[In 1963, historian Howard Zinn (Who died this week) 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 forty-two 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 grandchildren.
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 government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. There is poverty in this country, and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded classrooms, but our government, which has trillions of dollars to spend, is spending its wealth on war. 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 tuberculosis and AIDS, but our government, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, is experimenting with even more deadly nuclear weapons. 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, fifty 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 despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. 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….
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 pretext
You’ve slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you’ve taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows
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. If 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 way of solving problems…
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.
Copyright 2005 Howard Zinn