Howard Zinn, Finishing school for pickets

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn, 2009 (Courtesy: B-Fest at Athens Indymedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Wikipedia)

I have been remiss lately with my Library of America reading. Busy-ness has taken its toll, but it just so happened that this week I was (briefly) between books and the LOA offering looked right up my alley, so I decided to read it over breakfast. “Finishing school for pickets” was published in 1960, making it the most recently written of the LOA items I’ve read to date. It was written by Howard Zinn (1922-2010), an American writer, historian, activist and all-round intellectual. You can read the essay yourself, online, at the Library of America site.

However, before I discuss this essay, a little background. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She wasn’t the first to take such action but it was this particular occasion which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott whose aim was to end segregation on the city’s public transport. The battle was finally won in a Supreme Court ruling in late 1956. But, more importantly, it played a pivotal role in the fledgling Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Now, jump a few years and over the border to Atlanta, Georgia, and we are in the time and place of Zinn’s essay.

In 1960, Howard Zinn was chair of the history department at Spelman College, America’s oldest “black college for women” (Wikipedia). This college was well-known as, more or less, “a finishing school” for young black women. They were encouraged to “be nice, be well-mannered and ladylike”, to “not speak loudly” and not “get into trouble”. As Zinn says, “if intellect and talent and social consciousness happened to develop also, they were, to an alarming extent, by-products”. Here is the opening para of the essay:

One quiet afternoon some weeks ago, with the dogwood on Spelman College campus newly bloomed and the grass close-cropped and fragrant, an attractive, tawny-skinned girl crossed the lawn to her dormitory to put a notice on the bulletin board. It read: Young Ladies Who Can Picket Please Sign Below”. (Let’s not worry here about the “attractive, tawny-skinned” descriptor as Zinn’s heart was clearly in the right place).

Zinn goes on to chronicle various subversive actions being undertaken by the “still ‘nice'” but politically aware students. He says: “They are well-mannered, but this is somewhat tempered by a recent declaration that they will use every method short of violence to end segregation”. And so what do they do in the cause of desegregation? They sit in the front (aka white) area of buses; they occupy the white section of the Georgia Legislature’s gallery “in a pioneering show of non-violent resistance”; they show up “at the main Atlanta library in sufficient numbers to worry [my emphasis] the city administration into a decision to admit Negroes there” (what the? the librarian in me asks), and so on. Zinn writes that:

Spelman girls, more sheltered than women at the other colleges, were among the first to leave the island and to begin causing little flurries of alarm in the segregated outside world.

These activities, he says, may have bewildered the conservative matriarchy of Spelman, but they infuriated the “officialdom of the State of Georgia”. However, this did not stop the students of Spelman (and the other colleges of the Atlanta University Center) who continued their campaign even though, as Zinn describes it, many of them came from “the deep South … the Faulknerian small towns of traditional Negro submissiveness”.

It’s a highly readable essay, with light-handed use of various rhetorical devices to progress his argument, but it does not conclude on any great triumphs. After all, in 1960, there was (and, some would say, there still is) a long way to go in the cause of true racial equity. Zinn’s goal was, I assume, to raise some awareness amongst the white readers of The Nation. I can only hope he did so. As for him, he was fired from Spelman in 1963 “for insubordination” (his words), that is, for siding with his students in their fight for desegregation.

Zinn died earlier this year. Not long before he died he said that he would like to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality,” and “for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women’s movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it.” (Wikipedia).

This essay is clearly just one tiny example of how he went about achieving this lifelong passion. I am indebted to the Library of America for making it available to us.