A plainer view of our past: Howard Zinn and 'The People Speak' TV special

Historians in the News

On a windy Tuesday evening in November, a student crowd filled the 1,200-plus-capacity Irvine Auditorium on the Penn campus.

They'd come to catch the crème of hip-hop's past (Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels) and present (Lupe Fiasco) in person and watch footage of John Legend, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder performing protest songs.

The message: Change isn't a marketing term Barack Obama made up. America's victories of diversity and innovation came not from presidents or governments but from grassroots social movements: from the people.

That's long been the view of Howard Zinn, 87, professor emeritus in the Boston University Political Science Department, historian, writer, and civil-liberties and antiwar activist. Now his books A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History have been turned into the provocative TV special The People Speak, of which Penn students were seeing snippets at the Nov. 17 screening. (The show debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. on the History Channel.)

Zinn was executive producer along with Josh Brolin and Matt Damon. Those Hollywood names-above-the-title appear on-screen too, performing dramatic speeches that make up Voices. They're joined by other stars.

Viggo Mortensen reads from farmer Plough Jogger's words leading up to Shays' Rebellion of 1786. Morgan Freeman performs a letter from Frederick Douglass ("The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro," published July 5, 1852) as if he'd written it himself. In the film clips Fiasco and McDaniels read smart and weary words from sons of slaves and antiwar 1960s teens with furious potency...

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