Howard Zinn RIP: A Repost of an Excellent Commencement Speech from 2005

January 28, 2010 · Posted in civil liberties, famous quotes, liberty · Comment 

Against Discouragement
By Howard Zinn

[In 1963, historian Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman College, where he
was chair of the History Department, because of his civil rights
activities. This year, he was invited back to give the commencement
address. Here is the text of that speech, given on May 15, 2005.]

I am deeply honored to be invited back to Spelman after 42 years. I
would like to thank the faculty and trustees who voted to invite me, and
especially your president, Dr. Beverly Tatum. And it is a special
privilege to be here with Diahann Carroll and Virginia Davis Floyd.

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

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
country, and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded
classrooms, but OUR GOVERNMENT, which has trillions of dollars to spend,

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

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, 50 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 ordinary people 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

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, or social worker, or 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

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 twenty-first century of what we call
“civilization,” we have carved up what we claim is one world into two
hundred artificially created entities we call “nations” and are ready to
kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

Is NOT nationalism — that devotion to a 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,

But if you know some history you know that’s NOT true. If you know some
history, you know we massacred Indians on this continent, invaded
Mexico, sent armies into Cuba, and the Philippines. WE KILLED HUGE
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 the 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 poets especially are less
enthralled with the virtues of American “liberty” and “democracy,” their
people having enjoyed so little of it. The great African-American poet
Langston Hughes addressed his country as follows:

You really haven’t been a virgin for so long.
It’s ludicrous to keep up the pretextŠ
You’ve slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you’ve taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellowsŠ
Being one of the world’s big vampires,
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.

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 the nation.

My hope is that your generation will demand that your children be
brought up in a world without war. It 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

I was on the faculty of Spelman College for seven years, from 1956 to
1963. It was a heartwarming 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. Those were the years of the great movement in the South against
racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta, in Albany,
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

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 Cornel West has
written), it only matters 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, and sitting
in, and being arrested, and then coming out of jail full of fire and

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 ones
Like the black young
Who tried
to crash
All barriers
at once,
wanted to
At a white
beach (in Alabama)

I am not suggesting 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.
Howard Zinn is the author with Anthony Arnove of the just published
Voices of A People’s History of the United States
(Seven Stories Press) and of the international best-selling A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (P.S.)A People's History of the United States

Copyright 2005 Howard Zinn

Top Ten Worst Things About the Bush Years

The Bush Decade – Ten Worst Things;
Or, the Rise of the New Oligarchs

A great article about the worst of the Bush years. Here are a few highlights. For more, read the whole article as it appeared on the NewsTrust.net website:

  • 10. Stagnating worker wages and the emergence of a new monied aristocracy. Of all the income growth of the entire country of the United States in the Bush years, the richest 1 percent of the working population, about 1.3 million persons, grabbed up over two-thirds of it. The Reagan and Bush cuts in tax rates on the wealthy have created a dangerous little alien inside our supposedly democratic society, of the super-rich, with their legions of camp followers (sometimes referred to as ‘analysts’ or ‘economists’ or ‘journalists’). The new lords and ladies are the Dick and Liz Cheneys and the people for whom they shill. They are the Rupert Murdochs and the Richard Mellon Scaifes, and they are guaranteed to own more and more of the country as long as more progressive taxation (i.e. pre-Reagan, not pre-Bush) is not restored. They are the ones who didn’t want a public universal health option, did not want the wars abroad to end abruptly, did not want the Copenhagen Climate convention to succeed. They are driven by pure greed and narrow profit-seeking for themselves. They always get their way, and they always will as long as you poor stupid bastards buy the line that when the government raises their taxes, it is taking something away from you.
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 9. Health and food insecurity increased for ordinary Americans. Health care costs skyrocketed. Most Americans in the work force who have health care are covered via their employers. ‘From 1999 to 2009 health insurance premiums increased 132%” for the companies paying most of the costs of coverage to their employees. Euromonitor adds, “Average private health insurance premiums for a family of four in 1999 were US$5,485 per annum or 7.2% of household disposable income. 2008 premiums were estimated at US$12,973 per annum or 14.8% of average household disposable income.” By Bush’s last year in office, food insecurity among American families was at a 14-year high. About 49 million Americans, one in six of us, worried about having enough food to eat at some points in that year, and resorted to soup lines, food stamps, or dietary shortcuts. Some 16 million, according to the NYT, suffered from ‘“very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.’
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 8. The environment became more polluted. The Bush administration was the worst on record on environmental issues. Carbon emissions grew unchecked, and the threat of climate change accelerated. In fact, Bush muzzled government climate scientists and had their reports rewritten by lawyers from Big Oil.
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 7. The imperial presidency was ensconced in ways it will be difficult to pare back. But note that its powers were never used against the oligarchs (unlike the case in Putin’s Russia), but rather deployed to ensure the continued destruction of the labor movement and the political bargaining power of workers and the middle class, and to harass and disrupt peace, rights and environmental movements. A part of this process was the abrogation of fourth amendment protections against arbitrary search, seizure and snooping into people’s mail and effects, and of other key constitutional rights…
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 6. The Katrina flood and the destruction of much of historic African-American New Orleans, and the massive failure of the Bush administration to come to the aid of one of America’s great cities.
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 5. The Bush administration’s post-2002 mishandling of Afghanistan, where the Taliban had been overthrown successfully in 2001 and were universally despised. The Bush administration’s attempt to assert itself with a big troop presence in the Pashtun provinces, its use of search and destroy tactics and missile strikes, its neglect of civilian reconstruction, and its failure to finish off al-Qaeda, allowed an insurgency gradually to grow…
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 4. The Iraq War, in which the US illegally launched a war of aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displaced 4 million (over a million abroad), destroyed entire cities such as Fallujah, set off a Sunni-Shiite civil war, allowed Baghdad to be ethnically cleansed of its Sunnis, practiced systematic and widespread torture before the eyes of the Muslim Middle East and the world, and immeasurably strengthened Iran’s hand in the Middle East. All this on false pretexts such as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘democratization,’ for the sake of opening the Iraqi oil markets to US hydrocarbon firms– a significant faction of the oligarchic class.
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 3. The great $12 trillion Bank Robberry, in which unscrupulous bankers and financiers were deregulated and given free rein to create worthless derivatives, sell impossible mortgages to uninformed marks who could not understand their complicated terms, and then to roll this garbage up into securities re-sold like the
    Cheshire cat, with a big visible smile of asserted value hanging in the air even as their actual worth disappeared into thin air.
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 2. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington by al-Qaeda, an organization that stemmed from the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and which decided that, having defeated one superpower, it could take down the other. Al-Qaeda’s largely Arab volunteer fighters had confronted the Soviets over their occupation of a major Muslim country, Afghanistan. Bin Laden was himself a Neoliberal Oligarch, but he broke with the Gulf consensus of seeking a US security umbrella, thus creating a fissure within his powerful social class. Al-Qaeda viewed the US as only a slightly less objectionable occupier, though they were willing to make an atliance of convenience in the 1980s. But they were increasingly enraged and galvanized to strike, they said, by the post-Gulf-War sanctions on Iraq that killed 500,000 children, the debilitating Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, and the establishment of US bases in the holy Arabian Peninsula (with its oil riches that Bin Laden believed were being looted for pennies by the West, aided by a supine and corrupt Saudi dynasty).
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.
  • 1. The constitutional coup of 2000, in which Bush was declared the winner of an election he had lost, with the deployment of the most ugly racial and other low tricks in the ballot counting and the intervention of a partisan and far right-wing Supreme Court (itself drawn from or serving the oligarchs), and which gave us the worst president in the history of the union, who proceeded to drive the country off a cliff for the succeeding 8 years. And that is because he was not our president, but theirs. Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here…
    Read the entire article 10 worst things about the Bush years here.

Chase Bank Resorts to Subterfuge to Trump Students for a Sensible Drug Policy

December 21, 2009 · Posted in big brother, conspiracy, hypocrisy · Comment 

Recently, Micah Daigle, Executive Director of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), asked supporters to vote for SSDP in a competition on Facebook that would have earned them $25K and a shot at $1 million. Thousands of activists and supporters took action, catapulting SSDP into fourteenth place. The SSDP needed to place within the top 100 to win, so victory was assured.

Or so it seemed… As the New York Times reported this Saturday, during the final days of the contest, Chase rigged their own system to obscure the vote count and then revoked the winnings of a few groups, including SSDP and the Marijuana Policy Project!

Clearly, Chase can’t be trusted to handle our money. This morning, Micah canceled his credit card account with Chase, and he hopes you’ll join him. Please make the Chase Boycott Pledge at http://www.ChaseBoycott.com

To be clear, this isn’t sour grapes over not receiving a grant – this is about demanding honesty and accountability of a corporation that handles billions of dollars of American assets. The banking giant had every opportunity to disqualify SSDP from the start if they disagreed with the charity’s mission. Instead, Chase Bank used popular social networks to generate free advertising for their brand, and then revoked the winnings after the contest was over without providing an explanation. When asked by SSDP and the New York Times to produce a vote tally, they smugly refused.

Chase executives are not only out of touch with the principles of honesty and transparency, but they are also out of touch with the majority of Americans when it comes to drug policy. Are you aware that 75% of Americans think the bogus War on Drugs has failed and that 53% support legalizing marijuana? This is a mainstream issue that’s gaining more support every day.

By boycotting Chase, you’ll be sending a message to corporations that they need to earn your trust before they earn your money. http://www.ChaseBoycott.com

And by making a donation to SSDP today, you’ll be sending a message that excellent organizations like theirs don’t need to rely on grants from big banks so long as they can rely on the generosity of supporters like us.

If you donate $25 today, and 999 others take a stand with you, SSDP will raise the $25,000 that Chase revoked. With more than 400,000 supporters on SSDP’s e-mail list and Facebook networks, we can make that happen. I’m in. I hope you are, too!

Will you step up and help the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy reach that goal by making a donation of $25 right now? http://www.ssdp.org/donate

It’s up to us to fight the good fight, when there stakes are high. We are a country governed of the people, for the people, and by the people. Let’s not give it away to the reckless and unconscionable mega-corporations. Donate today. Your support is greatly appreciated and needed.

Help Obama Reform Drug Policy

November 24, 2008 · Posted in drug laws, drug war · 2 Comments 

I just now received an email from the Drug Policy Alliance requesting that I write a note to President-elect Obama in regards to who he chooses to be his drug czar. Below is a sample of my letter (based on the suggestions of the DPA). Feel free to copy it, augment it, or use it for fodder to create your own custom made letter and please send it to Barak Obama via his new website: www.change.gov.

You make a difference. The more proactive you are, the bigger your impact. Please take a moment to send a letter like the one I wrote below and send it to Barak Obama’s new website Change.gov:

Sample Letter to Obama Regarding Drug Reform

Dear President-elect Obama,

Please choose a drug czar who will champion reform. This is a very important step in delivering the change you and I and a majority of our great nation and the world so obviously desire… and need!

It’s easy to understand why you are considering to nominate Republican Congressman James Ramstad to be your “drug czar”. Rep. Ramstad is in recovery from alcohol abuse and has a track record in support of increasing access to drug treatment. However, Ramstad is still mostly married to the failed punitive drug war policies of the last 30 thirty years. This is a no-brainer.

These failed policies need to change. We must do something different. As you yourself have so boldly stated: “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity”. We must do things differently in drug reform in order for profound change to occur. I know that you know this deep in your obviously good heart.

Ramstad has voted against medical marijuana five times. He has voted against making sterile syringes more available to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS three times. Even though his colleagues are increasingly supporting sentencing reform, including eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity, he hasn’t stood up on the issue. Perhaps Ramstad is not the right choice.

Our nation’s next drug czar should be chosen based on the following criteria:

  1. Are they committed to enacting and supporting evidence-based policies? ONDCP should make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology.
  2. Are they committed to reducing the harms associated with both drugs and punitive drug laws? We need a new bottom line for U.S. drug policy.
  3. Do they think drug use should be treated as a health issue not a criminal justice issue? To paraphrase former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, we need a surgeon general not a military general or police officer.
  4. Do they welcome and encourage debate and research? We need a drug czar who is open-minded and willing to consider every alternative.
  5. Are they committed to reducing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars? Our country’s next drug czar should be fully committed to major sentencing reform.

President-elect Obama, who you choose as your drug czar will affect everyone. Please nominate a drug czar who supports marijuana law reform, syringe availability and treatment instead of incarceration.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Best regards and best of luck,

Your Name

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