The People Speak - Democracy is not a spectator sport
The People Speak Story
By Dr. Libby H. O'Connell for HISTORY Magazine
Author, historian, teacher, activist, and now television producer Dr. HowardZinn is a man on a mission. He wants Americans to recognize the power of protest in shaping their country's history. Along with executive producers Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Josh Brolin, and Anthony Arnove, he is moving his message from high schools and college campuses to film and, later this year, to HISTORY.
Zinn, 87, has been a history professor for most of his professional career, and in the lecture hall and in his writings, particularly his very popular A People's History of the United States, he espouses history "from the ground up" in an articulate and engaging way. If our textbooks present the story of America only through the eyes of its generals and presidents, Zinn argues, it gives "a distorted view of the past." Certainly he provides a powerful counterbalance to the hero-centric approach of traditional textbooks. In 2004 Zinn joined with Dr. Anthony Arnove to publish a collection of primary source documents titled Voices of a People's History of the United States, an academic bestseller on college and high school campuses. The materials range across the length of American history and feature letters, petitions, poems, speeches, and songs from "women and slaves, immigrants and youth, soldiers and students."
Zinn and Arnove began to organize public performances of selections from Voices in 2003, before its official release, when A People's History of the United States sold its 1 millionth copy (it has now surpassed the 2 million mark). Today, Voices brings alive the words and emotions of the past with songs and dramatic readings performed by well-established artists. At a presentation this past May celebrating the publication of A Young People's History of the United States in New York City, seven performers gave new life to the words of famous dissenters — such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. — and lesser known, but equally stirring, voices from the past.
Acclaimed actor Tim Robbins gave a stirring rendition of Eugene Debs' 1918 Canton, Ohio, speech that resonated spectacularly with the audience, who were on their feet cheering. And Shontina Vernon, a transplanted Texan turned Brooklynite, sang "Strange Fruit," originally a 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol titled "Bitter Fruit" and first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. A Bronx schoolteacher, Meeropol had written the poem after seeing the gruesome photograph of two lynched teenagers:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Vernon's a cappella version was heartrendingly pure, each perfect, round note filled with painful meaning. For many people, it was the first time they had heard these lyrics: not surprisingly, Holiday's record company had refused to release the song.
The evening was introduced and narrated by Dr. Zinn. The enthusiastic audience left hungry for more. They seemed surprised by the level of their own personal engagement and excited by what they had witnessed.
It is performances like this in theaters around the country that inspired the latest incarnation of Zinn's work, The People Speak. Scheduled to air on HISTORY in December 2009, the film weaves archival footage and interviews with performances by actors and artists such as Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Kerry Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Bruce Springsteen, and John Legend. The network will also produce more than 24 short videos from The People Speak, available at HISTORY.com and through distributors' video-on-demand platforms.
The performers' commitment to Zinn's message makes this a labor of love. "Change doesn't come from the top, but rather from the bottom," Damon observes. "Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America." It is Damon who reads the Declaration of Independence, surely one of the great protest documents in history.
Rather than being set in stone, the United States remains a project in formation. The People Speak presents a view of American history in motion, telling the stories of ordinary men and women who have defined democracy through their powerful words and actions. The film traces the stories and experiences of everyday Americans through their own words, emphasizing the idea that democracy is not a spectator sport. It is achieved through the efforts of all citizens who have pushed the nation to live up to promises of the Declaration of Independence.
In the film, actor Morgan Freeman gives a dramatic reading of one of the great speeches in American history — "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," delivered by Frederick Douglass in 1852:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.
Douglass' words challenged the slave society of antebellum America, and continued to challenge the reality of Jim Crow laws and its legacy for generations. As an activist and reformer, he exemplified the commitment Zinn urges for all Americans — that we participate in the national dialogue and stand up for our beliefs.
Howard Zinn has dedicated his career to engaging Americans of all ages in this conversation. Through books, the stage, his website, his non-profit organization, and now this film on HISTORY, he emphasizes the impact of dissenters and activists who have shaped our nation's story. It took protest and struggle to achieve much of America's social progress. People who are intrinsic to our country's narrative, remind us that protest, in fact, is as American as apple pie.
The People Speak is executive produced by Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Howard Zinn. For HISTORY, David McKillop and Russ McCarroll are the executive producers. It is scheduled to air on HISTORY in December. Check your local listings for exact date and time. Dr. Libby H. O'Connell is senior vice president for outreach and chief historian for A&E Television Networks.
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