Sunday, October 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 187: Howard Zinn, Finishing School for Pickets (#31)

Howard Zinn, "Finishing School for Pickets" (1960) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963:

Howard Zinn, history professor at Spelman College, reports on how the girls are becoming more political and less interested in simply being nice. Whereas Spelman girls were once known for their niceness--polite, graceful when serving tea, respectable--they are (says Zinn) getting a new reputation for joining the struggle on the frontlines: organizing demonstrations, being thrown in jail, riding in the front of the bus. "You can always tell a Spelman girl--she's under arrest." That's Zinn's idea of a joke and of progress.

Curiously, I never got the feeling that Zinn was attacking the conservative leadership of Spelman for being less active in protests in the past. So when one mother tells her daughter that she's got two strikes against her already--she's black and a woman--so she can't afford to act-up, there's no finger-waving at this mother's prudential advice. When, even in Zinn's day, one Spelman girl gets threatened with a knife for riding at the front of the bus, it's hard to tell someone from the less equitable past that they should've put themselves in harm's way more often.

And there's also no attempt to hold up these Spelman protestors as sui generis saints of progress. As Zinn notes, this is all part of a national and international current towards equality. For Zinn, protest here is part of the increased worldliness of the women that were formerly sheltered by the college. Now that these girls have seen (a) what the rest of Atlanta is like and (b) what the rest of the world could be like, there's no way to keep them from the pickets.

Finally, I love that the governor's response to a student-written protest was the usual defense of the status quo: these complaints are the un-American works of outside agitators! Seriously, we should add that as the central square of bigot bingo--it always turns up.

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