Obituary: Seeing history from below: Howard Zinn

IssueApril 2010
Comment by Matthew Biddle

Howard Zinn, US historian and activist, died in January of a heart attack at the age of 87. Perhaps best known as the author who challenged the status quo with A People’s History of the United States, Zinn was at the forefront of the early civil rights movement and anti-war protests against the Vietnam War.

“He was fearless,” Noam Chomsky said. “He said the right things, said them eloquently, and inspired others to move forward in ways they wouldn’t have done, and changed their minds.”

Of Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, said: “He was the best human being I’ve ever known. The best example of what a human being can be, and can do with their life.”

Zinn became an activist after serving as a bombardier in World War II. “In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings they’re firing on,” he said. “Everything is done at a distance and this enables terrible atrocities to take place.”

Zinn eventually turned his attention and nonviolent activism towards the Vietnam War. He was the first person to publish a book calling for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. Chomsky said: “He was the first person to say – loudly, publicly, very persuasively – that this simply has to stop; we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; it’s an act of aggression; pull out.”

On his last day as a professor at Boston University, Zinn even ended class 30 minutes early to join the picket lines and urged his students to do the same.

“War cannot be accepted anymore as a way of solving any problems in the world,” he declared. “Nonviolence does not mean acceptance, but resistance; not waiting but acting. It is not at all passive.”

Besides his work at Boston, Zinn lectured at several universities throughout his career, including Spelman College, the first college for African-American women, where he served on the executive committee for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arguably the most aggressive civil rights organization of the 1950s. Zinn later wrote the standard work on SNCC in 1964 – it is still in print.

Also still in print is A People’s History of the United States (new edition due in July), in which Zinn rewrote American history, selecting millworkers, union organizers and people like Helen Keller as his heroes rather than the slaveholding founding fathers or warmongers such as Theodore Roosevelt.

“I really can’t think of anyone to compare him to,” Chomsky said. “He was a person of real courage and integrity, warmth and humour. He was just a remarkable person.”

In one of his last interviews, Zinn said he wanted to be known as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.”

The son of Jewish immigrants, Zinn married Roslyn Shechter in 1944 and they remained happily married until she died in 2008. He is survived by their two children, Myla and Jeff, and five grandchildren.

Topics: Radical lives
See more of: Obituary