O’reily, etc. The conservatives are bad on peace, property rights, and economic theory. The principled left is only bad on economic theory. On the good issues they are phenomenally good. Sadly, the mainstream left is just as bad as the mainstream right.

      It is perplexing, however, that somebody like Zinn, who fought government evil his whole life and wrote so smartly and convincingly about civil disobedience and government malfeasance, would advocate giving that same government control over all of the means of production. I guess some mysteries are meant to be left unsolved :).

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