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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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).