Howard Zinn died on Wednesday. He was a colleague and more than an acquaintance but a friend, although not a close friend. I knew him for 40 years, although hadn’t seen him recently, the last time was a few years ago when we shared a platform together. The auditorium was packed, not to see me but to see him and he was his usual feisty self. But it was a feistiness that was full of kindness and compassion. Just to be in his presence conveyed a strange kind of empowerment. He made you believe you could make a difference, even when it was crystal clear the one who was really making a difference was Howard Zinn. Howard’s colleague at Boston University, the writer Caryl Rivers, said it best: “He was such a righteous man.”
Howard went to school under the GI bill after serving as a bombardier in World War II. He knew war and its excitement, calling it like crack heroin, although I first got to know him in the Vietnam years, when he was one of the country’s most cogent voices against the war. By that time he was already one of the important voices in the civil rights movement:
After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor?s degree from NYU, followed by master?s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women?s institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him “the best teacher I ever had,” and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children’s Defense Fund. (Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard, Boston Globe)
Here’s some more from the long obituary in the Boston Globe:
“A People?s History of the United States” (1980), his best-known book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and union organizers of the 1930s.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
And here’s what Noam Chomsky, a longtime close friend of Howard’s, said of him:
“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture. . . He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.” (BU Today)
Above all, Howard was a sweet and gentle man of great courage. He radiated a fierce kindness that lit up, not just a room, but a generation. Nobody lives forever and Howard’s 87 years were as well spent as any human being’s I can think of. You can’t do much better than that. But I’m still going to miss him.