The Massacres of History

by Howard Zinn

The Progressive magazine, August 1998


This spring, I was invited to participate in a symposium in Boston at historic Faneuil Hall (named after a slave trader but the site of many abolitionist meetings). The topic was to be the Boston Massacre. I hesitated a moment, then said, yes, I would speak, but only if I could also speak about other massacres in American history.

It was clear to me that the Boston Massacre, which took place on March 5,1770, when British troops killed five colonists is a much-remembered-indeed, over-remembered-event. Even the word "massacre" is a bit of an exaggeration; Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says the word denotes "wholesale slaughter."

Still, there is no denying the ugliness of a militia firing into a crowd, using as its rationale the traditional claim of trigger-happy police-that the crowd was "unruly" (as it undoubtedly was). John Adams, who was defense lawyer for the British soldiers and secured their acquittal, described the crowd as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattos, Irish leagues and outlandish jack tarrs."

Adams could hardly have expressed more clearly that the race and class of the victims (one of the dead, Crispus Attucks, was a mulatto) made their lives less precious. This was only one of many instances in which the Founding Fathers registered their desire to keep revolutionary fervor under the control of more prosperous classes.

Ten thousand Bostonians (out of a total population of 16,000) marched in the funeral procession for the victims of the Massacre. And the British, hoping not to provoke more anger, pulled their troops out of Boston. Undoubtedly, the incident helped build sentiment for independence.

Still, I wanted to discuss other massacres because it seemed to me that concentrating attention on the Boston Massacre would be a painless exercise in patriotic fervor. There is no surer way to obscure the deep divisions of race and class in American history than by uniting us in support of the American Revolution and all its symbols (like Paul Revere's stark etching of the soldiers shooting into the crowd).

I suggested to the people assembled at Faneuil Hall (the walls around us crowded with portraits of the Founding Fathers and the nation's military heroes) that there were other massacres, forgotten or dimly remembered, that deserved to be recalled. These ignored episodes could tell us much about racial hysteria and class struggle, about shameful moments in our continental and overseas expansion, so that we can see ourselves more clearly, more honestly.

Why, for instance, was there not a symposium on what we might call "the Taino Massacre," perpetrated by Columbus and his fellow conquistadors-which annihilated the native population of Hispaniola? Before they arrived, there were several million living on that island. By 1550, perhaps only 50,000 were left on the island, which is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Or "the Pequot Massacre" of 1636, when our Puritan ancestors (well, I am stretching my ancestry a little), in an expedition led by Captain John Mason, set fire to a village of Pequot Indians on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound?

"Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword, some hewed to peeces . . . and very few escaped," wrote a contemporary, William Bradford, in his History of Plymouth Plantation. And the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather wrote: "It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day." Mather was an expert on the destination of souls.

The massacres of Indians by the armies of the United States-in Colorado in 1864, in Montana in 1870, in South Dakota in 1890, to cite just a few-were massacres in the most literal sense: that is, wholesale slaughter in each case of hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. The number of those events cannot be counted, and should by that fact be a subject for intense scrutiny.

The results of such an investigation would be as sobering to young Americans as the story of the Boston Massacre is inspiring. And sobriety about our national sins (sorry to use Dr. Mather's terminology) might be very instructive at a time when we need to consider what role we will play in the world this next century.

What of the massacres of African Americans, whether by official acts or by white mobs, with the collaboration of government officials? I will cite just two of many.

In the first months of the nation's entrance into World War I, an article called "The Massacre of East St. Louis" appeared in the NAACP publication, Crisis, written by W.E.B. Du Bois and Martha Gruening. In that poor Illinois city, African Americans had been hired to replace whites, and hysteria took hold. (Job desperation was a common cause of mob violence, as when whites attacked Chinese miners in Rock Spring, Wyoming, in 1885, killing twenty-five.)

The black section of East St. Louis became the object of attack by a white mob, leaving 6,000 blacks homeless and perhaps 200 dead. Mangled bodies were found floating in the Mississippi River. Josephine Baker, the St. Louis-born entertainer who decided she could not live in this country, said at the time: "The very idea of America makes me shake and tremble and gives me nightmares." Other African Americans protested. In New York City, thousands marched silently down Fifth Avenue to the roll of drums, with signs addressed to President Woodrow Wilson: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?

In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, planes dropped nitroglycerin on a thirty-six-block black business district, destroying hundreds of businesses, more than 1,000 homes, twenty churches, a hospital, libraries, and schools. The number of black people killed was estimated by some in the hundreds, by others in the thousands. Bodies were put into mass graves, stuffed into mine shafts, or thrown into the river.

Nor do our history books take much notice of workers killed by police and militia. I thought I knew about many of these events, but I keep learning about more. I did not know until recently about the Bay View Massacre in Milwaukee, which took place May 5,1886 (the day after the Haymarket bombing in Chicago). On that day, striking steelworkers, marching toward a mill in the Bay View section of Milwaukee, were intercepted by a squad of militia, who fired point blank into the strikers, killing seven.

In 1897, there was a coal strike in Pennsylvania. Immigrant Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, and Germans were brought in to break it. But the strikebreakers themselves soon organized and went on strike. Marching toward the Lattimer mine, they refused to disperse. The sheriff and his deputies opened fire and killed nineteen of them. Most were shot in the back.

When, the following year, the press set out to create a national excitement over the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, a machinists' journal pointed to the Lattimer Massacre, saying that the deaths of workers resulted in no such uproar. It pointed out that "the carnival of carnage that takes place every day, month, and year in the realm of industry, the thousands of useful lives that are annually sacrificed to the Moloch of greed . . . brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparation."

Better known, but still absent from the mainstream history books, is the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Two companies of National Guardsmen, their pay underwritten by the Rockefeller interests that owned the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, launched a military attack on the miners' tent colony, where 1,000 men, women, and children lived. The Guardsmen poured machine-gun fire into the tents, then burned them. Eleven children and two women died in the conflagration.

One of the many strikes of the Depression years was against Republic Steel in Chicago in 1937. Police began firing at a picket line and continued firing as the workers fled, killing ten in what came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre.

Even less likely to enter the history books are the atrocities the United States commits overseas. High school and college texts usually deal at length with the three-month Spanish-American War, portraying the United States as liberating Cuba from Spain and admiring Theodore Roosevelt's exploits with the "Rough Riders." But they rarely pay important attention to the eight-year war to conquer the Philippines, a bloody affair that in many ways resembled the war in Vietnam. The United States killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the war, but U.S. casualties were under 5,000.

In 1906, an American military detachment attacked a village of Filipino Moslems ("Moros") living in the hollow of a mountain in one of the southern islands. Every one of 600 men, women, and children were killed. This was the Moro Massacre, which drew an angry response from Mark Twain and other anti-imperialist Americans.

In his capacity as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, Twain wrote: "We have pacified thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors, furnished heartbreak by exile to dozens of disagreeable patriots, and subjugated the remaining ten million by Benevolent Assimilation."

Those of us who were of age during the Vietnam War remember the My Lai Massacre of 1968, in which a company of American soldiers poured automatic rifle fire into groups of unarmed villagers, killing perhaps 500 people, many of them women and children. But when I spoke last fall to a group of 100 high school honors students in history and asked who knew about the My Lai Massacre, no one raised a hand.

My Lai was not a unique event. An Army colonel charged with covering up the My Lai incident told reporters: "Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace."

And if the word "massacre" means indiscriminate mass slaughter of innocent people, is it not reasonable to call the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "massacres," as well as the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the destruction of Dresden and other German cities?

In Ignazio Silone's novel Fontamara, about peasants under Italian fascism, the resistance movement distributed leaflets just giving out information that had been suppressed, and then simply asking: "she fare?"-"What shall we do'?" ("They have killed Berardo Viola. What shall we do? They have taken away our water. What shall we do? They violate our women in the name of the law. What shall we do?")

When our government, our media, and our institutions of higher learning select certain events for remembering and ignore others, we have the responsibility to supply the missing information. Just to tell untold truths has a powerful effect, for people with ordinary common sense may then ask themselves and others: "What shall we do?".


Howard Zinn is the author of "A People's History of the United States" (Harper Perennial). His latest book is "The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy" (Seven Stories Press).

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