Howard Zinn — the people's historian

January 30, 2010

Howard Zinn, an activist and author for half a century and probably the best-known voice of the US left, died on January 27 at the age of 87.

Howard is best remembered forA People's History of the United States, which taught millions about the hidden tradition of protest, resistance and rebellion in America. It has sold more than 2 million copies and it's almost unique in the publishing world for continuously selling more copies each year than it did the year before.

In 2004, Howard and co-author Anthony Arnove produced a companion volume —Voices of a People's History of the United States, which compiled speeches, articles and essays, poetry and song lyrics from those who were a part of the struggles chronicled in A People's History.

In December, Voices was brought to film in a magnificent two-hour program seen by millions of people on The History Channel.

There were so many other books. SNCC: The New Abolitionists reported from the front lines of the civil rights struggle in the early 1960s. A range of writings over decades, from Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal to Terrorism and War, challenged militarism and imperialism.

Zinn also showed off his talents as a playwright — among his plays were Emma, about anarchist Emma Goldman, and Marx in SoHo, which brought Karl Marx back to life in modern-day SoHo in New York City to reflect on the relevance of socialist ideas today.

Renowned US intellectual Noam Chomsky said: "His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives."

But Chomsky added: "When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide."

Howard was born in 1922 in New York City, the son of working-class Jewish immigrants. After attending school, he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where he was an agitator on the shop floor from the start.

He joined the Army Air Force during World War II and served as a bombardier — a mission in 1945 involved one of the first uses of napalm.

After the war, Howard was able to attend New York University on the GI Bill, studying history. In 1956, he was hired to be a professor at Atlanta's Spelman College, a historically Black women's college.

After being fired for championing the protests of Spelman students against the conservative college administration, Howard came north to teach at Boston University.

There, he was part of the early movement against the Vietnam War. In 1968, as liberation fighters launched the Tet Offensive, Howard visited the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi with another leading activist, Reverend Daniel Berrigan.

Howard's commitment to protest continued throughout his life, whether the cause was opposing US wars in the Middle East, challenging the criminal injustice system, defending the rights of union workers, or speaking up for the victims of government repression.
The words that end Howard's autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, are the best tribute to his extraordinary life: "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
"What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.

"If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction.
"And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future.

"The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory."

[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]

Video: Dave Zirininterviews Howard Zinn.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.