In His Own Words: Howard Zinn on Becoming a Radical

Subject: Activism
Themes: Young Activists 20th Century
Age groups: High School Homeschooling
Resource type: Other

Howard Zinn Portrait by Robert ShetterlyI grew up in a family of working-class immigrants, living in tenements in Brooklyn. Our living quarters were rather miserable and we kids spent most of our time out in the streets. It seemed natural that I should develop a certain class consciousness, an understanding that we lived in a society of rich and poor, and whether you were rich or poor had nothing to do with how hard you worked.

There were young radicals in my neighborhood, a few years older than me, and I was impressed with how much they knew about what was going on in the world. I was beginning to read books about Fascism and socialism. One day, my friends asked if I would join them in going to a demonstration in Times Square. I had never been to a demonstration, and it seemed like an exciting thing to do. When we got to Times Square, there was no sign of a demonstration, but when the big clock on the Times Building struck ten, banners unfurled in the crowd, and people began marching and chanting. I wasn't sure what they were concerned with but it seemed they were opposed to war, and that appealed to me. One of my friends took one end of a banner and I the other. I heard sirens and shouts and I wondered what was happening. Then I saw policemen on horses charging into the crowd, beating people with clubs. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Here were people peacefully demonstrating and they were attacked by the police. Before I knew it, I was spun around and hit on the side of the head, with what I didn't know. I was knocked unconscious, and when I woke up in a doorway, it was an eerie scene, everything quiet as if nothing had happened. But something had happened to me. I was stripped of my illusion that we lived in a democracy where people could protest peacefully. At that moment I moved from being a liberal to being a radical, understanding that there was something fundamentally wrong with the system that I had always thought cherished freedom and democracy.

The image below is of Zinn when he was in the Army Air Force during World War II. Zinn´s views against war were developed, in part, as a result of his time as a soldier.