The Vietnam War was tearing our country apart, many Dorchester youth were serving and dying, and an unlikely speaker was at the monthly Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association meeting one night in the early 1970s.
He was the historian Howard Zinn, who died late last month at age 87, and who is perhaps best known for his book “A People’s History of the United States” in which he celebrates the average individuals who heroically stood up to be counted and the grassroots movements they were part of – abolitionists, women’s right, civil rights, anti-war. His was not the traditional textbook concentrating on presidents as the only actors in American history; and it is certainly a book written from a left perspective.
Christian Appy wrote a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on Dorchester Vietnam Veterans that he titled “Working-Class War.” In the book, Appy quoted Dan Shaw recalling growing up and hanging out at the corner of Train and King Streets and how seven of his buddies went to Vietnam and three were wounded. Said Shaw: “Jeez, it wasn’t bad. I mean some corners really got wiped out. Over off of Norfolk Street ten guys got blown away the same year.”
Zinn was invited to speak at Columbia Savin Hill Civic by one of its leaders, Jim Canny, who was willing to go against the grain of how most thought in his neighborhood when he believed differently. He had read Bernard Fall’s classic book about the origins of the Vietnam War. When you read that our government cancelled a 1956 national election in Vietnam because the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who was also the leader of WWII resistance against the Japanese, would have won, you started to wonder if our government was truthful about everything they said about this war.
Peg Moran was another leader of the Civic Association; she went on to help run the Little House Community Health Center. Her husband was a police officer who was assigned to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Her brother-in-law, Gene Grover, was a Marine sergeant who had been killed in Vietnam. Canny remembered with sadness recently a letter that Gene had written to him which said something about how “we are destroying this beautiful country.” Gene’s daughter Peggy was born after he died.
An organization called The People First (TPF) was organized in Dorchester in 1970 by anti-war activists who had moved into Dorchester – Michael Ansara and Ira Arlook, to name two – and younger people who grew up here like Donna Finn, Dusty McGuire, and Seamus Glynn. TPF gained notoriety when it called for Dorchester District Court Judge Jerome Troy’s ouster from the bench. Troy was very conservative in his rulings from the bench, but he also acted corruptly to pollute the land at Tenean Beach for a development scheme and used court employees to work on the project.
Arlook approached Canny about having Zinn speak at his meeting and Ansara asked Zinn, who said he would do so. So a good crowd gathered that night in the small, old gym at Little House on East Cottage Street, most of them supporters of the war. Sam Mullin, who was to soon be the president of the association, had been an MP in Vietnam; for a time he had even guarded Dorchester TPF leader Dusty McGuire for some infraction while McGuire was serving there.
Zinn had a distinctive background that set him apart from the usual notion of an academic. The child of working class immigrants, he flew numerous missions over Germany in World War II as a bombardier. He didn’t go to college until he was 27, and got there on the GI Bill. One of his first teaching jobs in the 1950s was at the all-black Spellman College in Atlanta. When he became actively involved in civil rights demonstrations, and urged students to become involved, he was fired by the nervous college president. Later, Zinn was an early and prominent critic of the Vietnam War, frequently speaking at anti-war rallies several times a year on Boston Common.
I don’t know how many minds Zinn changed that night when he came to Dorchester to speak against the war. He did get a grudging respect from almost all who were there because they knew that he knew the horrors of war from bombing cities, he was from the same economic background as people in the room, and he had some persuasive arguments to make.
Howard Zinn influenced members of many generations of Americans with his books, classes, and speeches, some of whom were no doubt in attendance that night on East Cottage Street almost 40 years ago.
Lewis Finfer is a Dorchester resident.