There was a standing-room-only crowd at the new Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, Md., for the special event on Sept. 21 to celebrate International Peace Day, dedicate the Zinn Room, and raise funds for the Zinn Education Project.
The date ended up being more significant than could have been imagined. An extraordinary group of people spoke, sang, and read to honor the memory of historian and activist Howard Zinn and to support the Zinn Education Project‘s efforts to promote teaching people’s history in middle and high school classrooms.
The 300-plus attendees were inspired by the words of Jeff Zinn, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cornel West, Dave Zirin, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Medea Benjamin, Craig and Cindy Corrie, and more.
The pall of the impending execution of death row inmate Troy Davis hung in the air. Emcee-for-the-evening Dave Zirin, wearing an “I Am Troy Davis” T-shirt, said it most bluntly. While acknowledging how far the struggle for justice has come, he decried “the legal lynching going on in Georgia.” He then led a heartfelt call of “They say death row” and the room resounded with the response of “We say hell no!”
Emma’s Revolution played shortly after that statement, beginning with “Bound for Freedom” which they sang at the memorial when Howard Zinn died in 2010, and which they dedicated on Wednesday night to Troy Davis and his sister Martina Correia.
The evening was hosted by Howard Zinn’s son and theater director Jeff Wolf Zinn and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal. The speakers addressed their memories of Howard Zinn and the importance of teaching people’s history.
Dave Zirin said: “Howard taught us that it was the masses of people who are actually the engine of history, and that’s what the Zinn Education Project is now fighting to preserve for our classrooms. Nowadays the textbooks are being written by corporations, with Texas dominating the market and narrative. It’s as if Rick Perry is your child’s history teacher. Who would you rather have teaching the children of America, Rick Perry or Howard Zinn?” The audience responded, “Howard Zinn.” “This is why,” Dave explained, “we are here tonight to support the Zinn Education Project so teachers have access to resources for ‘teaching outside the textbook.'”
This sentiment was echoed by two high school students, Jonah and Jared, and their teacher Mr. Julian Hipkins III. Jared shared how Zinn sparked his interest in learning history so much that when his Mom sends him to bed, he waits until he hears that she has gone to sleep and then “I turn on my lamp and start reading A People’s History.” Hipkins related how when he first read A People’s History of the United States: “I felt betrayed by our education system. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of [these stories] before, especially as a man in his mid-20s. From that point forward I decided that I would use this book as the classroom textbook.” He credited the Zinn Education Project for making this possible. “Even though A People’s History can be a bit difficult for some students, the activities on the Zinn Education Project website makes the content accessible regardless of their reading level.”
When 7 p.m. passed and the delay of Troy Davis’ execution was announced, a wave of relief, surprise, and elation filled the room. Bernice Johnson Reagon got everyone singing “This Little Light of Mine,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and more freedom songs.
Cindy and Craig Corrie spoke of how Zinn wrote to them personally after the killing of their daughter, Rachel Corrie, and the friendship they developed with this man whom they had revered and who so respected their daughter’s activism.
Beverly Daniel Tatum explained that soon after she became president of Spelman she learned that Howard Zinn had been fired from the college in 1963 because of his activism. “That was a piece of history that needed cleaning up,” she said, “so I invited Howard Zinn to be the 2005 commencement speaker.” Tatum quoted from Zinn’s words of encouragement to the graduates in his speech: “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.” She closed by acknowledging two former Spelman students among the evening’s speakers—Marian Wright Edelman and Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Cornel West gave an impassioned talk about Zinn as a public intellectual: “He fundamentally believed that the life of the mind matters, that ideas make a difference, and it’s important that you commit yourself not just to reading, but to thinking critically about what you’re reading.”
The second half of the evening began with a musical performance by Chelsey Green, followed by dramatic readings from Voices of a People’s History. There were many readers and voice combinations of note, including labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. reading the words of Eugene Debs; Iraq Veterans Against the War member Geoff Millard reading the words of Smedley Butler; IPS New Internationalism Project Director Phyllis Bennis reading an anti-war statement by Helen Keller; Mary Beth Tinker reading from her own free speech case in front of the Supreme Court when she was 13 years old; SNCC veteran Judy Richardson reading the words of James Forman about Freedom Schools; Cindy Corrie reading a letter from her daughter Rachel Corrie; and J. Winter Nightwolf, host of the weekly WPFW show “The American Indian’s Truths – Nightwolf – the Most Dangerous Show on Radio,” reading the words of Leonard Peltier.
The ticket sales and raffles generated almost $8,000 to continue the work of the Zinn Education Project. This amount will be matched by an anonymous donor.
In addition to everyone who purchased tickets, there are many people and organizations to thank for making the evening such a success, including:
This description of the event was adapted with permission from an article by Emma’s Revolution.