Friday, July 30, 2010

Finishing School for Pickets

Howard Zinn (1922–2010)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963

The “Spelman girls” of the early 1960s, “sheltered” within the isolated (and somewhat integrated) walled compound of their college campus, confronted twin obstacles when they took it upon themselves to leave campus and protest segregation. In addition to the far more serious and dangerous outside threats—including knife-wielding local residents and trumped-up “conspiracy” charges to inflate potential prison sentences—the young women also faced pressure from nervous academic administrators who just didn’t want to make any waves. In a recent history of Spelman’s role in the civil rights movement, one student, who had been expelled for her off-campus activities, recounted that college officials “made it pretty clear that any young ladies who got involved could be summarily dismissed.” (She was later readmitted “on probation” when students protested.)

One college employee who parted ways with the “present-day conservatives in the administration and faculty” was a young professor named Howard Zinn, who since 1956 had been chair of the history department; he wrote of his students’ heroism in “Finishing School for Pickets,” which was published in The Nation fifty years ago this week. Zinn (who died in January of this year) recalled in a posthumously published interview:
My experience at Spelman College is an example of the interaction between education and activism. . . . One of [Zinn’s colleagues] wrote a letter to the Atlanta Constitution saying, “I deplore what my students are doing; they are cutting class; they are missing out on their education.” And I thought, what a pitiful, narrow, cramped view of education this is. To think that what these students are going to learn in books can compare to what they will learn about the world, about reality. They will come from town, they will come back from prison, and then when they will go into the library, they will go into it with an enthusiasm and a curiosity that didn't exist before.
Zinn, whose students at Spelman included Marian Wright Edelman and Alice Walker, subsequently served on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and ultimately angered the college’s president. In spite of having tenure, Zinn was dismissed in 1963. “I was fired for insubordination,” Mr. Zinn was quoted as saying. “Which happened to be true.” In May 2005, however, he was invited back to the college to give the commencement address.

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One quiet afternoon some weeks ago, with the dogwood on the 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. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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